One day after the 2020-21 regular season tipped off, the NBA has postponed its first game. Late Wednesday afternoon, the NBA announced that the matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder scheduled for 8 p.m. ET had been postponed because the Rockets did not have eight players available.
This news only underscores the myriad challenges the league faces in trying to complete its season outside of the confines of a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, within which the NBA finished the 2019-20 season.
As the NFL, MLB and MLS have already demonstrated, trying to pull off a season outside of a bubble comes with all sorts of complications. Here’s what we know and don’t know about the postponed game, the latest with James Harden and what’s next for both the Rockets and the rest of the NBA.
What’s going on in Houston?
The Rockets, per reporting from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski, are dealing with two separate coronavirus-related issues.
After a video of Harden maskless and out at a club surfaced on social media, the NBA began investigating whether Harden violated the league’s safety protocols by going to an unsanctioned indoor event sometime in the past week. The Rockets also had three players return tests that were either positive or inconclusive and had to put four other players into the league’s contact tracing program, including former All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall as well as rookie Kenyon Martin Jr., who was one of the players with conflicting COVID-19 test results. Wall, Cousins and Martin were among Rockets players gathered Tuesday evening at a player’s apartment getting haircuts.
The combination of the two events left Houston with fewer than eight players available, forcing the postponement of the Rockets’ season opener against the Thunder.
When will the game against the Thunder be made up?
The league hasn’t announced a date for the game to be replayed, but it built flexibility into its schedule to address this scenario. By only releasing the games to be played through March 4, the NBA has three rescheduling options: before the March 5-10 midseason break; during that break; or in the second half of the season, for which the schedule won’t be announced until sometime in February.
Per ESPN’s Royce Young, the Thunder will fly back to Oklahoma City on Wednesday. They plan to leave Oklahoma City on Friday afternoon to fly to Charlotte for what will be their season opener on Saturday.
What is the league investigating with regard to Harden?
The league has sanctioned specific restaurants in every NBA city that players, coaches and staff who are part of each team’s travel party are allowed to attend. The protocols prohibit those people from going to bars, lounges or clubs and from participating in social gatherings of more than 15 people. There are also evolving, stricter league mandates in certain markets such as San Francisco and Los Angeles prohibiting teams from traveling beyond the hotel or the arena.
In the pictures of Harden that circulated on social media, he was not wearing a mask at the club. The NBA deemed Harden unavailable due to violation of health and safety protocols, fining him $50,000.
How does the contact tracing work?
The league has purposely given itself wiggle room on the subject of contact tracing in order to be flexible in how it handles each individual situation.
The backbone of the NBA’s plan is its rigorous testing procedures. Players are now tested twice per day, every day, in the hopes it will allow the league to catch any instances of the virus as soon as possible, reducing the need to isolate players or have them miss time.
However, situations like the one reported are more complicated, where players congregate in a setting away from a practice or game and there is an instance of a positive test. Earlier this month, for example, Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley had to quarantine for a week after coming in contact with someone close to his family who fell outside of the league’s testing program.
What are the return-to-play protocols?
For players who have tested positive for COVID-19, there are two potential paths to return: a time-based resolution and a test-based resolution.
Under the time-based resolution, the infected person needs to have gone at least 10 days since the date of their first positive test or the onset of any symptoms, if they’ve had any; gone at least 24 hours since their fever went away without using any medications; and had other symptoms improved. The protocols specifically note that the loss of taste or smell alone is not expected to prevent someone from leaving isolation.
Under the test-based resolution, the person must return at least two consecutive negative PCR tests from samples taken at least 24 hours apart.
Either way, any player who is determined to have a new positive case from testing will not be allowed to participate in any exercise training for at least 10 days from either the positive test date or the resolution of symptoms, if they have any.
Once a player has waited that minimum of 10 days, they must spend two days working out by themselves, not interacting with anyone or participating in team activities, and must have a cardiac screening.
Any player who has had a severe case of COVID-19, or who was hospitalized at any point, will have to be observed for at least three full days before they can be cleared to return to play.
What are the potential punishments for a violation of the safety protocols?
The NBA has a section in the health and safety protocols that outlines discipline and penalties for players and team staff.
While no specific penalties are mentioned, the punishments for players who fail to comply with these league rules include potential warnings, fines or suspensions. Teams who fail to comply could also face adjustment or loss of draft picks as well as game forfeiture.
Players who violated protocols in the bubble — such as the LA Clippers‘ Lou Williams — and were forced to miss games as a result lost salary for every game missed. In this case, Harden would forfeit $284,517 (1/145th of his salary) for failing to render services by violating protocols.
The gray area to this interpretation is that the Rockets-Thunder game was postponed and not canceled, thus for technical purposes, Harden has not missed a game yet.
Will this affect Harden’s trade value?
When asked if Harden’s behavior would be a red flag in trading for the former MVP, team executives told ESPN they thought it was selfish and reckless but would not prevent a deal.
Teams have already done their homework when it comes to Harden both on and off the court. One NBA executive told ESPN that the team had hired a private investigator to do a thorough background check, treating the process of gathering information on him like it would a draft prospect.
If a team is comfortable acquiring Harden, the larger challenge would be putting together enough outgoing salary (at least $33 million) to make a trade legal without gutting its existing roster.
Teams are in the early stages of evaluating their rosters and are not willing to make a rash judgment at this time. That could change if the Rockets lower their asking price on Harden, currently reported to be a mix of young players with star potential and significant draft assets.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks contributed to this report.