Inside the NBA’s race to outlast COVID-19’s omicron surge

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    Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

SIX PLAYERS BOARDED a charter to Midway Airport for a Toronto-Chicago meeting that would never happen — a ghost team flying to a ghost game. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse kept scores of his coaching and support staff back home, separating out those with young families awaiting Santa Claus.

“One positive [COVID-19] test puts you in Chicago over Christmas,” Nurse told ESPN.

If anyone had been cursed with the sense of impending NBA gloom, it was these Raptors. Outside of the head coach and four assistants, the army of support staff that typically traveled had been whittled down to what Nurse described as “the least-attached video guy.”

What was usually a traveling crew of 60 became a spartan 20 on the team flight. “Three buses for six players,” Nurse said. “That was something to see.”

As NBA problems go, these Raptors had absorbed some of the hardest hits since the pandemic’s start in March 2020. From the bubble in Orlando, Florida, to a season-long exile in Tampa, the Raptors would go 19 months between games in Canada. Even now, home games at Scotiabank Arena are limited to 50% capacity.

The Raptors’ roster was decimated by an outbreak in the 2020-21 season, and again now — including seven players who have landed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols prior to the team charter leaving for Chicago on Tuesday night. Raptors guard OG Anunoby made it eight on Wednesday, leaving the team with four available roster players, four short of the league-required eight players to play the Bulls. For days, Nurse could see it coming. They all did.

As Raptors players kept testing positive for the virus — Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. — the front office stayed on the phone recruiting replacements. “We had three when I went to bed [Monday night], four when I woke up, and we got a fifth when I landed in Chicago,” Nurse told ESPN.

The replacements would have had to play against the Bulls, but the Raptors will still need them on Sunday in Cleveland. The postponement spared Nurse a pregame meeting with his new players at the United Center, where he planned on the most elementary of introductions to Raptors basketball. Asked what, in that short window, Nurse could do to prepare them to play meaningful minutes, he said: “The simple stuff, like, ‘Here’s how to get the ball inbounds.'”

As it turned out in Chicago on Wednesday, some of the Raptors’ replacement players tested positive for COVID-19, and Anunoby needed a private plane to fly back separately to Toronto. Another wasted trip, another game cancellation for a steeled but beleaguered organization.

Such is the rudimentary state of an NBA suddenly under the siege of a three-week December barrage that has uprooted stars, starters and rotation players, and replaced them with minor leaguers and old-timers.

The Raptors aren’t alone.

As the omicron variant rages through the NBA, 11 other teams have faced outbreaks with each losing five or more players to the health and safety protocols. Three head coaches have entered the protocols, along with Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Nine games have been postponed. There have been 140 player entries into the protocols this season, with 123 this month alone, a brutal stretch by any measure. Several teams teeter dangerously close to not having enough healthy bodies, while G League players are filling vacant spots at a breakneck pace, severely impacting the level of play.

These most difficult weeks come just 48 hours away from Christmas, the league’s most high-profile regular-season slate of games. But as of Wednesday, a total of 45 players among 10 teams scheduled to play on Christmas remained in the protocols. In a league overwhelmingly reliant on its star appeal, Christmas games could be played without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Trae Young and an injured Anthony Davis.

STANDING IN THE locker room at Barclays Center, Brooklyn Nets guard Bruce Brown stared at the empty stalls surrounding him: all his neighbors, all absent. No James Johnson. No DeAndre’ Bembry. No Paul Millsap. It was Dec. 14, and the Nets were about to face the Raptors, but they were also in the teeth of a COVID-19 breakout. As Brown glanced to his left and right, a sense of dread settled in. “I don’t think it’s going to skip over my locker,” he thought to himself.

Soon, Brown found himself on the court warming up for a rare starting assignment, a byproduct of so many teammates in the protocols. He wore a good sweat and the good-faith belief he had cleared two rounds of game-day testing. It felt like a clean getaway.

But before tipoff, Nets assistant general manager Jeff Peterson waved Brown toward the tunnel to the locker room. One of Brown’s two pregame tests had come back inconclusive, and the NBA told the Nets that they needed to enter Brown into the league’s protocols. Officials walked Brown toward an empty side room, brought him his street clothes and belongings, and walked him out to the loading dock to leave the arena.

Awaiting Brown was Nets star guard Harden.

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