Bubble an NBA option?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2021 - 12:00am

The alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in the US has sparked speculation that the NBA may consider creating another bubble just for the playoffs but it appears players will resist returning to the isolated setup if ever the league proposes a revival of last season’s Florida conclave. LeBron James, for one, has openly said he’s not agreeing to another bubble play.

“The bubble was a success, obviously, from a performance standpoint as far as our league getting back on,” said James quoted by Sam Quinn in cbssports.com. “I haven’t thought about the bubble much after I left. You continue to give me PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) every time you ask me about the bubble. I started shaking thinking about 96 straight nights in that place.”  LeBron’s opinion is considered a guiding light for other players. “If LeBron says no to a bubble, everyone else is saying no as well,” wrote Quinn. L.A. Clippers guard Pat Beverley said, “If LeBron’s hooping, we all hooping.”

Last year, the NBA suspended its regular season in March but by then, each team had played at least 63 games. The league later reopened in a bubble with 22 teams playing eight “seeding” games then introduced a “play-in” system before starting the playoffs with 16 qualifiers. Once teams entered the bubble, players were tested daily and no one turned out positive. The NBA spent about $190 million to operate the bubble but it would’ve lost $1.5 billion if the season didn’t restart.

To get the 2020-21 campaign rolling, the NBA compressed its regular season schedule from 82 to 72 games and even cancelled the All-Star Weekend.  A “play-in” format will be applied involving the seventh to 10th finishers in each conference at the end of the regular season. For flexibility, the NBA released a calendar only for the first half of the season and teams are now allowed a 17-man lineup.  There are limitations to travel, including a restriction of 45 persons, including players, for a team and playing back-to-back games against the same opponent in the same city. Strict health and safety protocols are imposed. But despite protective measures, more and more players are testing positive and because of contact tracing, even more are required to isolate, causing 16 games to be postponed as teams were down to less than the required roster minimum of eight. The NBA has also cracked down on players not complying with protocols, levying fines of $50,000 on Kyrie Irving for attending a social gathering of more than 15 persons and James Harden for not wearing a facemask in a bar. Now, hugs, body bumps and handshakes are no longer permitted during a game with only elbow and fist bumps permissible.

If more games are postponed, will the NBA be forced to suspend the season? It’s treading on thin ice because travel continues and athletes aren’t in the priority list to be vaccinated. If the season goes on, how credible are the game results with teams hobbled by decimated lineups? Boston, for instance, isn’t Boston without Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Memphis has missed five games and Philadelphia and Boston, three apiece. Will players agree to be further exposed to possible infection with ongoing travel even in decreased frequency? And if the NBA suggests another bubble for the playoffs, will LeBron back off and endanger the L. A. Lakers’ bid for a repeat?

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on sporting events all over the world and the NBA is no exception. The priority must be the players’ safety but if they’re at serious risk of infection, will the NBA decide to call off the season? And if suspension isn’t an option because of financial considerations, is creating another bubble inevitable?

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