Social interaction and protocol fatigue could threaten the NBA season

Did James Harden break the NBA's COVID-19 protocol? (2:03)

Adrian Wojnarowski explains how the NBA reviewed footage of James Harden at a club and deemed he violated the league's COVID-19 protocol and a possible fine or suspension may be on the way. (2:03)

AS THE NBA season gets under way and questions swirl of what it will take to complete it, a league official pointed to a key variable in the season completed 74 days ago in the Orlando, Florida, bubble.

In the 3½ months at the Walt Disney World Resort, security officials guarded entrances and law enforcement monitored the perimeter, helping to maintain a contained space to protect 22 teams.

But those efforts meant everyone sequestered inside was limited from the social interaction aspects of normalcy.

"It was probably a complaint for every staff member there, not just players." said the league official who, while on campus in Orlando, heard that lack of social interaction -- specifically the lack of sex -- was one of the top issues from bubble residents. "Certainly, it was something I heard from players, I heard from staff, I heard from team staff."

For the intense daily compliance demanded of everyone in the bubble, the tight measures implemented there helped mitigate an uncertainty that most concerned team, league and health officials had going in: social interaction. That's not to say protocols weren't broken, but there were few violations. In the end, the bubble's restrictions eased initial worries, and the NBA ultimately crowned a champion, finishing a season without any positive player tests.

"It was the safest place probably in America," noted an NBA head athletic trainer of a team in the bubble. "We're going to be in a regular environment now, so, yeah, there's concern ..."

Team and league officials said the 2020-21 season will demand a much higher level of compliance, as it involves all 30 teams and more games over a longer stretch of time. But without a bubble, restrictions won't be the same. So unaccounted social interaction is again being cited by these same officials as this season's make-or-break factor.

On Wednesday, for example, reports emerged that Houston Rockets superstar James Harden was allegedly partying maskless at a Houston club. The NBA and Rockets are reviewing the matter, but such an allegation would be in violation of the league's health and safety protocols and could lead to disciplinary action, including a suspension.

In interviews with those tasked with helping the league enforce the detailed protocols, the season is described in almost fragile terms. The severity of these concerns are underscored by the overall length of the pandemic and the fact that many people have eased into old habits, such as hosting large holiday gatherings against the recommendation of government and health officials. These concerns are heightened by watching other leagues hold seasons and seeing teams suffer outbreaks, with games being postponed or cancelled.

NBA senior vice president David Weiss, who has worked alongside NBPA officials and medical experts throughout the pandemic, summed it up succinctly:

"This is only as strong as the weakest link."

THE NBA LEARNED plenty from the bubble that it hopes will carry into the season. Daily testing helped reinforce that other protocols were working (reminders to wear masks, sanitize and maintain social distancing). The frequent testing also helped identify positive cases among some not in the league -- bus drivers and others living off the Orlando campus -- before there could be any infection spread inside the bubble, league sources told ESPN.

But there are now plans for players and members of each team's 45-person traveling party to be tested twice daily, league sources told ESPN's Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski on Dec. 8. One test would be a standard nasal swab PCR test that returns results within 24 hours; and the other would be a rapid-return PCR test that can provide results in 30 minutes.

The hope, team officials said, is that players and staff completing a rapid-return test before entering the team facility each day will be a key step toward avoiding any outbreaks, especially since team members will be able to socially interact with others far more than in the bubble.

"The social interactions will be the things that will bring the virus into our facilities," said a veteran head athletic trainer.

But for as much as these concerns exist in an individual's home market, traveling during a pandemic presents even greater issues.

City and state restrictions are evolving, and in a recent league memo, the NBA outlined restrictions that are most notable in major markets. In San Francisco, the memo notes, "team traveling parties may not travel anywhere other than their hotel and the Chase Center." In New York, "team and league personnel must quarantine while in single rooms at their hotels, except for activities related to team meetings, practice and games." And in Los Angeles, presently a coronavirus hotspot, the restrictions are myriad:

"Personnel can only travel from arrival point to and from their hotel, arena, and any applicable practice facility."

"Food-service at hotels must be limited to in-room only, and at-arena meals must comply with existing county orders."

