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NBA mailbag: COVID protocols, Kyrie Irving's return and more

How will Kyrie Irving's return affect Brooklyn? Is the NBA headed for another bubble? Mark Medina answers your NBA questions.

How will the rise in players affected by Health and Safety Protocols affect the 2021-22 season?

Ideally, the NBA mailbag will feature timely topics about interesting teams, players and trends. But just as it has for the past two years, the COVID pandemic has foiled ideal circumstances.

Given the rising positive COVID-19 cases among NBA teams in recent weeks, we received a fair number of questions about how the league will handle this moving forward. The NBA has postponed seven games in the last week. Are there more to come?

Plenty of fans are wondering how the NBA will address this concerning issue. Below are a few inquiries.

Move back to the bubble!!


The NBA isn’t moving back to the bubble. Nor is the NBA pausing the season. But this has become a very tenuous situation, in all sports leagues.

The NBA started the 2021-22 season hopeful on a few things: It could field a full 82-game season, it could do so in front of fans, and it could do so with vaccinated players, coaches and staff members not being subjected to the same protocols that made last season so challenging. The virus has a way of disrupting everything. Mix in the Omicron variant, busy holiday travel and reduced efficacy rates for those vaccinated early last year, and all of a sudden the NBA is experiencing flashbacks to the past two seasons.

So why isn’t the NBA considering hitting the pause button? There’s no question the league wants to avoid the logistical and financial ramifications that come with that. No doubt the NBA would like to keep the Christmas Day games on tap because of the ratings draw. But the NBA is convinced that it just needs to tighten up its protocols. With 60% of eligible players already receiving the booster shot, NBA teams plan to continue to talk to their players so that number increases. Starting on Dec. 26, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to restore game-day testing for both players and staff with exception to those that received the booster shot at least two weeks ago. They also will have to wear their mask on the bench, at team facilities and while traveling.

Some have advocated for the NBA to simply stop testing vaccinated or asymptomatic players. But that would compromise the league’s hope of mitigating the risk with affected players spreading the virus even faster. Hence, the enhanced protocols.

As of now, the NBA hardly faces the same sort of challenges it did last year. About 97% of NBA players are vaccinated less than a year since the vaccine became widely available. The NBA also postponed 31 games last season, a stark difference from the handful of games the league postponed last week. Nonetheless, the NBA does not have as much rescheduling flexibility as it did last season. Then, the league released only the first half of its schedule, mindful that it would have to reschedule postponed games because of COVID-19 outbreaks. This season, the NBA already has outlined its full 82-game schedule among 30 teams.

The NBA will soon find out whether the tweaked protocols will make a significant difference, or simply become a patch-work solution.

I applaud and appreciate how the organization is protecting the players by placing protocols/safety rules around them. However, as a fan we don’t get that privilege. The pandemic virus is still in a danger zone and wearing mask 😷 is not mandatory at the games of any sports. We’re sitting amongst thousands of people not knowing who’s affected or unvaccinated. Before saying it, I have a right to attend or not, but the point is if you’re continuing having fans at these games or events, the NBA should be more considerate of others safety and held responsible. Don’t place making money over potential deaths a higher priority.

I know at least 20 people who contacted Covid-19 while at a game. If the masks 😷 was mandatory it would at least cut down the increasing amount of people contacting this virus. I don’t want to see another shut down but we are definitely heading to that result. Please tell me what the league is going to do about that. So far, it’s not a concern enough to place stricter rules.  

–Calvin Murphy, Atlanta, Georgia

I totally understand your frustration. I have been at numerous NBA games this season, and often see fans not wearing their masks while in their seats or strolling along the concourse. To be clear, NBA venues have to follow city guidelines. Most NBA venues require fans either to show evidence of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours. Staples Center (home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers) has since modified its protocols to require either a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours or a rapid test, which is free and available onsite. The Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors all have to adhere to local ordinances that require all fans to show proof of vaccination. And all venues are supposed to enforce mask-wearing and social-distancing rules.

