When the NBA put the 2019-20 season on hiatus on March 11 there had been 245 new COVID cases in the United States that day, and the rolling seven-day average for new cases was 145.
When the league decided to plough through the pandemic to get something close to a recognizable regular season in for 2020-21, the rolling seven-day average for new cases across the US was 213,511. Barely two weeks into the season, there were 259,571 new cases a day, on average. The US-Canada border was closed. The majority of the league’s arenas were closed to fans.
That the season would unfold without multiple players (and staff) across multiple teams contracting COVID was a pipe dream. The plan all along was to figure out a way to get through it.
That the Toronto Raptors — the latest team to have their schedule disrupted due to a COVID outbreak of some measure of significance — have made it this far was mostly just good fortune.
The league wasn’t being cavalier about the whole thing. With the Raptors' temporary relocation to Tampa, the league may have three franchises operating in Florida where restrictions are as lax as anywhere in the country, but they don’t act that way.
The NBA started with a 134-page health and safety manual, bumped it up with another 20 pages of rules and procedures a few weeks later and midway through January — after a rash of postponements raised questions about the viability of the season — beefed up the protocols even more, essentially requiring players and staff to behave like they were in a ‘bubble’ whether at home, on the road, on the job or on their own time.
And for the most part, it’s worked.
But it’s been about managing the risk of an outbreak, not eliminating the possibility of one. The Raptors' game against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday and the one they were supposed to play on Tuesday night against Detroit are the 31st and 32nd COVID-related postponements of the season — out of about 500 games – and only three teams out of 30 haven’t had a game put off due to the league’s health-and-safety protocols.
But if the measure of success is that serious or irreversible health-related issues are kept to a minimum, the league doesn’t act as a vector of community spread and the business of the league is able to stumble along, keeping lost revenues — a burden shared by owners and players alike — somewhat manageable, the NBA has done well.
After all, if you’re going to run a business during a pandemic where the core product involves multiple 20-something out-of-breath men huffing and puffing in each other’s faces and then jetting around the country to go huff-and-puff on another bunch of guys who were huffing and puffing on some other guys the night before – all while hoping they behave like a bridge club in their spare time — you are juggling firecrackers, to an extent.
There has been an inevitability to the whole the thing. No team was going to get out of this without a positive PCR test, or maybe quite a few. The hope was to keep the damage contained and sporadic enough that the season can be played in a recognizable fashion.
The Raptors time has finally come. After it was clear something was amiss on Friday night when six coaches and all-star forward Pascal Siakam had to sit out of the Raptors' win over Houston, the past four days have been like sitting around, waiting for the axe to fall — or not. All they could do was quarantine, get tested and hope for good results.
The first hint that the situation was evolving came on Monday when the Raptors game scheduled for Tuesday night was rescheduled because they wouldn’t have the minimum eight players available to play due to contact tracing.
On Tuesday, the Raptors announced the game would be played Wednesday but they would be missing five players — OG Anunoby, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn and Pat McCaw – as well as head coach Nick Nurse and six other members of his staff for their game against the Pistons on Wednesday night.
The Raptors are expecting to dress 12 players – including two G-League call-ups – with assistant coach Sergio Scariolo acting as head coach for the second straight game.
Their practice Tuesday night in Tampa — less the players and coaches ruled out — was the first time they’ve been able to gather as a team since their win over the Rockets Friday.
“To get to here and to be able to practice, obviously, we had to clear a number of hurdles,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “So, for today [Tuesday], everyone had to undergo daily testing twice. We tested in the morning. Once that test comes back negative and we get cleared to practice, obviously everybody's in PPE and socially distant and all of that.
“But I think it takes multiple days, we've had multiple days here with no new cases. I think that's really important. That's something the NBA stressed to us that would allow us to at least get back on the court as a team. So multiple days of no new cases, I think, is the big takeaway here.”
You could even argue that the NBA’s protocols – which emphasize frequent testing to quickly identify possible outbreaks as well as mandatory masking and social distancing where possible – are working as intended. The Raptors ‘bubble’ has been breached by COVID, but it hasn’t taken them down entirely.
The Raptors have been careful about saying much about who – if anyone – has tested positive or when, but it’s possible to piece together a sequence of events.
The last time the team was together in full was on Wednesday night on their flight home from Miami. There was an off-day on Thursday with no formal team activities but during which testing was still required — twice for the players and once of for the coaches and staff. It’s believed that it was Thursday they learned about one of their coaching staff testing positive and the other coaches in close contact were ruled out and required to self-quarantine at home.
Siakam arrived at the arena Friday night but was sent some home after an inconclusive test result, according to sources. There has been no official confirmation that Siakam did subsequently test positive but an ESPN report on Saturday said he’d been ruled out of games through March 4.
How many more positive tests have there been? It’s hard to know. The league’s contact tracing protocol requires players who have been in direct contact with someone with COVID to sit out at least a week, so conceivably the four new players ruled out fall in that category.
So, the story about how likely it would be that the Raptors would be able to play their remaining games this week — they’re scheduled to fly to Boston to play the Celtics on Thursday night, their last game until March 11 as the league’s mid-season break kicks in — seemingly depends on if there were any more positives on Saturday or Sunday.
Reading the tea leaves, the Raptors have done well. It seems like some additional positive tests showed up Saturday and/or Sunday, which made Sunday night’s game a no-go as the contact-tracing net would have been cast widely at that stage. By pushing Tuesday’s game to Wednesday, the league bought itself enough runway to see if it could go a couple of days without more positives tests, and appears to have pulled that off.
“There's a process to contact tracing,” said Webster. “As you go through it and ask the questions, I think you're either deemed a close contact or not. Obviously, the initial group is going to be a lot larger, and as you ask more questions and you get more information and you check the connects on detectors, you get a better sense of how much contact there was, and over the course of that process, you're able to put people into different groups.”
The Raptors are lucky too that their COVID moment has come just as the team was about to pause for the break. If they get away with only Sunday’s game being added to their second-half schedule they will have 36 games in 66 nights, which is onerous, but not as bad as it could be.
Also, if the likes of VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam – the heart of their young core – have to remain sidelined, the all-star break lessens the possibility of the Raptors having to play a significant number of games woefully short-handed, as several teams have had to do.
In a jam-packed Eastern Conference playoff race, that could end up being a material difference.
In the short-term there are clearly going to be inconveniences. The Raptors have one point guard – Kyle Lowry – available for what are now back-to-back games and will missing their two leading scorers in Siakam and VanVleet and best defender in Anunoby.
“Whatever the circumstance is, we have to go on the floor and compete and try to get the boat into the harbour,” said Scariolo. “We got a little damage, but we have to try to stay floating and bring it to the harbour, and then we’ll have a few days to repair it and to start over, obviously with the break and renewed energy and trying to continue what we’ve been doing the last few weeks.”
It's not ideal but by the standards of the 2020-21 season, the Raptors should be fine, which in the grand scheme of what the NBA has been trying to do, is pretty damn good.