All of us are Doc Rivers right now.
“Listen,” the Sixers head coach said Monday evening, a couple of hours before his team played its second straight game with nearly half its roster missing, “I don’t think any of us know, exactly. We’re in uncharted waters.”
If you think you know exactly what the NBA should do in circumstances like this, you should think a little harder. The answers might be obvious in a world that is run by either epidemiologists or economists, but that is not the world in which any of us exists. That’s been an ongoing problem with much of the opinion-taking and decision-making that we’ve seen and heard over the last 10 months. Maybe the world should be different than it is. But it’s silly to think that we can reinvent it in time to decide whether the Sixers should be playing a basketball game right now.
The television contracts have been written. The advertisements have been sold. The programming has been scheduled. For people to get paid, basketball must be played. That’s reality.
On the other hand, basketball is a game that is played and coached by human beings, and human beings are susceptible to viral transmission. They are also susceptible to the effects of playing too much basketball. That’s reality, too.
In an ideal world, those two realities will never again conflict to the extent that they did on Saturday afternoon, when the Sixers took the court with seven available players as a result of Seth Curry’s positive COVID-19 test 48 hours prior. The decision to play the game was an unfortunate one, given the NBA’s own guidelines that said a team needed eight players at minimum. While the Sixers technically had the requisite eight in uniform, one of them was Mike Scott, who was recovering from injury and was not expected to play.
On Monday night, Scott was back in action, as was Joel Embiid, giving the Sixers nine players and something that resembled a bonafide starting lineup. They jumped out to an early lead before the substitutions started, at which point the reality of their personnel shortage became too much to solve. The result was a 112-94 loss that wasn’t the most entertaining basketball game you’d ever seen, but was more than the kitchen appliance infomercial that would have aired in its stead.
Therein lies the crux of the whole conversation: People want to watch basketball. Other people want to get paid to play it. Still, others want to get paid to provide a conduit between the two aforementioned parties. As long as everybody is making their business calculations with unfettered free will, the NBA isn’t acting unethically in its facilitation of commerce. It worked out for Major League Baseball, and it is working out for the NFL, and, on Monday night, it worked out again. At least, from a microeconomic point of view.
The considerations get more complex the further you zoom out. The end-of-season standings will count each of these games the same as the others. They will say that the Sixers lost back-to-back games in early January, despite the fact that these were the Sixers only in the sense of the name on the jersey. If the Sixers end up playing the Heat on Tuesday night, the standings will count that game, too. Even if the Heat are missing Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo as they deal with their own COVID containment crisis. A game might be played. But what will it prove?
It’s a question that has a chance to metastasize into a problem that threatens the legitimacy of the season. A single positive COVID test has resulted in the de facto forfeiture of two games. The odds say there will be more positive tests. Absent some sort of mechanism to award teams a certain number of mulligans, the competitive consequences could accrue in a hurry.
None of this is an attempt to diminish the gravity of the virus itself, be it the health risks of the disease or the stress of playing in the midst of it. The players are young and in their physical prime, but many of the coaches are not.
“You obviously are concerned with COVID – everyone is,” said Rivers, who is 59 years old. “I think coaches probably are more than anybody because of our age. We’re in the middle of huddles and trying to talk through masks. They can’t hear you, you take them down – for me, that’s been very difficult, I can tell you that. And then, past COVID, the competitive advantage thing, obviously we were at a severe disadvantage the other night, and the argument has to be made, should the game go on or not? And I don’t know the answer to that.”
Nobody does. At least, nobody who is being honest. People want to watch basketball. Other people want to play it. This is the only way for it to be done.