Therefore, the NBA does have these protocols in place. It’s now a matter of which venues enforce these rules, and how consistently they do so. The venues have given their employees authority to enforce the rules, and even kick fans out of games that refuse to comply. Yet, they don’t have the same level of bandwidth and authority to do so as any law enforcement official would. The city ordinances and the NBA’s venues also determine the fan capacity, as opposed to the league itself. So far, the Raptors’ venue is the only one with plans to play at reduced capacity (50%) to adhere to the city’s mandate.

Overall, I share your concern that arena venues don’t enforce the mask-wearing rules consistently enough. In fairness to them, they are put in an unwinnable situation with fulfilling a job description that should fall on law enforcement. Objectively, I think all other NBA venues should consider operating at reduced capacity at least to mitigate the concerns you’re addressing.

Masked and unmasked fans have been present at NBA games all season long.

The Nets allowing UNVCCINATED Kyrie Irving to come back is a big mistake.


I agree 100%. The Nets changed course and enabled Irving’s inexcusable behavior for not being available to the team and refusing to get vaccinated. Nets general manager Sean Marks defended the decision, saying in a statement that it has “the full support of our players and after careful consideration of our current circumstances.” The Nets have been dealt a tough hand amid a rash of injuries and a large number of players getting placed in Health and Safety Protocols. No doubt, the Nets would face more physical demands on their limited roster. But they aren’t exactly protecting their players if they are allowing an unvaccinated Irving to be around the rest of the team.

Irving has to complete five consecutive negative tests before he can rejoin the team. But if fully vaccinated players are becoming susceptible to the virus, just imagine how much more vulnerable they will be with an unvaccinated player in the picture.

There’s no doubt that Irving makes the Nets a better basketball team from a talent standpoint. But even that value diminishes given he’s still going to be a part-time player. He won’t be able to play in any home games in Brooklyn or in any road games in New York, Toronto and San Francisco because all of those cities require people to be fully vaccinated at an indoor event. The Nets knew at the beginning of the season that setup would only lead to more disruptions with Irving going in and out of the lineup. So it’s interesting that they think that arrangement is OK now.

Nets guard Kyrie Irving will rejoin the squad for eligible practices and games.

Hi Mark, huge Warriors fan. The Warriors have started off really good but after the last two seasons it feels temporary. Do you see the Warriors at the top of the standings at the end of the season? And will Klay Thompson be able to return to the level he once was?

–Liron from Israel

I think the Warriors have proven they are back among the NBA’s elite. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are playing at their peak levels. Andrew Wiggins has become a consistent third option. Jordan Poole has put himself in the running for the Kia Most Improved Player Award. And they are a top-ranked defensive team. The scary thing: Klay Thompson and James Wiseman have not even played a game yet.

Anthony Slater discusses Klay Thompson and his looming return to the court.

I think it will be a process for Klay to play at the level he once was. Before his respective knee and Achilles injuries, Thompson cemented five All-Star appearances because of his consistently strong shooting and his stellar defense. Based off what the Warriors and outside doctors have told me, I suspect Thompson’s return will play out in the following order:

1. Thompson returns and shows he remains one of the league’s best shooters. He can make long-distance heaves on mostly catch-and-shoots, reducing the need to create or even dribble the ball. Thompson will be able to receive those opportunities because he has an amazing teammate named Stephen Curry.

2. Thompson takes about a month to knock off his rust, improve his conditioning and re-gain his sense of timing.

3. While Thompson deals with the hiccups outlined in point No. 2, he will remain a work in progress defensively. He won’t be a complete defensive liability; he will have the smarts to help on team defense. But he won’t be in a position to shut down a top scorer as he once could. So the Warriors will put more of that responsibility on Green, Wiggins and Andre Iguodala. Thompson will then return to form defensively by the time the playoffs start.

Hey Mark, I’m a huge Heat fan and have a question for you about their success. They are a pretty inconsistent team with their recent injuries and I’m curious: What record do you think they will finish the season with? Thanks!

–Aaban A., Canton, Mich.

