(AP) — Adam Silver was on his phone constantly in late December. At that time, the NBA had more than 100 players sidelined by virus-related issues, along with some head coaches, assistant coaches, referees and team staffers.
The NHL had just paused its season. The NBA commissioner wondered if his league would follow suit.
“I was very concerned,” Silver said. “And we had numerous discussions with our governors about whether we were doing the right thing.”
With a lot of help from dozens of newly signed players, some of whom might already be forgotten, the NBA played on.
It could be argued the untold MVP’s of this season were the more than 100 players signed to short-term hardship contracts to fill in when almost every team was decimated by the Omicron variant and other virus issues in December and January.
Those fill-ins kept the season from veering off the rails. And they’re really why the NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors is being played exactly as planned when the schedule was being put together last summer.
“I think that everyone understood that if we did have to pause the season, it would have a huge potential economic impact on the league as well or force players and the league to have to move into the summer, which is not ideal,” Silver told The Associated Press. “So, without those players, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Around the league, 605 players — a record — got into at least one game during the regular season, up 12% from last season. There were 633 players who were known to be under contract at some point, up 15% from last season’s figure.
And when the variant was at its worst, the league was at its busiest: over a 10-day span of late December, 93 different 10-day contracts were signed.
“Strangest season I’ve been a part of so far,” 19-year NBA veteran LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers said during the season. “I don’t want to just talk about the injuries but COVID protocols. You have guys go out for false positives. You have had guys go out for real reasons. … We’ve had a little bit of everything.”
To put how many players were needed in some perspective, consider that over a five-season span — 1982-83 through 1986-87 — the Celtics used a total of 27 players.
This season, they used 28.
And that doesn’t count four Celtics who were signed and never got into a game. The Celtics’ total of 32 players who were under contract — some very briefly — at some point this season was the highest in the NBA, one more than Portland and two more than Indiana, Milwaukee, and New Orleans.
“Obviously to play basketball during unprecedented times the last two years has been tough for individuals, families, etc.,” Boston guard Jaylen Brown said. “But I think the NBA and the players association have done as good a job as possible to keep things going and to accommodate everything as best they possibly can. There’s been ups and downs. There’s been questions, things that haven’t made sense. But I still give credit where credit is due.”
The NBA had to postpone a total of 11 games that were originally slated from mid-to-late December, and the rescheduling of those forced eight other games to be shifted in order to keep teams from playing in overly adverse circumstances like having three games in three nights.
Otherwise, games were played like normal. Only it wasn’t normal.
“A global pandemic was not something you’d expect would be part of a season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But it was, and it is, and it got people to find some solutions and keep working.”
Former NBA All-Stars such as Joe Johnson — who made his only shot attempt in his one-game appearance with the Celtics — and Isaiah Thomas were called back to the league to help amid the depletions. The Warriors’ Quinndary Weatherspoon got to make his season debut on Christmas Day.
“Surreal,” he said.
Washington signed center Jaime Echenique and he played three unremarkable minutes; no points, no stats of any sort. But he made history, becoming the first Colombian to appear in an NBA game.
“If I’m dreaming, don’t wake me up,” Echenique said.
It’s the players like Echenique who kept the season going. The schedule that the league drafted nearly a year ago — long before Omicron, long before anyone knew what the season would bring and how the virus would go — had Monday listed as a travel day for the NBA Finals teams before Games 2 and 3.
The Celtics and Warriors are traveling Monday — as scheduled.
The NBA is about to make it through a season as planned, thanks to some former All-Stars and more than a few players who weren’t household names.
“I know Chris Paul, for example, made the point in one of our meetings of saying what an incredible debt of gratitude we owe to these players,” Silver told AP. “And he even was reminding his other NBA players, ‘Don’t forget to thank those players.’ We were relying on a terrific group of outside advisors made up of top doctors and scientists who were predicting that if we could tough it out for a few weeks, we’d be able to make it through.
“But without the service, largely of those G league players, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”