One day after the normal 2020-21 season ended, the NBA has postponed its first game. Late Wednesday afternoon, the NBA announced that the game between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, scheduled for 8 ET, had been postponed because the Rockets did not have eight players available.
This news only underscores the myriad challenges the league faces in trying to end its season outside of a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, within which the NBA ended its 2020 playoffs.
As the NFL, MLB and MLS have already demonstrated, trying to pull a season out of a bubble with all sorts of complications. Here’s what we know and do not know about the exposed game, the latest with James Harden, and what’s next for both the Rockets and the rest of the NBA.
What’s Happening in Houston?
The Rockets, according to reports from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski, are dealing with two separate coronavirus-related issues.
After a video of Harden unmasked and out in a club surfaced on social media, the NBA began investigating whether Harden violated league safety protocols by attending a non-sanctioned indoor event sometime last week. The Rockets also had three players recurring tests that were either positive or inconceivable and had to put four other players into the league’s contact tracking program, including former All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall as well as rookie Kenyon Martin Jr., who was one of the players with conflicting COVID-19 test results. Wall, Cousins and Martin were among Rockets players gathered Tuesday night in a player’s apartment away from the team facility and got clipped.
The combination of the two events left Houston with fewer than eight players available, forcing the postponement of the Rockets’ season opener against the Thunder.
When will the game against Thunder be put together?
The league has not announced a date for the game to be played again, but it built flexibility into its schedule to address this scenario. By releasing only the games to be played through March 4, the NBA has three redesign options: before the March 5-10 break; during this break or in the second half of the season, for which the schedule is not published until sometime in February.
Per ESPN’s Royce Young flies Thunder back to Oklahoma City on Wednesday. They plan to leave Oklahoma City on Friday afternoon to fly to Charlotte for what will be their season opener on Saturday.
What is the league investigating regarding Harden?
The league has sanctioned certain restaurants in each NBA city that players, coaches, and staff who are part of each team’s travel party are allowed to attend. The protocol prohibits these people from going to bars, lounges or clubs and from attending social gatherings with more than 15 people. There are also shifting stricter league mandates in certain markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles that prohibit teams from traveling beyond the hotel or arena.
In the photos of Harden circulating on social media, he was not wearing a mask at the club. The NBA considered Harden unavailable for violating health and safety protocols, although it is still unknown how long Harden will not be available and whether he will be punished.
How does the contact tracking protocol work?
The league has deliberately given itself wiggle room in terms of contact tracking to be flexible in how it handles each situation.
The backbone of the NBA’s plan is its rigorous testing procedures. Players are now tested twice a day every day in the hope that it will allow the league to catch any instances of the virus as soon as possible, reducing the need to isolate players or make them miss out on time.
However, situations like the one reported are more complicated where players gather in an environment away from an exercise or a game and there is an occurrence of a positive test. Earlier this month, for example. Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley quarantined for a week after being in contact with someone close to his family who fell outside the league’s test program.
What are the return-to-play protocols?
For players who have tested positive for COVID-19, there are two possible ways to return: a time-based resolution and a test-based resolution.
During the time-based resolution, the infected person must have passed at least 10 days after the date of their first positive test or the onset of symptoms, if they have had any; gone at least 24 hours since their fever disappeared without the use of medication; and had other symptoms improved. The protocols specifically note that loss of taste or odor alone is not expected to prevent anyone from leaving isolation.
During the test-based resolution, the person must return at least two consecutive negative PCR tests from samples taken at least 24 hour intervals.
Either way, any player determined to have a new positive case from testing will not be allowed to participate in any training session for at least 10 days from either the positive test date or resolution of symptoms if they have any.
When a player has waited at least 10 days, they must spend two days training alone, not interacting with anyone or participating in team activities, and must have a heart screening.
Any player who has had a serious case of COVID-19, or who was hospitalized at any time, must be observed for at least three full days before they can be cleared to return to the game.
What are the potential penalties for violating security protocols?
The NBA has a section in the health and safety protocols that describes discipline and sanctions for players and team personnel.
Although no specific sanctions are mentioned, penalties for players who do not comply with these league rules include potential warnings, fines or suspensions. Teams that do not comply may also be subject to adjustment or loss of move selection as well as game loss.
Players who violated protocols in the bubble – such as the LA Clippers’ Lou Williams – and were forced to miss games as a result lost pay for every missed game. In this case, Harden loses $ 284,517 (1/145 of its salary) for not providing services by violating protocols.
The gray area for this interpretation is that the Rockets-Thunder game was postponed and not canceled, and for technical reasons, Harden has not missed a game yet.
Will this affect Harden’s trading value?
Asked if Harden’s behavior would be a red flag in trade with the former MVP, team leaders told ESPN that they thought it was selfish and ruthless, but would not prevent a deal.
Teams have already done their homework when it comes to Harden both on and off the field. A director told ESPN that the team had hired a private investigator to conduct a thorough background check and treat the process of gathering information about him as if it were a draft prospect.
If a team is happy to acquire Harden, the bigger challenge would be to put together sufficient outgoing pay (at least $ 33 million) to legalize a trade without clearing its existing list.
Teams are in the early stages of evaluating their list and are not willing to make a rash order at this point. That could change if the Rockets lower their price on the Harden, which is currently reported to be a mix of young players with star potential and significant draw assets.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks contributed to this report.