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NBA Faces Heavy Roadblocks In Attempt To Salvage 2019-20 Season

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The task of restarting NBA basketball is even more overwhelming than it already seems.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is investigating every path to restart the 2019-20 season, possibly to stem the increasing losses from their sudden shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Per ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, they’re looking at options for rapid-testing players so they can have results in minutes before a game. The league is still in the exploratory phase.

Multiple league sources close to the situation said the league and players union have been looking at what those familiar with the matter describe as “diabetes-like” blood testing in which someone could, with the prick of a finger, be tested quickly, and results could be gained inside of 15 minutes.

The Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories began shipping its rapid-response tests across the U.S. last week, according to a Washington Post report. The tests, which have been approved by the FDA, are said to deliver results in five to 13 minutes.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst notes the NBA has considered a plan for the teams to play and live inside essentially a bubble to keep everyone safe. In theory, all they need to do is to follow medical recommendations, right? Well, it’s complicated.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived so suddenly that the medical research community is still playing a game of catch-up. There are still nagging questions about critical details, such as exact contagious periods and every method of spreading. Conflicting information abounds, with limited time for clinical trials as harried doctors tackle this coronavirus head-on. And if current restrictions are loosened, infections are expected to increase again. So there are obvious reasons for the NBA to be incredibly careful.

In order to reopen the league soon, the NBA would need to wrangle a near-infinite number of variables. Here are just a few:

  • The error percentage (positive and negative) with their chosen testing method.
  • Whether they can be sure players are not contagious prior to a positive result.
  • If anyone (such as a player or coach) tests positive, they must decide how far back they were contagious, then who needs to be quarantined. This could include opponents, coaches, or even the staff at the hotel and people they came in contact with.
  • They must consider how to strictly monitor the activities of potentially 400+ NBA players and staff, in order to maintain their safety bubble.
  • The players also must consider whether they are comfortable being separated from their families for an extended period during a worldwide health crisis.

As the enormity of this endeavor comes into focus, let’s review one popular idea: The creation of a 30-team, NCAA-Tourney to decide an NBA Champion. The Athletic’s David Aldridge floated the concept. Portland’s Damian Lillard, whose 9th-place Blazers are currently outside of the normal playoffs, also endorsed it.

NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh took a very different approach to the situation. He looked for someone credible in the field, with direct expertise in infectious diseases, to get a real-world medical perspective. He interviewed Dr. Caroline Buckee, an Associate Director at Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. When asked about the bubble concept, her reaction? “It sounds like potentially a bad idea”:

“I don’t think it’s realistic to completely isolate and quarantine the players. For a start, there are people who will need to clean their rooms, feed them, wash their clothes, janitorial staff and so forth. And those people will not be protected and they will be interacting with their communities.

“It is very difficult to truly self-isolate. Purposefully putting people at risk seems foolish.”

Meanwhile, we can look at other leagues who have attempted to restart. The Chinese Basketball Association was quickly forced to delay due to fears of asymptomatic carriers. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball shut down again after multiple players tested positive. South Korea has successfully pulled off some semblance of sports: Intra-squad baseball scrimmages, with eyes on a regular season. If even one person tests positive, everything is automatically delayed by at least two weeks. And in contrast to America, this is taking place in a country where extremely strict measures are being taken to slow the spread:

When someone tests positive, the government is authorized to scrape cellphone and banking data to get a full accounting of potentially at-risk locations. Text and social media blasts sent to large swaths of the population include the times, dates and locations of potential infection points.

Despite all of these concerns and examples, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently maintained hope of playing more regular season games and the playoffs. However, he also said he expects no further update about the NBA’s plans before May 1. The league is almost certainly not starting back up on that date; the USA is still in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic, and non-essential activity is not even allowed in key states. In Canada, Toronto has shut down public events until at least June 30. In Santa Clara County, CA, their executive officer said they don’t expect, “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving. This is not something that’s going to be easy to do.”

The NBA will use their forced April break to gather fresh information and discuss possible restart timelines. And as that timeline inevitably moves further out, likely encroaching into the period where the NBA is ramping up the draft and free agency, it will almost certainly become clear that the regular season is over.

Not long after, hard decisions will need to be made about the feasibility of playoffs, and any hopes of crowning an NBA Champion.