The bosses tell me that I have 800 words to describe what I saw on Saturday afternoon. That’s 799 too many, because all it takes is one.
I mean… really? The players couldn’t play. The opponent didn’t think it needed to play. The head coach didn’t want to play.
And here all of us are. The players did what they could. The opponent did what it needed to do. The head coach wore his mask so that we couldn’t read his lips.
And here we are. In normal circumstances, we’d be talking about a rookie point guard from Kentucky who established once and for all that he isn’t just a diamond in the rough but a legitimate star in the making. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and, unfortunately, they can’t be treated as such. The Sixers lost to the Nuggets, 115-103, in a game that should not have been played. That’s the story the NBA knew it was getting, and it is the story that will now be told.
“I don’t think we should [play],” Doc Rivers said.
What else is there to say?
Since this is ostensibly the first draft of history, we’ll remind you of the details. In March of 2020, the United States of America was overwhelmed by a pandemic that probably should have been handled better than it was handled at a federal level. In the absence of competent top-down leadership, the rest of the nation was reduced to a headless chicken, running around making up rules whose coherence started and stopped at state and/or county lines. Organizations like the NFL, the NBA, and MLB showed everybody that a state of normal could be approximated, given the requisite amount of funding, incentive, and will. Nine months went by, 2020 ended, and the Capitol was stormed by a bunch of people who still live with their mother. And then the NBA decided to cash in its mulligan.
The league deserves it. The mulligan, I mean. On the list of things that have been mishandled since this start of this whole disaster, the NBA’s decision to play Saturday’s Sixers-Nuggets game ranks somewhere in the thousands. Professional basketball teams make money by playing professional basketball games, and everyone who appears on the court shares in the profit. If it made sense for the owners that insist the game was played, it made sense for the players and coaches to play along. The NBA was the first sports league forced to deal with this pandemic, and they stuck the landing with perfection. Give them that much. Up to this point, they’ve done right by everybody involved. I’m just not sure that point extends any further.
But back to the timeline: Sometime on Thursday night, Seth Curry tested positive for COVID-19. Somehow, it was decided that certain players had come into close contact with him, and other player hadn’t. By the end of the proceedings, the Sixers had seven players available to play on Saturday.
In spirit, the circumstances said the Sixers were not physically capable of playing said game. Prior to the season, the NBA and the players union had agreed that 48 minutes of basketball required two teams that both had at least eight active players. But, technically, the Sixers had eight active players, despite the fact that one of them (Mike Scott) was still recovering from a knee injury. And so they took the court with one of their usual starters, a back-up center, and a bunch of rookies, most of whom had spent the first nine games of the season clapping on the bench.
It went better than expected. The Sixers broke 100. They got an extended look at a player who could drastically alter their future plans. Tyrese Maxey, the rookie, scored 39 points on 18-of-33 shooting. If he had been drafted in the Top 5, we would be talking about this sort of performance as legitimizing the pick. If Markelle Fultz had done this in his 10th game as a pro, a lot of people would be hyperventilating worse than they did when Bryan Colangelo traded up to draft him. On that front alone, Saturday was a success. Maxey may not be a definite star, but he definitely could be, and that’s a heck of a thing for a guy who went No. 21 overall.
That being said…
It’s hard to imagine that the NBA earned as much from this game as the damage it could potentially do to its brand if it continues to make decisions like this. The writing was on the wall from the start: Neither Joel Embiid nor Ben Simmons suited up, despite being listed as questionable. Rivers said before the game that he didn’t think his team should be playing. What other result could anybody have predicted?
“You know, I trust the league and I trust the doctors as far as health-wise,” River said. “I’m more concerned with the health on the floor.”
That’s the rub. Maxey played 44 minutes, which could be several more than any rookie will play this season. He’s young, he’s paid well, he can handle it. But if that’s really an outcome the NBA thinks is sustainable, there’s really one word left to say.