On March 11th, 2020, the NBA suspended their season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19. Jazz players were unhappy with Gobert, privately admitting that before his diagnosis, he was careless in the locker room, touching other players and their belongings. To add salt to the wound, one day after Gobert’s positive test, his franchise player Donavan Mitchell tested positive as well. Gobert attempted to get in touch with Mitchell after he heard the news but was coldly ghosted by his teammate. Eventually, they did hash things out, but the damage to their relationship had already been done. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end for the superstar duo’s time in Utah. The stench of tension between Mitchell and Gobert would linger in the years that followed. Furthermore, the team could never seem to get past the second round of the playoffs. Ultimately, the tension resulted in Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Reports indicate that Gobert claimed it was “him or me”.
Rudy feels that his own numbers are consistent or getting better, while Don is D liability and is falling off in terms of explosiveness. Gobert also aware of at least 1 Western Conference power that would be willing to pay handsomely for his abilities. (NBA teams never tamper..)
— Sean O'Connell (@realOCsports) May 2, 2022
The Jazz have entered rebuild mode, receiving a truckload of first-round picks from the Timberwolves for Gobert, and rumor has it they will look to trade Donavan Mitchell as well in the coming weeks. It is alarming to think that the pandemic could have upended a franchise worth $1.6 billion, but the ripple effect did not stop there.
The NBA Bubble
Four months after suspending their season, the NBA returned in Orlando, Florida, inside Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Players were confined to the bubble in Orlando, gaining access to the many facilities available at the resort. However, the NBA bubble created mental and physical hurdles that NBA players were not fully prepared for before agreeing to take part in the experiment.
Each team was granted eight seeding games to attempt to make the playoffs. After a four-month hiatus, however, those games felt more like the start of a new season for some teams. On top of that, teams engaged in a play-in tournament for the final two playoff spots. This allowed the Portland Trail Blazers to shock the world and capture a playoff spot on the back of a stellar bubble run from superstar Damian Lillard. The play-in tournament has become a fixture in the NBA’s playoff seeding for the last few seasons since, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the new competitive format is not the only significant thing to come out of the NBA bubble. Before the pandemic shifted reality, as we know it, mental health was already blossoming into an important conversation in the NBA, thanks to players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan speaking out. However, the isolation of quarantine was felt on a more personal level by NBA players during the bubble, sparking even more important discussions on mental health.
Before the start of the NBA Finals, LeBron James said, “It’s probably been the most challenging thing I have ever done as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through.” The mental and physical hurdles that players had to endure in the bubble were well documented, with multiple players admitting they’d never commit to anything like it again. Then Lakers shooting guard Danny Green explained, “Mentally, it’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day’ in here. I don’t want to make it seem that bad, but the bubble is as good as your play, you know? You don’t have many escapes or outside distractions. If you’re not playing well, the walls are gonna close in on you more and more.”
Danny Green’s out here blatantly throwing games pic.twitter.com/YeSzNxkxor
— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) August 5, 2020
Another player well equipped to speak on this issue was NBA Superstar Paul George. George struggled to perform in the playoffs, shooting 10-for-47 through games two, three, and four in the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks. He fared no better in the Conference Semifinals, where the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the young Denver Nuggets. Eventually, George’s struggles led to him shouldering most of the blame for the Clippers’ early elimination. George explained “I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety and a little bit of depression. Being locked in here (in the bubble), I just wasn’t there. I checked out.”
Mental health was not the only issue that became more important to NBA players in the bubble. Black Lives Matter became the defining political movement of the summer of 2020, as the death of George Floyd set off a wave of protests across the globe. The bubble may have been isolated from the rest of the world, but the players wanted to make sure their voices were heard as well.
Before game five of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, the Milwaukee Bucks staged a walk-out, resulting in a three-game suspension of basketball activities. Most NBA teams and players united in protest of racism and police brutality, creating a national platform during a time when most people were confined to their homes due to quarantine.
