As Omicron threatens every best-laid plan, Raptors wade into an uncertain future

Empty seats are seen at the Scotiabank Arena as the Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors in NBA basketball action. (Chris Young/CP)

Embrace the uncertainty, then again, what choice do we have?

That’s where the world is, that’s where the NBA is and that’s where the Toronto Raptors have no option but to live as the Omicron variant threatens to undo all best-laid plans.

Until this past weekend, the Raptors had mainly been tangentially affected by the surge of cases across the league and elsewhere, as their schedule was thrown off due to outbreaks on other teams.

That was the case, for example, when Toronto’s game Monday night against Orlando was postponed: between injuries and players in COVID protocols, the Magic couldn’t field a team.

But the Raptors' luck could only last so long.

Toronto announced Monday that Gary Trent Jr. had entered COVID protocols, joining Dalano Banton and Pascal Siakam who entered protocols on Saturday. There had been some hope then, according to sources, that Siakam’s was subject to an inconclusive test result.

No longer: the soonest Banton and Siakam can return would be Dec. 28th against the Philadelphia 76ers, while Trent’s first game back would likely be Dec. 31st when the Raptors host the Los Angeles Clippers.

“[Things are] changing, like, daily,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Saturday, with some prescience. “We got kind of a new set of instructions for [Sunday] then you say, well you look at it and say what's the best way to operate with this and then you go from there …. we’ve got to be as safe as we can, probably leaning towards not gathering nearly as much as I would like to.

“I'd like to at least get out there for a little bit. We're a young growing team that needs to practice. So hopefully we can sneak some in here and there but if we can’t we’ve got to learn as much as we can on game night.”

To bolster their roster the Raptors have signed point guard Brandon Goodwin power forward Juwan Morgan and Canadian Nik Stauskas from the G-League, who have 97, 50 and 335 games of NBA experience, respectively.

The signings were made possible by an agreement reached Sunday by the NBA and the player’s union.

The temporary arrangement allows teams to sign one player for every player that enters protocols and requires teams to sign players as the number of their own players in protocols mounts: a team with two players out would have to sign at least one new player; a team with three out would have to have two and a team with four or more out would have to add three.

The goal is to make sure teams have enough roster players available – the league minimum is eight – to avoid having to postpone more games.

The signees won’t count against the team’s salary cap or luxury tax.

Rather than have a full team practice on Monday at OVO Centre the Raptors opted for individual workouts and COVID screening spread throughout the day to avoid unnecessary contacts within their organization.

The Raptors are expecting to play in Chicago on Wednesday – the Bulls played Sunday for the first time since being shut down for two games, including last week’s game in Toronto – but remain on alert for any changes to those plans.

After that? We’ll see.

Toronto is scheduled to play in Cleveland on Dec. 26th, but the Cavaliers had their game on Sunday postponed and have seven players in protocols. Next are the Philadelphia 76ers, back at Scotiabank Arena, on Dec. 28th, though the Sixers had their game on Sunday postponed as well.

An interesting wrinkle to watch will be how the Canada-US border factors into everything.

The NHL and its player’s union – who are likewise dealing with wide-spread COVID outbreaks – agreed to suspend cross-border travel as of Monday, which raised eyebrows in NBA circles.

But according to NHL sources the decision was made primarily because the league observes a holiday break from Dec. 24-26th and the concern was players might end up stuck out-of-market for Christmas if an American player tested positive in Canada or vice-versa for a Canadian player in the US.

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said the border was one of the considerations that helped them to decide to not bring a large contingent of their players they were planning to rest across the border for their game Saturday after they had played in Boston on Friday.

As of Dec. 6th, airline passengers returning to the US need proof of a negative viral test within 24 hours of their flight to be allowed entry.

By sending players that Golden State was planning to rest back from Boston, the Warriors avoided the possibility of a positive test in Toronto keeping them from getting home.

Ironically it worked out for Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins who is from Thornhill, just north of Toronto. He didn’t come to Toronto but travelled back to San Francisco on Saturday. He subsequently had to enter COVID protocols Sunday but will be isolating at home in the Bay Area, presumably.

His teammate Jordan Poole isn’t so ‘lucky’. He tested positive in Boston Friday and is self-isolating there.

But the COVID surge and the added complications of the border could change NBA travel routines, at minimum.

Teams typically arrive in Toronto the day before a game and then fly out after, which means they’re in Canada for more than 24 hours, even if they stay just one night.

In that scenario, teams could have players test negative when they fly into Canada but test positive when they fly back.

A solution could be to have teams fly to Toronto the day of their game and fly out after, so that the test they take to come into Canada would be valid when they turnaround to fly out.

It’s all speculative and fluid at this stage, like pretty much everything, it seems.

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