With NBA teams losing starters to COVID’s Omicron variant, 40-year-old Joe Johnson is back with the Boston Celtics for the first time in over 19 years. (Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
STATS & ANALYSIS

Rosters, Ratings, & Role-players in the NBA’s Omicron Era

COVID positives continue to impact the NBA’s rosters and schedule. Will the fans be turning away as a result? For now, early evidence suggests viewers are adapting.

Adam Silver and Shareef Abdur-Rahim both had to produce proof of vaccination today if they showed up for work at the NBA’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, part of a new New York City regulation requiring all employees of private companies to be actively doing their part to fight the pandemic.

Both men run sports leagues. And curiously, those leagues have come to look increasingly alike.

The number of players to have appeared on an active NBA roster at least once this season rose above 500 over the weekend as the NBA pulled off its Christmas quintuple-header without a hitch, then played a full slate of Sunday games without any cancellations.

But players are testing positive for COVID at a stunning rate, and teams from Silver’s NBA are forced to sign more and more players from Abdur-Rahim’s G League just to meet the Association’s minimum requirement of eight uniformed players on a given night.

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“It’s almost become normal, and it’s scary because you don’t really want this to be what normal is,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of the COVID-19 absences plaguing the league and sidelining some of the game’s top names.

In response, the league and the NBPA are reportedly hammering out terms for an agreement to lessen the required quarantine time for at least some players who test positive.

A lot of the current data is anecdotal, but several players who are fully vaccinated and boosted are still returning positive tests, which is in keeping with the Omicron variant’s high transmissibility (the nation and the world are clearly going through a COVID spike, but data on how many so-called “breakthrough” cases are happening is elusive). The league has said that 97% of its players are fully vaccinated and 65% have received boosters, so logic dictates that many of those positives are true breakthrough cases.

But no matter what the medical facts ultimately are, NBA teams are being forced to scramble all the same.

The starting point guard for the Detroit Pistons last night in their 144-109 loss to the San Antonio Spurs was 26-year-old rookie Derrick Walton Jr., who went scoreless in 31 minutes while missing all five of his shot attempts.

(But at least Walton did not have to go up against San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray, a nightly triple-double threat who is now on the shelf for 10 days — unless he returns two negative tests before then — because of his own positive COVID result.)

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was able to work around it, but other coaches had less success with their replacements. In Toronto, Nick Nurse started rookie Delano Banton and hardship exemption DJ Wilson, and at least those two got on the scoreboard in a 144-99 loss to the surging Cleveland Cavaliers.

In Miami, Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley went with rookie Hassani Gravett as his starting point guard in a 93-83 loss to the Heat. Also in the Magic’s starting lineup was Admiral Schofield, a 24-year-old British-American who had been toiling with the G League’s Lakeland Magic, Greensboro Swarm, and Capital City Go-Go over the past three seasons while awaiting his NBA shot.

Our current COVID moment delivered it.

“I was ready. I was ready at any given moment,” Gravett said. “I knew coming into this year what could take place with COVID or injuries or anything and was ready.” The three Heat-Magic games this season have seen 19 different players make a starting lineup.

And in case you missed it, even 40-year-old Joe Johnson is back in our lives for the first time since 2018 on a 10-day deal with the Boston Celtics.

So many COVID-related losses (coaches and support staffs have been impacted, too) have left plenty of folks wondering about the extent to which the quality of the on-court product is being negatively affected. The short answer is that there’s at least some unavoidable impact — but is there really anything that can be done short of pausing the season indefinitely?

The NHL paused its season to deal with a rash of COVID positives, but the NFL has continued to soldier on with just two weeks to go before the start of the playoffs.

Of course, the post-Christmas week is the start of what the NBA unofficially considers the start of its “real” season (as far as attracting fan interest is concerned), and common sense tells you that an absence of superstars on marquee teams during national telecasts will eventually drag viewership and fan engagement.

It’s worth keeping an eye on. This week’s national TV schedule does not include any games on TNT or ESPN, but NBA TV is carrying 11 games between now and Saturday, Jan. 1, including:

  • Brooklyn (likely without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) at the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 27
  • Denver at Golden State on Dec. 28
  • A Philadelphia-Brooklyn/Golden State-Denver doubleheader on Dec. 30

In the New York metropolitan area, Brooklyn Nets game viewership on the YES Network is up by 38% vs. 2019 year to date. Additionally, game viewership is up by 21% (75,000 vs. 62,000) for its last 12 Nets telecasts vs. the network’s first 14 Nets telecasts this season. YES also said Nets viewership was off to its best start in eight seasons.

But as we hit the coldest part of the winter, it may be that the numbers from the next dozen games could be the most telling of all.

Most NBA teams have gotten through the worst of their COVID issues, but the Clippers just lost Paul George (sore elbow) to an injury for several weeks, the Warriors have been missing Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, and Damion Lee (COVID); and the Nuggets are already without two of their three best players as Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. recover from injuries.

On the flipside, the Warriors are edging closer to having Klay Thompson and James Wiseman on the court for the first time this season, and Irving should emerge from quarantine during or shortly after the Nets’ current trip, which ends Monday night. He will be eligible to play on Jan. 5 when Brooklyn travels to Indiana.

Still, it is only December. And cold as you may be, spring will eventually arrive and things will warm up. Let’s just hope that what we have seen in December isn’t meant to prep us for more of the same in January, February, and March.

If for any reason that does turn out to be the case, this unlikely G League showcase simply rolls on.

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