NBA Dealing With a Post-Thanksgiving Nightmare Scenario as Number of Players in Health and Safety Protocols Skyrockets

For the first time since 2018–19, the NBA scheduled a typical 82-game season. After two seasons shortened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the league felt confident enough in its health and safety protocols to attempt a return to normalcy. There have been no coronavirus-related game postponements or cancellations, but the post-Thanksgiving period is proving challenging to several teams and NBA players.

The Chicago Bulls had two players test positive for the virus. The Charlotte Hornets placed four players — including three starters — into the health and safety protocols on Dec. 4. These are just the latest examples. The Philadelphia 76ers played without Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid for nine games each after they tested positive and were symptomatic. Is there a danger the NBA will have to alter its schedule?

The Charlotte Hornets are hard-hit

Four members of the Charlotte Hornets are among a dozen NBA players in health and safety protocols in the post-Thanksgiving period.
Four members of the Charlotte Hornets are among a dozen NBA players in health and safety protocols in the post-Thanksgiving period. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

On Dec. 4, the Charlotte Hornets announced via Twitter that four players entered the health and safety protocols, including starting guards LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier and center Mason Plumlee. Reserve wing Jalen McDaniels was also unavailable when the Hornets faced the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 5.

Rod Boone of the Charlotte Observer tweeted that the Hornets called three players up from their Greensboro affiliate in the NBA G League. According to Boone, Charlotte planned the promotions of Kai Jones, James Bouknight, and Vernon Carey, but the timing was fortuitous with four rotation players unavailable.

Bouknight, a guard, was Charlotte’s first-round pick in 2021. Jones, a center from the Bahamas via Texas, came in a draft-night trade from the New York Knicks. The Hornets took Carey, another center, from Duke in the second round of the 2020 NBA Draft.

Unlike last season, the NBA didn’t expand rosters in 2021–22 to account for players missing time in the protocols. When the 76ers were short-handed, the team played several games with the minimum of eight players available.

After Thanksgiving has been rough on NBA rosters

According to team injury reports at ESPN.com, 11 players are in health and safety protocols.

Besides the four Hornets, the Denver Nuggets are down three players (Austin Rivers, Bones Hyland, and Bol Bol), and the Bulls don’t have Coby White or Javonte Green after positive tests.

The Indiana Pacers (Justin Holiday) and Los Angeles Clippers (Nicolas Batum) are also out. The Los Angeles Lakers had a scare when LeBron James entered the protocols and missed the team’s Nov. 30 game against the Sacramento Kings, but he returned on Dec. 3.

According to Tim Bontemps of ESPN, Chicago coach Billy Donovan said enforcement tightened after the holiday break.

“I don’t think there’s any question that’s happening,” Donovan said. “I think there’s going to be; my guess would be stricter policies than there have been this year. To your point, I think Thanksgiving and you’re dealing with Christmas and then New Year’s … people are going to be around family.

“I think that the way it’s moving right now is it’s getting a little more stricter. Certainly for us right now, it’s a lot stricter because we’ve got two players who are positive.”

Last season, the NBA did not set specific guidelines for postponing games, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

The NBA still has the Kyrie Irving issue on the back burner

With all the recent activity around the NBA health and safety protocols, the case of Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving has mostly slipped into the background.

Since the team decided not to allow Irving to play part-time, it has been mostly silent on the topic. Irving is not allowed to play in either of New York City’s NBA arenas because of the city’s vaccination mandate for public gyms.

There was a similar controversy surrounding Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins because of a similar mandate in San Francisco. Wiggins ultimately complied with the directive and has played in every game for the 19–4 Warriors.

The latest development with the pandemic is the emergence of the new Omicron variant. According to Reuters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Dec. 5 that the new mutation has been found in 15 states. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the older Delta variant remains the leading cause of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

In September, the NBA reported 95% of players were vaccinated. Irving and Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal are among the most notable exceptions. In the absence of a vaccine mandate in the District of Columbia, Beal’s playing status remains unaffected. The New York and San Francisco regulations do not apply to visiting players.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Over 423 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the United States from December 14, 2020, through November 1, 2021. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.”

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