The NBA’s “Omicron Asterisk” in 2022

The last three seasons of NBA basketball have been challenging to sort out if you’re the kind of person who isn’t a fan of making apples and oranges occupy the same history book. The 2019-20 season had a five-month hiatus, an eight-game abbreviated finish, and playoffs conducted entirely within a “bubble” where home court advantage instantly evaporated in a puff of COVID-scented smoke as all the games were in the same place and played to empty houses.

Indeed, fans of the Phoenix Suns, who won all eight of their bubble games, stood at 34-39, and in any other season would’ve been primed to sneak into the playoffs, had their season cut short, quite possibly a driving force behind the team playing with a massive chip on their shoulder in the 2021 season and Finals run.

Meanwhile, the 2020 playoffs were so completely bonkers that a second-round series between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors went seven games and featured zero wins by the home team, an absolutely unheard-of sacrilege to the very idea of playoff seeding or rewarding regular-season success with that crucial playoff Game 7 on the better seed’s home floor.

And because Newton’s Third Law shows up everywhere, the Thunder-Rockets series in the first round featured the home team winning all seven games, perhaps demonstrating that all other things being completely equal, it’s not easy to beat a team of comparable quality more than twice in a row. The coin-flip odds of winning even three straight are, after all, just 12.5 percent, or 7-to-1 against. And since the Rockets and Thunder were fourth and fifth in the West in 2020, a coin flip sounds about right.

Finally, one wonders if the Lakers, who won the title, would have been able to do so had they not had five months to rest up a 35-year-old LeBron James for a playoff run. The following year (and so far in 2022), that team has been riddled with injuries you’d expect from a team whose biggest star is a guy who’s played over 50,000 minutes in the regular season alone since he came into the league in 2003. Los Angeles is 18-19 this year.

2020 should definitely come with an asterisk. Never before or since have the playoffs been so radically dissimilar to anything you’d expect the very idea of playoffs to be in basketball or any other sport.

The 2021 season is a different animal. Teams (except the Raptors, who because of Canada’s closed US border had to play in Tampa) played on their home floors, but they were still playing to empty houses for most of the season, only able to play in front of fans once states and municipalities relaxed their requirements for large gatherings. The rollout of the vaccines accelerated this process, and by playoff time, it almost felt like the pandemic was over.

Well…now it’s 2022, and the words “health and safety protocol” have completely blown apart any notion that teams are playing on a level playing field—playing court? I don’t have an editor, let’s go with “level court” and perhaps coin a phrase.

Indeed, when I sat down to write today, my planned topic was “are the Memphis Grizzlies for real?”, as Memphis is 23-14, fourth in the West, and ninth in the league in Net Rating, suggesting that this isn’t a 2016 or ’17 situation where they overachieved for 70 games and then fell flat on their face in April.

But look at who’s behind them. The Dallas Mavericks have been absolutely decimated by the Omicron variant, and their roster is top-heavy with Luka Doncic, who is sidelined with the dreaded “health and safety protocols”.

Every team has a mishmash of emergency players, and the 2021-22 season is practically guaranteed to set a new record for the most players to play at least one game on an NBA roster in a single season. Not even in 2021 did so many teams have to rely on “first fan with a negative test and a current vaccine card gets to start at small forward tonight” as a way of filling rosters.

The cause, of course, is that pesky Omicron variant that seems to be impervious to anything short of three vaccine doses (of Pfizer or Moderna, at least in the US), making a booster shot an absolute necessity to avoid a breakthrough infection.

And even though the early studies suggest Omicron is less dangerous, especially for those with at least two vaccine doses (according to King County, Washington, where I live, the death rate, rounded to one decimal place, for people under 50 with two or more doses is zero), it’s still keeping a huge number of players out of games and causing the league to postpone games.

Teams that have been hit hard by Omicron are losing games they’d otherwise win, while teams able to largely avoid exposure, or whose exposure has come during a part of the schedule they’d not fare well in under any circumstances, have possibly seen their records inflated.

This is going to have real consequences come playoff time, especially since the league is going to do that stupid play-in tournament (LeBron famously said in 2021 that “whoever came up with that should be fired”, and I agree with him) and a team that might have cruised into the playoffs now has to play single-elimination games just to get let in.

The upshot of all this is that the Omicron variant can fairly be said to have completely broken the NBA this year. The best team may win in the end—the top four seeds in each conference are, for the most part, the contenders you’d expect if you allow for the fact that Chicago and Memphis finally got their young cores to jell and turn into legit winning teams with the 7th and 9th-best Net Ratings, respectively, in basketball.

But one can’t help but feel a bit ripped off at the fact that whether a team is healthy or utterly wrecked by “health and safety protocols” is as random as a slot machine. Fans in Dallas or Boston or Atlanta especially (as we talked about last week) can cry foul, and while the Celtics probably weren’t going anywhere, the Mavericks and Hawks sure were, until their best players ended up medically unable to play despite being otherwise healthy.

Not since the Jordan Interregnum has the NBA felt this “off” in terms of the action on the court not truly representing the best basketball it could possibly be…but at least in 1994 and ’95 the players who weren’t playing baseball were competing on a level court.

The COVID years—and who knows if some other variant won’t keep this pandemic going until the heat death of the universe—don’t even feel real when the games themselves are on. We’re going to need an asterisk, or a Greek letter omicron, to mark 2022 for what it is as a completely messed-up version of the sport.

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