The movement for social justice spurred some players to push for a full-fledged boycott, with superstar Kyrie Irving organizing a Zoom call with prominent members of the NBA’s player union. On that call, players debated the viability of a boycott. Spencer Dinwiddie contributed to the call, explaining that players could forfeit up to $1.2 billion in player salaries if the NBA owners chose to respond with a lockout. “I’m willing to give up everything I have,” Irving said.
Ultimately, however, the boycott did not go beyond three days, with NBA competition resuming shortly afterward. The courts were adorned with messages supportive of Black Lives Matter protests, and most players’ names were replaced on their jerseys with phrases like “Say Their Names” and “Equality”.
Covid-19 Protocols After the Bubble
The pandemic began to loosen its death grip on the NBA in the 2021 season, but not by much. NBA fans were not permitted to games. Even stranger, the NBA season began on December 22, 2020, a mere 72 days after the Los Angeles Lakers were crowned champions, marking the shortest offseason in NBA history. This offered teams that played in the bubble an unimaginably short offseason to rehab. The season was reduced from 82 games to 72, but that did little to make up for the short rest period. Furthermore, players that tested positive for Covid-19 were forced to miss time, resulting in sudden roster changes throughout the season.
The Los Angeles Lakers struggled to defend their championship as a result, with injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis resulting in a slump to the seventh seed in the playoffs. The Lakers were swiftly bounced from the tournament when Anthony Davis re-aggravated an injury against the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
Another interesting caveat to the 2020-2021 season came from the only Canadian team in the NBA: the Toronto Raptors. Due to Covid-19 cross-border restrictions imposed by the Canadian government, the Raptors were forced to play their home games at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. The Raptors struggled in their new home. They went 1-13 in March, and finished 27-45, ending a streak of seven straight playoff appearances. The silver lining, however, came in the NBA lottery, where the Raptors landed the fourth pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. They drafted Scottie Barnes, who went on to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award this past season. Barnes is a 6’7 athletic forward with playmaking skills and excellent defensive instincts, known for his high motor and aggressive playstyle. He averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game in his rookie year, and still has a lot of room to improve as a shooter and shot creator. If he can develop, the Raptors could have yet another franchise player on their hands. The basketball gods must have felt pity for team president Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors, who received a significant downgrade from their usual home court advantage in Toronto when they spent a season in Tampa.
In the 2021-2022 season, Covid-19 restrictions were loosened for several NBA teams. Fans returned to stadiums, the Raptors went back to Canada, and a sense of normalcy began to return to the NBA. The vaccine provided society the chance to get back to the real world, for the most part. In New York, vaccine mandates were strict, resulting in job loss for those who refused to comply. Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets superstar point guard, who famously attempted to organize a strike against the NBA during the bubble, refused to receive the vaccine. While he never directly explained his reasoning, many deduce that this decision largely correlated with his goal to become a “voice for the voiceless,” a sentiment that came about during his impassioned cry for a boycott during the bubble. I cannot speak to Kyrie’s motivations myself, but what I can say is that his decision not to get the vaccine sent the Brooklyn Nets franchise spiraling out of control.
With Kevin Durant sidelined due to injury, and Irving not allowed to play home games due to the restrictions, their all-star teammate James Harden became disgruntled with the workload he was carrying. He demanded a trade and was shipped off to the Philadelphia 76ers for the former number one overall pick Ben Simmons. The Nets would go on to be swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and they barely made it into the tournament to begin with. Durant and Irving have both requested a trade, and a team that looked to have the NBA’s next big three, has devolved into perhaps the biggest disappointment the league has ever seen.
The Covid-19 pandemic was an unforgettable experience for all of us, and it affected so many lives with its tragic and unsettling circumstances. The NBA world was shaken to its core, oftentimes serving as a microcosm for our own societal challenges. From a 75-person zoom call discussing social justice, to the mental barricades created by quarantine, to the struggle of returning to a normal life post-Covid-19, the whole ordeal has truly reflected the greatest issues society has dealt with over the years. Ultimately, the pandemic reminded sports fans that the NBA community is as dichotomous and passionate as the rest of the world, and we should never take their voices for granted.