TORONTO — The NBA has responded to surging COVID-19 cases by keeping games on the schedule and playing in front of fans even while scrambling to fill rosters with able bodies.
But with more than 100 players and coaches entering the league’s coronavirus protocols in December alone, games have resembled preseason or summer league events. Teams are filling holes in their rosters with players who were either in the NBA G League or out of the NBA altogether.
On Monday night, former Sixer Greg Monroe made history by becoming the 541st player used in the league this season. He set the NBA record when he checked in for the Minnesota Timberwolves during their victory over the Boston Celtics.
Monroe last played in the NBA in April 2019 as a Sixer before signing a 10-day replacement contract with the Timberwolves on Monday.
Sixers guard Tyler Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas, and Boston Celtics guard Joe Johnson are among the notable players picked up under similar circumstances. But in a lot of instances, the replacement players were out of the NBA for a reason. Many either weren’t good enough or were past their prime.
With that, the league’s talent level has been a little watered down. Not only are replacement players contributing, end-of-the bench and two-way players are finding spots in the rotation.
That and the uncertainty of who is available to play on any given night amid protocols creates preparation and motivation problems.
A prime example was the Sixers’ 114-109 victory against the Toronto Raptors, or “The Replacement Raptors,” Tuesday night. This was Toronto’s second game after being sidelined for eight days because of a COVID outbreak.
On Sunday, the Raptors — or better yet, the eight players dressed in Raptors uniforms — were throttled, 144-99, by the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was Toronto’s second-worst loss in franchise history. None of that was surprising, with the eight players meeting for the first time for on-court instructions as a group 75 minutes before the game.
Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Dalano Banton were Toronto’s four regular players. But none of them are regular starters when the Raptors are at full strength.
The other four players — Juwan Morgan, Tremont Waters, D.J. Wilson, and Daniel Oturu — were replacement players from various G League teams.
“We met them on [the] bus on the way to the arena,” Watanabe told reporters of the newcomers after the game.
On Tuesday, the Raptors welcomed back Pascal Siakam, Malachi Flynn, and Gary Trent Jr. after they cleared protocols.
However, Precious Achiuwa, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie, Khem Birch, and Fred VanVleet all remained sidelined because of protocols. Goran Dragic (not with the team) and David Johnson (left calf strain) are also sidelined.
The Sixers are without Shake Milton, Danny Green, and Andre Drummond because of COVID. Milton and Drummond are expected to clear protocols Wednesday and could be available for Thursday’s game at the Brooklyn Nets, depending on their conditioning.
Because of human nature, the mental preparation is at least a little bit different when facing a decimated squad like the Raptors.
“But the rule of thumb with the game is always respect your opponent,” Tobias Harris said. “Obviously different guys are coming from different places and have an opportunity. But right now, it’s just part of the game that we’re in because of the situation of COVID and outbreak.
“But at some point, I hope that guys bounce back and not have as many cases.”
Don’t we all.
It’s hard watching recently signed players be depended on to make major contributions. Sure, there are a lot of great stories to write about young players getting chances to prove themselves and veterans showing they still have skill.
To their credit, the Sixers will tell you basketball is basketball. Coach Doc Rivers is more optimistic than most.
“It’s good basketball,” he said. “It’s still a competition. I think what it proves is there’s a lot of guys that can play basketball. Obviously, they’re not Kevin Durants or Joel Embiids, but they’re still very talented players. Greg Monroe comes in last night and plays great. Tyler is playing great for us.
“It just says there’s still guys out there that can play.”
As Rivers points out, most of the guys have experience in the league.
But the overall product has taken a hit. How many times can you watch a player, through no fault of his own, glance over at a teammate or the bench to ask for instructions?
And the situation is dismal in Toronto.
The Raptors reduced fan capacity by 50% at their arena earlier this month after new restrictions were announced by the province of Ontario.
Combining a half-empty arena with the Raptors’ decimated roster, Tuesday’s contest lacked the normal pregame excitement.
“For our group, it’s such a focus on getting us right and ready,” Harris said, “and building our chemistry and finding our flow as a team and our identity and how we’re going to play. So that’s what our main focus is on, not really on the excitement of the game.
“Those things are always going to be exciting. But our biggest goal is to figure out how we can be better.”
But things will be better for everyone involved when rosters are close to being back at full strength. The question is when will that be.
It appears that most of the NBA news on Twitter these is centered on the next player being placed in protocols. With the coronavirus showing no signs of going away, it could be while before we see teams back at full strength.