Let’s start here: I am exhausted.
Between this never-ending plague that continues to ravage this country, an insurrection targeting the Capitol, an economy that continues to fail without the life support of sufficient government sustenance, I am BEAT. And then there’s the basketball side of things... a condensed NBA schedule that has proved to be as rigorous as possibly imaginable and a seemingly endless stream of positive COVID tests that causes a pang of anxiety with every Woj bomb...
I am worn out. Tired. Dismayed with how 2021 has begun. Unhappy with how the season has gone so far. There is just so much going on in the world––so much going wrong, really––and what’s normally my biggest escape, the NBA, has been a big reminder that things are not right in this world.
Let’s call a spade a spade: The NBA’s return-to-play in an environment outside of that impenetrable Orlando “bubble” has been an unmitigated disaster. It’s the little things––like the blissful distraction of an NBA season––that can brighten dark times; conversely, it makes those things all the more fragile, more prone to feelings of disappointment if they don’t go as planned. Not to mention, a rise in the number and severity of injuries. Is it related? Too early to tell.
I truly can’t imagine balancing the stresses of the present day while also actually playing in this hellish 72-game schedule.
So why do I bring this up?
Because the general vibe on the Zoom call after Monday’s practice was fittingly exhausted. Steve Nash was much cheerier than the night before, of course coming off that rough loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Joe Harris perked up as the interview went on. Landry Shamet showcased resilience and vowed to improve upon his tough start to the season.
But still, all in all, it was a somber sitdown––and one that left me feeling even wearier than before. We’re emotional beings, you know, bouncing and reflecting off one another’s external energies, behaviors, and tones of conversation. Even though an 11-by-8 inch digital screen, the vibe of the Nets was contagious; the 2020-2021 season, which has coincided with a truly dark point in our history, has been anything but stressful. I think many of us are starting to feel the side effects.
“It’s been a difficult transition for everybody,” said Joe Harris, haired soaked with sweat after the morning workout. “I love going out to eat and trying different spots. It’s one of my favorite things about being in the city. You try and do it now, but outdoor dining when it’s 30 degrees and windy is not the most ideal scenario. You’re just limited. It’s a different feel to it. You have former teammates or guys you’re close with, you’re usually meeting up with them, seeing them. But there’s not a lot of that going on currently.”
It’s true; as someone who resides in the city, one of the biggest perks of New York living––the incredible food scene––is all but extinguished. This year has, in large part, felt like a rerun of the start of 2020––stuck indoors, without much social contact, and very little to do aside from work. It’s what must be done. We must beat this virus as a community, as a country.
So to be truthful, there are more important things to worry about than losing out on a little taste of outdoor dining. But shoot, every now and then, you’re allowed to have moments where you just admit it: man, this all really sucks. You’re allowed to have moments of weakness and miss the little things. For Joe Harris, the situation at hand has caused him to lose out on the run-ins with former teammates and interactions off the court that can get a player through the dog days of an NBA season.
It doesn’t help that Joe’s job itself has gotten increasingly more demanding and strenuous as the year has progressed. With absences due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries piling up comes more responsibility for the remaining players. These dudes are working their tails off, with no real avenues to blow off steam. That’s a tough ask for anyone, especially for a league of players that entered this season without much preparation as a group and very little training camp to ready their bodies.
“The amount of load is really important when you’re playing more than a game every other day. That affects us; mentally, physically, depth-wise, injury-risk, but also talent-wise. Guys are having to share more responsibility than they’re used to,” explained Steve Nash.
“No one’s going to cry for us,” Nash continued. “We’ve gotta continue to build, grow, work at it, and figure things out, and that is the challenge in this condensed schedule. In defense of the players, they’ve gotta be exhausted; in defense of the coaches, we need to practice. That is the dilemma we face. We’ve gotta find that balance, and it’s the same for everybody.”
And the reality is, we may only just be getting started. Already, the NBA has had to postpone four total games —two this week— due to COVID-19. There is no reason to assume that things can’t get worse in a league that, like the rest of us, is without vaccination.
“The league is doing the best they can,” Nash stated on Monday. “It is an awful world right now where we’re all facing this, whether you’re an NBA team, player, organization, front office, or somebody who doesn’t work in the industry. It’s an awful world. A scary world. We’re losing lives every single day in big numbers. I think the league is doing the best we can. We’re trying our best to get through the season, but I think we have to be ready for anything. I think we’re all concerned. But we’re also all really prepared for this to fight through this and consider as many options as possible to get through this season. But that doesn’t eliminate the risks, the challenges, and the possibilities that it’s untenable at some point.”
Some ideas were thrown around during Monday’s scrum, including the theory of bringing back the “bubble” concept to ease the load on the players. The G League will play in a “bubble.”
“The bubble in itself I think is a good idea,” explained Harris. “It was the safest place we could’ve been at the time. And you’re able to really dedicate everything to the game. There’s not a lot of distraction. There’s a huge emphasis on recovery; you’re not traveling a ton. And the basketball quality of the games was really good.
“But the other side of it is, it’s tough from a mental perspective. You’re isolated. You don’t get to be around your loved ones. You’re staying in an unfamiliar hotel for 40-plus days. You put anybody in that environment, it’s not ideal in terms of a working environment. Guys are going to make the most of it regardless and we’ll do what is asked of us. But it’s certainly not the most ideal scenario.”
There is no perfect solution at this point in time. Either place the players in extreme isolation to conclude the season and run the risk of mental attrition... or continue at the pace the league is currently at and suffer a more physical form of exhaustion.
In what already appears to be a difficult season, with all types of stressors happening on and off the floor, the rigors of the NBA calendar will make or break championship contenders––maybe more than ever.