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Eric Walden: Is it time for the NBA to hit the pause button on this season?

With both positives cases for COVID-19 and postponed games on account of contact tracing on the rise, the league is at a critical juncture.

Madison Square Garden is empty of fans, before an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Another day, another NBA game postponed.

Thursday afternoon brought the latest bad news from the league office — the announcement that Saturday’s game between the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns had been postponed, because ongoing contact tracing in the Suns organization meant they wouldn’t have the minimum eight players required.

That makes nine games that were canceled this past week (including the Jazz’s scheduled Wednesday matchup with the Wizards), and brings the running league-wide total this season to 10.

Between all those postponements, plus Wednesday’s joint announcement by the league and the National Basketball Players Association that 16 new players have returned positive COVID-19 tests since Jan. 6, it seems apropos to ask a big-picture question:

Does the NBA need to hit the pause button on the season?

Which is not at all to be confused with “will they?” because, frankly, I think we all know the answer to that one.

Whether you consider it cynical, craven or honest, the reality is that shuttering the league now for a week or two simply would cost the NBA too much money.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is not an inherently disingenuous individual, so when he claimed just before the season’s start that any decision on whether to suspend play would come solely from a health-and-safety determination and not a financial one, he may have really meant it and believed it.

However, his subsequent admission that there was no hard-and-fast definition of how much would be too much, no concrete thresholds to automatically trigger a halt to play, well, that tells you something, doesn’t it?

Namely, that a decision to halt play for a second consecutive season was to be treated as a there-are-literally-no-other-options last resort.

A benefit-of-the-doubt perspective might concede that settling upon a specific number of cases or percentage of positive tests ahead of time is a random and subjective fool’s errand. A more skeptical view is that if you play fast and loose and intentionally vague with the cutoff point, you can effectively guarantee never reaching the dreaded worst-case scenario.

Again, though, this falls under the umbrella of “will they?” when what we want to ascertain is “should they?”.

And it’s here that you realize why the league was so deliberately fuzzy — who wants to be the one to make that decision?

There are, as Silver has pointed out, literally thousands of jobs dependent upon the league’s continued viability. And while it may be crass that the league is considering its bottom line, it is an intrinsic reality that an operational NBA enables the bills to get paid — and not just for its multimillionaire athletes and billionaire owners, either.

Still, such economic concerns must be balanced against some fundamental questions: Is the league risking people’s health by continuing to play games? Would shutting the league down for a brief period of time materially alter that? Would having players cease traveling for a bit really lessen their exposure? Or would keeping less tabs on them simply create more opportunity for rule-breaking and wind up producing the exact opposite of the intended effect?

There may not be any real way to know short of just doing it and seeing what happens.

In the meantime, the league will enact its stricter health and safety protocols and hope that has an impact. Some seem more likely to produce results than others. Not dapping up a guy you’ve been bumping into and exchanging sweat with? Dubious. No longer allowing “friends” to visit players in their hotel rooms on the road? Long overdue.

The league seems at a critical juncture, though perhaps not yet at a critical mass. Given that they’re decidedly not ready to pull the plug on games yet, let us hope these new guidelines can at least get momentum trending in the right direction.

If they don’t, then by the time games are finally called off, it may well be too late.

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