"Personnel should only stay within a hotel, arena, or practice facility during their time in Los Angeles and should not leave those locations for any reason except during an emergency."

Despite all the restrictions, traveling remains a wild card.

"[Say] someone [on a team] decides, 'Hey, we're playing in a city where I have family, and I'm going to see my family because I haven't seen them in months' -- and then that turns into something detrimental," the veteran head athletic trainer said.

The NBA warned teams in its health and safety protocols that any violations that lead to the coronavirus spread impacting opposing teams and causing schedule derailments could result in "fines, suspensions, adjustment or loss of draft choices and game forfeitures."

The league also warned that players who violate protocols could be subjected to an in-season quarantine period and reduced paychecks.

It's unclear how steep fines or discipline may go, especially for repeat offenders, though league officials say there is no set structure and that each protocol violation would be handled individually with respect to punishment. In the Orlando bubble, Rockets forward Danuel House Jr. was sent home for violating health and safety protocols after an investigation revealed an unauthorized guest in his hotel room.

That said, the league warned of "enhanced discipline" for those who repeatedly violate protocols, and some team officials say they expect the penalties will increase in severity if only to help deter future violations.

"You start losing game checks," said the league official who was in the Orlando bubble, "people tend to listen."

ALL THE NBA has to do is look at its professional counterparts to see how difficult it is for a league to hold a season outside a bubble.

The NFL has postponed games -- some multiple times. College football has had continual stops and starts, with some high-profile games canceled altogether.

"The league made it easy for us in Orlando, in my opinion," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters on Dec. 1. "Here, a lot more of the onus is on individuals and teams."

Watching other sports stumble has instilled in those around the NBA how difficult the task ahead will be, that it's doable but intensely difficult and will require flexibility. There is no specific threshold for how many positive cases it would take to cancel or postpone an NBA game, sources said, but the NBA postponed the game between the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday after the Rockets were left with seven active players, one short of the requisite needed.

"We are prepared for isolated cases," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on a conference call with reporters on Dec. 21. "In fact, based on what we've seen in the preseason, based on watching other leagues operating outside the bubble, unfortunately it seems somewhat inevitable. But we're prepared for all contingencies.

Silver added later, "The decision tree that we will look at in terms of suspending the season will be solely a health and safety one. If at any point we no longer believe that it is responsible to play, we will halt the season."

Positive cases would result in players missing at least 12 days of action, sidelining them for several games.

"This isn't football where you can play once a week," Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell said last month. "We're playing twice, three, maybe four times a week and those are four games that at the end of the day, come playoff time, you miss those four games, you never know what may happen"

If there is one issue that several health officials around the league highlight, it's the concept of protocol fatigue. Simply, there is concern about whether everyone involved can follow all the rules every day for a five-month regular season.

Said the veteran head athletic trainer, "We'll get the guidance. I think we adhere to it. But can we maintain it? That's the big ask in the whole thing. The willingness to comply with the protocols is going to be paramount."

There is hope about recently approved coronavirus vaccines, but it's unclear when they would reach the league en masse. "It goes without saying that in no form or way will we jump the line," Silver said on the conference call. "We will wait our turn to get the vaccine. When you think about the logistical feat that now the federal and state governments are undertaking, where if every citizen ultimately requires two doses and with a population of over 300 million, it's beyond comprehension when you start to begin to think about the logistical challenges of transporting and distributing this vaccine."

For all its efforts to prepare, the ability of the league to complete its season will hinge not on the protocols but on the abilities of those in the league to follow them, health officials say.

"You definitely have to be smart," Milwaukee Bucks forward Kris Middelton told reporters on Dec. 11. "We have to be cautious. We have to be safe. Because it is a real problem. It is a real pandemic going on right now. Even though it doesn't seem like it when we're on the court, once you step off this court you have to do the right things, not just for ourselves, but for the people around us."

Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid boiled down the season's viability to one question.

"I know I'm going to do the right thing, just like I said before the bubble," Embiid told reporters on Dec. 13, "so the question is, 'Is everybody else going to do the right thing?'"