The NBA on Sunday postponed a total of five games involving nine teams in response to rising coronavirus numbers, raising the number of contests that have been pushed back this season to seven.
Called off were three Sunday games: Cleveland at Atlanta, Denver at Brooklyn and New Orleans at Philadelphia. Also shelved were Orlando's game at Toronto on Monday and Washington's game at Brooklyn on Tuesday.
The postponements came on the same day that Atlanta announced star guard Trae Young entered the league's health and safety protocols and the Los Angeles Lakers said coach Frank Vogel also was added to the list.
Leaguewide, through Sunday evening, there were at least 75 players from 20 teams who have either been ruled out to play — or in the case of the postponed games, would have been ruled out — because they are in the protocols. That number has soared in recent days, with the NBA just one of many sports leagues worldwide dealing with a rapidly worsening issue.
“This isn’t going to go away today, tomorrow or the next day," Dallas coach Jason Kidd said Sunday. “This is going to be here for a while."
Anticipating that to indeed be the case, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed Sunday to a plan where, in response to the current wave of COVID-19 cases, teams will have roster flexibility and not have to worry about salary cap or luxury tax implications.
According to a memo sent to teams late Sunday night and obtained by The Associated Press, the NBA and union will allow teams to sign a replacement player for each player under contract who is confirmed positive for the virus.
U.S. officials are expecting a wave of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated given the surge of holiday travelers and gatherings expected in the coming days. The NBA has said 97% of players are fully vaccinated and somewhere around 60% had received boosters as of last week. It was not clear how many of the current positive cases involve those who are ineligible for a booster shot or those who have chosen not to receive one.
Kidd said that his team discussed concerns about COVID-related issues before his team played the Lakers — a team with multiple players in protocols — last week.
“We didn't have any COVID issues up to that point, until after they left," Kidd said. “Spoke too soon. And now we have COVID issues. We've got to just listen to the league and try to do the best that we can. It's not just us; you see games are being canceled."
Also not clear is how many of the NBA cases involve asymptomatic players. The NFL has revised its protocols so that only unvaccinated players and those experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested. The NHL has six teams shut down through Christmas because of outbreaks, and numerous college games at all levels have been canceled in recent days.
“It is what it is. Just trying to stay safe as possible and that’s all you can do,” Lakers guard Russell Westbrook said of the NBA’s rising numbers. Westbrook was briefly in the protocols late last week, before returning at least three negative coronavirus tests and being cleared to return to play without missing a game.
The Cavaliers had five players enter the protocols on Sunday, the team said. All five — center Jarrett Allen, forwards Lamar Stevens and Dylan Windler and guards Denzel Valentine and RJ Nembhard — tested positive for COVID-19, according to a person who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the team did not release that specific detail.
They joined Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley, who entered the protocols previously.
Vogel wasn't on the bench when his Lakers lost Sunday at Chicago. David Fizdale coached in Vogel's place. The Bulls returned to the court after having two games postponed last week.
Chicago still doesn’t have all of its players back yet, either. Among those listed as out Sunday and still in protocols is Olympic gold medalist Zach LaVine.
“We’ve got to be able to manage and control frustration, anger, disappointment,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s not going to serve anything well. It’s just not. The league is making decisions. We’ve got to follow protocol and keep each other safe.”
A number of assistant coaches and referees are also in the protocols, along with the 75 players. Among the players added Sunday was Golden State's Andrew Wiggins, who was reluctantly vaccinated before the season to play home games in San Francisco.
In Phoenix on Sunday, officials Zach Zarba and Eric Dalen were both scheduled to work the Suns game against Charlotte but were later put into the protocols. Bill Kennedy was brought in to work the game as part of a two-man crew with Brent Barnaky.
Brooklyn has a league-high 10 players, plus some staff, in the protocols.
“It’s just crazy,” Nets forward Blake Griffin said.
Brooklyn's list of players in protocols includes Kevin Durant, James Harden and — even though he’s still not yet able to play — Kyrie Irving, who has sat out all season for not complying with New York City's vaccine mandate. The team reversed course Friday and said Irving would be welcomed back “for games and practices in which he is eligible to participate,” knowing he’d still miss two games at the Knicks and trips to Toronto and Golden State.
The Nets had eight available players for Saturday night's game against Orlando. The Magic had nine, including four players — Aleem Ford, Hassani Gravett, B.J. Johnson and Admiral Schofield — who were signed late last week to hardship contracts because of virus issues and injuries decimating Orlando's roster.
Magic coach Jamahl Mosley had all four on the court together in two separate stretches of Orlando's win.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.