With more than 100 players in COVID health and safety protocols and the omicron variant spreading like wild fire, the NBA and the players union reached an agreement to having new rules aimed at helping teams field fuller rosters and helping the league avoid postponements. Teams are permitted to sign one replacement player for each player who tests positive for COVID-19, and are required to sign at least one replacement player if two test positive, at least two replacement players if three test positive and at least three if four or more test positive. The new rules, which will be in effect until Jan. 19, stipulate that replacement players’ salaries will not count toward the salary cap or luxury tax. When a team has multiple COVID cases on its roster and must sign a replacement, the player must be available by the beginning of its next game.
An Omicron sledgehammer led to ghost teams, desperate call-ups, confusion, frustration and more than 100 players entering the league's health and safety protocols in the past three weeks alone. New feature with @wojespn goes inside the NBA's COVID crisis: https://t.co/rL9ePjb6r1 — Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) December 23, 2021
SAVING THE DAY, A LA ISO-JOE Among the highest-profile players to return is seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, 40, who came out of retirement to play for the Boston Celtics, and befitting his nickname of “iso Joe,” scored his first basket back on an isolation jumper in a victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers last Wednesday.
40-year-old Joe Johnson gets a standing ovation & then knocks down his first NBA bucket since 2018. "It is kind of surreal…At my age you try to relish every moment, enjoy the process & live in the moment. That’s kind of what I’m doing right now.”pic.twitter.com/eT0BrCDMDh — Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 23, 2021
OTHER PLAYERS SIGNED TO 10-DAY CONTRACTS The Celtics also signed C.J. Miles, 34, a swingman who had been out of the league since the 2019-20 season after a 16-year career. Two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas, 32, who had last played in the league on a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans last season, was signed by the Lakers last week and dropped in 19 points in 22 minutes in his first game. Lance Stephenson, out of the NBA since 2019, not only returned but played 23 minutes for a depleted Hawks team. Stephenson also got an ovation upon his return.
Grateful feels great to be back out there. Hardwork and dedication never give up 💪🏿 pic.twitter.com/ehtmSTZbLs — Lance Stephenson (@StephensonLance) December 24, 2021
HOW TEAMS ADJUST AMID A RELENTLESS PANDEMIC For an NBA game to be played, the teams locking horns are required to have, at least, eight players available for selection. The league has postponed nine games this season, and several teams have played severely shorthanded. Before the rule changes took effect, there had already been a wave of signings using the hardship exception, which allows a team to temporarily bypass the roster limit. In one particularly fascinating case, the Chicago Bulls signed Stanley Johnson to a 10-day contract on December 9, only for him to test positive two days later, to which coach Billy Donovan said, “We need a hardship for a hardship right now.” The Bulls only played one game before Johnson’s 10-day expired, the result of two postponements, and he was inactive for it, isolating in accordance with health and safety protocols.
TURNING THE BEND Most NBA teams have gotten through the worst of their COVID issues, but the Clippers just lost Paul George (sore elbow) to an injury for several weeks, the Warriors have been missing Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, and Damion Lee (COVID); and the Nuggets are already without two of their three best players as Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. recover from injuries. On the flipside, the Warriors are edging closer to having Klay Thompson and James Wiseman on the court for the first time this season, and Kyrie Irving should emerge from quarantine after the Nets’ current road trip, which ended Monday night. He will be eligible to play on January 5 when Brooklyn travels to Indiana.
Nets statement on the return of Kyrie Irving: pic.twitter.com/nRfF6OJCJx — Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 18, 2021
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE It is a few days before 2022, and as cold as winter gets, spring will eventually arrive and things will warm up. Let’s just hope that what we have seen in December is not meant to prep us for more of the same in January February, and March. Hopefully, health and normalcy will return to the league, and guys like Johnson, Thomas and Stephenson may be out again and knocking on teams’ doors, trying to get a chance. But at the moment, they have been a ray of sunshine, hope and a nice trip down memory lane in an otherwise lull sports world. If for any reason that does turn out to be the case, then the unlikely G League influx and showcase might simply continue to keep the 2021/22 season of the NBA afloat.