ATLANTA – The three 76ers who logged the most minutes in Saturday’s game were a late first-round pick in November’s draft, a mid-second-round choice, and a guy signed to a two-way contract.
Now, that would have been perfect if it was in the NBA Summer League. Instead, the Sixers needed the three rookie guards to each log 41-plus minutes in a much-anticipated nationally televised game against the Denver Nuggets. And the Sixers will definitely have to depend heavily on them Monday night against the Atlanta Hawks, if not depend on them for the whole week.
Welcome to the 2020-21 season, where the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols are starting to have a huge impact on the outcome of games. It’s not just about talent and team chemistry. In some instances, it has to do with which team is the the least impacted by the coronavirus.
“This year,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “you just never know what’s going to happen with all the health protocols and things like that.”
The Sixers know better than most.
They headed into Thursday’s road game with the Brooklyn Nets with the league’s best record of 7-1. The Sixers were the talk of the league.
Joel Embiid was back to dominating games and having fun. Ben Simmons’ versatility was on full display. Tobias Harris was playing his best basketball as a Sixer. And Seth Curry and Danny Green were providing the sharpshooting the team desperately needed.
Suddenly, folks were talking about the Sixers being possibly talented enough to contend for an Eastern Conference title.
The true test was supposed to start with their game against the Nets. They didn’t show up on the night while losing, 122-109, to the undermanned Nets.
But that was just part of their misery. The Sixers learned early in the game that Curry, who was sidelined with a sore ankle, had tested positive for COVID-19. He’s now sidelined because of the league’s health and safety protocols. So are four of his teammates -- Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Vincent Poirier -- who are out because of contact tracing after being seated at the same table with Curry during a team meeting Thursday in New York.
All-Star cornerstones Embiid (back tightness) and Simmons (knee stiffness), Furkan Korkmaz (left groin strain), Mike Scott (bruised left knee), and Terrance Ferguson (personal reasons) also missed the game. As a result, that left the Sixers with just seven available bodies in Saturday’s 115-103 home loss to the Nuggets.
According to the NBA protocol, a player must isolate at least 10 days after the first positive test or onset of symptoms, or have two negative tests at least 24 hours apart via PCR testing. So, Curry will miss at least the next five games.
Players out because of contact tracing are normally sidelined for seven days.
Now, the Sixers are in The ATL to face the Hawks, who are 4-5 after losing four straight games.
Simmons, Korkmaz, and Ferguson will remain sidelined, while Embiid and Scott are listed as probable.
Luckily for the Sixers, they’re tied with the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference’s best record at 7-3 even after losing two straight games. Boston has its own issues.
It is also dealing with health and safety protocols.
The Celtics’ game against the Miami Heat on Sunday was postponed because the Heat did not have the league minimum of eight available players due to contact tracing.
Boston was only expected to have eight players for the game because of its own coronavirus-related issues.
Celtics standouts Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown along with Javonte Green and Semi Ojeleye were already ruled out of that game due to the health and safety protocols. Tatum tested positive for COVID-19 while the others were likely out for contact tracing reasons.
This came after Friday’s news that Boston’s Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams would be required to quarantine for at least sevens days because of contact tracing.
Earlier in the day, Miami guard Avery Bradley was ruled out after being placed in NBA protocol, which triggered the NBA’s contact-tracing procedures.
But these are far from isolated situations. Wizards standout Bradley Beal didn’t play Saturday against the Heat after being in close contact with Tatum after facing the Celtics on Friday.
While his coach, Taylor Jenkins, said he didn’t test positive, Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas was pulled from Friday’s game against the Nets at halftime due to the protocols.
On Saturday, it was learned that the Dallas Mavericks’ Maxi Kleber tested positive before the team’s flight home from Denver. Three additional Mavericks -- Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Josh Richardson -- are quarantining for seven days. All four players remained in Denver.
The Chicago Bulls also had to leave players behind on a road tripand the Los Angeles Clippers had staff members drive back home from Salt Lake City because of contact tracing.
“I think this is something we’re going to see throughout the year,” Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said Saturday of the Sixers playing with seven guys against the Nuggets. “I’m sure the league is prepared for what could be a stoppage at some point, if it gets too bad.”
On Monday, the Sixers will be fortunate to have nine players available.
That’s why the Sixers, once again, will rely heavily on rookies Tyrese Maxey (first-round pick), Isaiah Joe (second-round pick), and Dakota Mathias (two-way contract).
Maxey had to play 43 minutes, 45 seconds against Denver. But the biggest leaps involved Joe and Mathias. Joe, the 49th pick, logged 44:51 after playing a combined 27 minutes in his previous four appearance. Mathias was on the court for 41:03 after playing just 30 in his prior four games.
While his key players remain sidelined, head coach Doc Rivers wants to develop his rookies and remain healthy while trying to stay competitive.
“What we’re missing in this is COVID created this,” he said. “But the concern is not COVID now. The concern is injuries. Guys are playing so many minutes because we don’t have enough guys.
“I think if I was deciding games that way, I would be very careful if I’m the league, because you don’t want that to happen either.”