I think the Heat will remain in the middle of the pack of the Eastern Conference as a team that everyone has to take seriously and no one wants to face. But amid Bam Adebayo’s long-term injury, it’s hard for me to see the Heat seriously threatening the other Eastern Conference contenders in Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Chicago. With exception of winning six of their first seven games this season, Miami has yet to produce a significant winning streak. They will still remain competitive because they have a handful of All-Star veterans (Kyle Lowry), good young talent (Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson) and #HeatCulture. But the Heat have no way to replace Adebayo’s production as one of the league’s best two-way players.

The Cavs are doing incredibly well. What are the main reasons in your opinion? Is there a scenario in which you could see the Cavs battle to make the Eastern Conference finals? Evan Mobley is easily my Rookie of the Year pick. But what player do you see him become a few years down the line?

Frank Forster, Cleveland

I’ll tackle these questions one by one. They have a great blend of promising young players (Mobley, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland), helpful veterans (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Jarrett Allen) and superior coaching (J.B. Bickerstaff). The Cavs entered the season with all the right ingredients, but I anticipated there would be more of a learning curve with their young players adapting to the NBA and their veterans striking the balance between helping them win games without stunting the younger teammates’ development. But all parties involved have had a great buy-in to accelerate this process.

That being said, I can’t see them eliminating the Brooklyn Nets (assuming Irving will be available), the Milwaukee Bucks or the Chicago Bulls. But it’s certainly respectable for them to appear in the second round, let alone the playoffs at all. Cleveland was projected to land once again in the NBA lottery. But give it a few more years before they’re back in contention just like they were with LeBron James.

As for Mobley, there are a lot of legit comparisons to Anthony Davis because of the similar size and skillsets. I could actually see him eclipsing Davis’ career because I presume Mobley will have a better time staying healthy.

Has there been any recent discussions about the strategy/implementation of a future in-season tournament?


The NBA has ongoing discussions on nearly everything. Before the season started, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters that “we’ve moved from a mid-season concept” or “in-season tournament.” The reason? “I’m not sure precisely where it would fall,” Silver said.

To his point, it’s already a crowded NBA calendar with 82 games, an All-Star Game, the Play-In Tournament, and a two-month postseason.  No surprise then that Silver conceded “we have a fair amount of work still to do on it and a lot of convincing to do” with having 30 franchises and the players union sign off on the idea.

I would like to know how realistic are the thoughts of the 4-point-line and is it maybe possible the league denies it, because of the arguably even bigger achievements off the court from Kareem, to be some kind of protecting his top spot?

–Boris Tokic, Austria

The NBA’s resistance to adding a 4-point line has nothing to do with protecting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, or any other record for that matter. It has everything to do with how that would impact the quality of the game. In an ESPN interview three years ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver likened the 4-point line to something you’d see on MTV’s “Rock N Jock,” and described player feedback to the idea as “incredibly negative.” For now, just enjoy the NBA’s top shooters firing away from 3. You will see plenty of those in every game.

Hoops Around the World

We all know the NBA has become a global brand and that basketball has become a global game. But what fuels your basketball fandom?

Below is the first of many entries:

I grew up playing and watching basketball during the 90s. I have always been a huge fan of the NBA. To be honest, it was Michael Jordan and the Bulls. We started playing basketball at school in the early 90s, and Michael Jordan was everyone’s hero. We all wanted to buy his shoes and collected NBA basketball cards. He was huge here in NZ. I never stopped being a fan of the NBA after that and it’s still like that today. My two sons, Josh (5) and Reuben (3), share my enthusiasm for the sport and we play it a lot and watch a lot of NBA League Pass.  

I had a sloping back yard that you couldn’t do much with, so I got someone to come in with a small digger and dig out the dirt ready for concrete. A friend of mine helped me build the retaining wall and box it out. The concrete pad was poured. Then, I contacted Mike from Viano Coatings to come in. He specializes in painting courts. The boys love it, and it’s been awesome to have during lockdowns, that’s for sure! 


— David, Auckland, New Zealand

We’re also interested to hear about how you become a basketball fan. Got a good basketball story to tell? Write it up and send it my way. The best essays will be used in this feature throughout the season.

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NBA Digital Sr. Analyst Mark Medina will be answering questions each week in his NBA Mailbag.

How can you participate? Simply email your question to Mark here, or use your Twitter account and get your question to him here.