The Knicks will take the floor on Sunday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the first NBA city to return to last season’s nearly empty arenas.
The Raptors are the first team to give in to the reality of the problems streaking across the NBA — and really, the whole world — as the numbers of COVID cases soar to record highs.
And the real question isn’t why the province of Ontario has forced the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to limit audiences to fewer than 1,000, pulling the plug on fans with the turn of the New Year, but why it has taken this long for anyone in the NBA to make this move.
The league has been devastated by the positive tests, losing more than half of its players as they went into health and safety protocols in December. The result has been nights like what the Knicks saw in Detroit on Wednesday — when the Pistons were missing 12 players and fielding a team that included eight hardship exception signings. A night earlier in Minnesota, the Timberwolves got Patrick Beverley back against the Knicks, giving Minnesota one regular starter after playing the night before (and winning) without any of the usual starting five.
As the Knicks finish their four-game road trip in Toronto, it’s been a mess, with players, coaches and staff scattered through the first three stops, quarantined in hotels and left behind as the team plods forward.
Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle are the latest Knicks players to enter the protocols, joining Nerlens Noel, Jericho Sims and Wayne Selden on the sideline along with seven other players who have been shut down and made their way back.
As grim as that sounds, the Knicks actually have managed it better than many teams have. This road trip alone has put that on display, but it is hardly the only example.
The NBA endured its 11th postponement of the season Thursday when Denver did not have the required eight players available for a meeting with Golden State. It’s actually harder to imagine why it’s only 11 rather than how this happened.
There are wonderful stories of players getting opportunities, some from the G League, some who have been out of the NBA for years — although too many of those stories immediately have been followed by a positive test a day later. But the reality is that other than Sunday afternoon in Toronto, fans have been filling arenas and paying full price to see something they could view at Rucker Park or any well-stocked semi-pro league.
The Raptors spoke last week of meeting new players on the bus for the first time shortly before the start of the game. Greg Monroe helped Minnesota to a win over the Celtics on Monday after arriving via connecting flights, admitting afterward that he had never heard of some of the players who starred that night around him.
Is this really "fan-tastic," as the NBA promos used to go?
The NBA shut down the league in March 2020 ahead of any other pro sport when there was one confirmed case. It’s certainly different now in that there are vaccines — although a tiny portion of the players have resisted being vaccinated and nearly half of the league has yet to get the booster.
And it’s not just the players who are facing these problems, but coaches, staff and even referees, with a report coming out that 36% of the officials have entered the health and safety protocols.
There’s no easy solution for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has insisted since that March 2020 shutdown that the league is following the science and trying to serve as leaders. But would a pause in the schedule allow a reboot for teams and let fans see the talent that they have paid for in tickets or television costs?
"No plans right now to pause the season," Silver said on ESPN last week. "We’ve, of course, looked at all the options and frankly, we’re having trouble coming up with the logic behind pausing right now. As we look through these cases literally whipping through the country right now, putting aside the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months. And that is that 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."
Still, as difficult as it may be, some of it is hard to explain. The league has put restrictions on practice and morning shootarounds but has opened the doors for 20,000 maskless fans to crowd into an arena around the players.
The league has shortened the timeline for players to return to action, now matching the CDC guidelines of five days as long as the player meets the cycle threshold number, which can indicate how much infectious virus is present. It certainly will bring some of the missing talent back to the league.
But the precautions that were taken last season have all but disappeared. The stands — other than this afternoon in Toronto — are packed with maskless fans with varying vaccination requirements. The league has enforced a careful approach for players in practice and shootarounds but has been hesitant to put players in lockdowns like last season.
The reality is that scientists have predicted that the wave of Omicron won’t peak in the United States until the middle of January, meaning this can get worse even as the league tries to find ways to rush players back to the court.
For now, it’s just a swath cut through the country as the Knicks and other teams wait to get their players and staff cleared — and then figure out a safe way to return them to the team.