I must admit that it’s been extremely difficult to keep track of what exactly is going on in the NBA right now. Games are still being played every night, but the time between tip-offs has been filled by an unceasing flow of news about players entering COVID protocols, games being postponed, and G-League call-ups. At times it feels like half the association is currently made up of guys nobody has heard of before, but the grim state of affairs really crystallized for me this morning, when the Boston Celtics announced that they had signed Joe Johnson to a 10-day contract.
Joe Johnson! The guy who is 40 years old, hasn’t seen an NBA court since the 2017–18 season, and was most recently plying his trade as a star in the Big3. G-Leaguers being flown in and out of town is one thing, but the NBA is in a pretty tough spot if it is now partly relying on Joe Johnson to keep the show going. Can Cuttino Mobley and Jamal Crawford be far behind?
This is the deal the NBA made with itself when it decided to deal with a startling surge in COVID-19 cases not by pausing the schedule, but by soldiering on and getting games played by any means necessary. The league’s reasoning for doing this is obvious if not necessarily wise: It needs as many of the scheduled Christmas Day games as possible to make it onto the air, so that all the valuable advertising revenue that comes along with them can be banked. A league memo obtained by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicated that the league’s top priority is filling ABC’s scheduled TV slots on Christmas Day, and that games may be rescheduled as late as Christmas Eve in order to fill the necessary air time.
Some number of games will be played on Saturday, but what remains to be seen is what quality of basketball will be on offer to fans. The Nets, who are scheduled play the Lakers in one of the ABC slots, just had their third consecutive game postponed by the league and currently have 10 players in the health and safety protocols, including Kevin Durant and James Harden. How many of those players may be able to return enough negative tests to get back on the floor in time for Christmas remains to be seen. The Hawks, who are also scheduled for a Christmas Day game, currently have five players in the protocols, in addition to two injuries. Boston’s playing on Christmas, too, and we’ve already addressed the Joe Johnson situation.
If nothing else, this year’s slate of Christmas games should at least provide us fans with a reminder of why these particular games exist in the first place. They are a fun tradition, sure, and a great showcase for the league. But what they really represent, more than anything else, is a highly valuable piece of inventory. If you’re someone who has developed any warm feelings for the Christmas games over the last few years, the good news is that you’ll still have something to watch this year. The bad news is that you’ll start to realize your personal enjoyment of them was always a secondary concern, and the league cares less about the action than the commercials in between.