On Thursday, James said he had “zero energy and zero excitement” about playing in an All-Star Game, which is tentatively scheduled for March 7 in Atlanta. The Los Angeles Lakers forward added that the proposed event was a “slap in the face” to stars who needed a midseason break, and he questioned the wisdom of “[bringing] the whole league into one city that’s open” during the ongoing pandemic. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and De’Aaron Fox all expressed similar concerns.
Durant was even more forceful Friday, when the league’s contact tracing rules prevented him from starting and forced him to leave early from the Brooklyn Nets’ 123-117 home loss to the Toronto Raptors.
“Free me,” Durant wrote on Twitter. “Yo NBA, your fans aren’t dumb!!!! You can’t fool em with your Wack a-- PR tactics.”
The strange, confusing scene in Brooklyn epitomized mounting frustration around the NBA’s oblique contact tracing program, which has limited player availability and led to the postponement of games this season even if players don’t return positive tests.
According to an NBA statement, Durant tested negative three times in the 24 hours before the game against the Raptors, but he was forced out of the starting lineup because “someone he interacted with this afternoon subsequently had an inconclusive test result return shortly before the game.”
While the inconclusive test result was reviewed, Durant was allowed to enter the game at the 4:13 mark of the first quarter because, the league said, its protocols “do not require a player to be quarantined until a close contact has a confirmed positive test.”
The NBA then confirmed that the individual tested positive, leading to Durant’s removal from the game at the 9:06 mark of the third quarter. A bewildered Durant departed with eight points, six rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes.
“Once that test was confirmed positive, out of an abundance of caution, Durant was removed from the game,” the league said Friday. “Contact tracing is underway to determine if he was in fact a close contact of the positive individual.”
Nets Coach Steve Nash said Saturday the league determined Durant cannot rejoin the team until Feb. 12, sidelining him for three additional games. This is a particularly frustrating outcome for Durant, who contracted the coronavirus last March and was sidelined for three games in January during a previous brush with the league’s contact tracing policy. The 32-year-old forward was announced as the league’s leading all-star vote-getter this week, and he is averaging 29.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Durant isn’t the first player to be removed during a game this season. Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry was placed in isolation after he returned a positive test during a Jan. 7 game against the Nets, and Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas was removed at halftime of a Jan. 8 game against the Nets. But the stakes were higher given Durant’s star power and the intense interest around the Nets following their trade for Harden.
Friday’s chain of events, which played out in real time during a nationally televised ESPN broadcast, raised obvious questions about the contact tracing program. If the NBA was committed to the “abundance of caution” standard, why was Durant allowed back onto the court during the review process? Doesn’t the league’s decision to let him play while waiting for a confirmed positive test put all of his teammates, opponents and referees at risk? And shouldn’t the NBA determine whether he was a close contact before deciding that he could take the court?
“There’s too much going on,” Harden said. “It’s kind of overwhelming. The game should have been postponed, I feel like. If we’re talking about contact tracing, he was around all of us. I don’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to play and then was able to play and then taken off the court. If that was the case, we should have just postponed the game.”
Aside from the health concerns, there are competitive and financial implications to these decisions. Shouldn’t both teams, the fans, the television partners and anyone betting on the game have the right to know who is and who isn’t available before tip-off? How will the NBA handle this same situation if it happened during the middle of a playoff series?
Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether the NBA can keep its players bought in during an extraordinarily challenging season that still has months to go before the playoffs. The tightened protocols strictly limit players’ off-court activities at home and on road trips, and adding an All-Star Weekend would further crowd an already condensed schedule for top players.
James and Antetokounmpo both said they would play in the All-Star Game if selected, but both expressed deep reservations. James said that he would “be there physically but not mentally,” while Antetokounmpo added that “inside, deep down, I don’t want to do it,” and that he would prefer to spend the time with his family. Leonard, meanwhile, said the league was “putting money over health right now, pretty much” with its all-star plans, and Harden cited a “draining” schedule and his desire to “relax” and “take a step back away from basketball.”
The NBA made it seven weeks into the bubble experience at Disney World before players, upset by the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis., and exhausted by a demanding schedule, unexpectedly shut down games for three days. You could easily argue that this season, with its heavy travel burden, constant health interruptions and the need to play 72 games in a condensed period, is even more mentally challenging than the bubble.
In other words, the growing chorus of player dissent is only going to get louder.