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Opinion: The NBA is mishandling the winter of omicron and turning its product into a joke

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At the beginning of the second quarter Monday night, the Atlanta Hawks subbed Lance Stephenson, who before this month hadn’t played in the NBA since 2019, into the game for Chaundee Brown. For the 17,049 fans in attendance at State Farm Arena, it would have been perfectly reasonable to ask who that is, given that Brown had only signed with the team hours earlier.

Meanwhile, Stephenson’s backcourt mate for a stretch was Cat Barber, who has bounced around the G League and various international teams since 2016 without getting a shot at the NBA. And for much of the game, the Hawks’ best big man was Malcolm Hill, whose professional career began in the Philippines in 2017.

Welcome to Adam Silver’s NBA, where the pandemic is running so out of control that it feels like the entire league — from front offices to broadcasters to equipment guys — is a sitting duck for the omicron variant to feast on. Never mind the competitive issues while teams roll out G League players. Never mind the ticket-buying fans whose money has been wasted on watching a sub-standard product while teams have half their regular rosters in COVID-19 protocols. Never mind the absurdity of filling indoor arenas with fans during this wave while forcing COVID-ravaged teams like the Hawks to keep playing, ensuring the outbreak will continue both within their organization and others.

The Hawks signed Wes Iwundu (24) to a 10-day contract before their game last week against the 76ers. The next day, he became the eighth Hawks player to test positive for COVID.
The Hawks signed Wes Iwundu (24) to a 10-day contract before their game last week against the 76ers. The next day, he became the eighth Hawks player to test positive for COVID.

It’s not Silver’s fault that this highly transmissible strain of coronavirus arrived in the middle of the NBA season. But he didn’t have to let it be such a stain on his tenure as commissioner. In the span of a few weeks, his league has gone from arguably the best in dealing with COVID to one of the worst in sports.

“This virus will not be eradicated, and we're going to have to learn to live with it, and I think that’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now,” Silver said in an interview with ESPN a week ago.

But does learning to live with COVID really mean allowing it to devastate your product for a month with outbreaks rolling from locker room to locker room, not even attempting to stop the chain of transmission?

The frustration of players all around the league is understandable, particularly those who are vaccinated and asymptomatic and still forced into the health and safety protocol due to a positive test. There’s no great answer for what the league should do about that, and hopefully over time the virus will become something no more problematic than a winter cold.

Under the current conditions, though, the NBA’s response to omicron has been an utter failure. And all you need to do is take a look at the Hawks, who have probably been hit harder than anyone over the past several days.

On Dec. 17, Atlanta basically had a full roster for a game against the Denver Nuggets besides the players who were already injured – Bogdan Bogdanovic (ankle) and De'Andre Hunter (wrist). On Dec. 19, Trae Young went into the COVID protocols. Two days later, Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela followed. The next day, before a back-to-back against Orlando and Philadelphia, the Hawks learned that Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot would also be out.

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At that point, it was clear there was a raging outbreak in that locker room and it would have been perfectly reasonable to shut the Hawks down long enough to get a handle on their COVID situation or at least allow the first group of players to recover.

Instead, because the NBA has been bound and determined to push through this wave no matter what, the Hawks had to sign more players to 10-day contracts.

One of them, Wes Iwundu, joined Atlanta for their Dec. 23 game in Philadelphia and played 23 minutes. The next day, he became the eighth Hawks player to test positive for COVID. And the four players who tested positive in Philadelphia? They had to take a 12-hour bus ride back to Atlanta because they weren’t allowed to fly commercial and no charter company would take them.

The situation has only gotten worse from there. Though Clint Capela tested his way back onto the floor and Young was cleared to play Monday, the Hawks are now up to 13 players currently in the protocol. In fact, only two members of their opening night roster — Cam Reddish and Skylar Mays — have avoided COVID to this point aside from the guys who are injured and currently away from the team. At the rate it's going in Atlanta, it’s probably only a matter of time for them, too.

“I wish I could tell you it’s over, but it’s not over yet,” general manager Travis Schlenk said Tuesday on an Atlanta radio station. "We wait every morning for the test results to come in and as soon as we get them we roll with the punches whether it be players or staff. We’ve lost coaches, equipment managers so we’re hauling bags around. We’ve lost video guys. Certainly the players are who everyone sees and we wish we had them back, but it’s hitting all of us across the organization.”

We all know that COVID-19 is more likely to be a minor inconvenience for NBA players — particularly those who are vaccinated and have had booster shots — than a major threat to their overall health. NBA owners have calculated those risks and decided that it’s more important to keep the business going.

It’s absurd, of course, the crass immorality of making exposure to this virus inevitable for players and their families so that basketball can be played, not to mention the impact of filling arenas every night.

At some point, though, the integrity of the product has to come into play — an issue the NBA has taken a pretty strong stand on when it comes to other topics. The NBA has changed its rules to punish teams for resting star players for national TV games if they’re healthy, it changed the draft lottery to disincentivize teams from tanking and it added play-in games for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in each conference so that more teams would take the regular season seriously.

But when it comes to COVID-19, the league is perfectly fine with charging Trae Young ticket prices while fans watch a team full of Lance Stephensons and Cat Barbers.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop the season and wait for omicron to fade away. As Silver said in his ESPN interview, the problem with shutting down the entire league right now is that there’s no obvious standard for bringing it back.

But if the league can’t be bothered to do anything about a team flying around the country with an out-of-control outbreak, then the inevitable conclusion is that the NBA is just fine with every player, coach and official in the league going into protocols over the next month or so no matter how ridiculous every team’s roster ends up looking at one point or another.

If there was some kind of larger plan here other than playing games for the sake of playing games, maybe it would make sense. But muddling along through the winter one 10-day contract at a time hasn’t just made it look like the NBA waved the white flag on COVID, it turned the basketball product into a punchline.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA's mishandling of omicron is turning on-court product into a joke