The NBA’s Christmas message to its teams was a refrain it has been using for weeks: Get boosted.
With the number of players on the league’s health and safety protocols list still hovering around 100 — and with Chicago coach Billy Donovan now dealing with those protocols as well, calling into question his availability for the next few Bulls games — the league and the National Basketball Players Association continue to hammer home the importance of booster shots.
Every NBA team, by Dec. 31, must arrange a booster-shot event for players, staff and family members, the latest mandate from the league in its quest to get its skyrocketing virus numbers under control. The NBA has told teams its data shows that boosters substantially reduce a person’s risk of being infected, and one out of every three players still aren’t boosted — even though 97% of the league is vaccinated.
That comes as the league's Jan. 5 booster mandate looms for all eligible scorer’s table personnel, team attendants, and other staff who have in-person interaction with players or referees. In almost all cases, if people in those positions don’t have boosters by Jan. 5, they won’t be allowed to continue in those jobs.
For now, though, Christmas remains on in the NBA. All five games — Atlanta at New York, Boston at Milwaukee, Golden State at Phoenix, Brooklyn at the Los Angles Lakers and Dallas at Utah — remain scheduled, and all five are set to be played in filled arenas in stark contrast to what was the case last season, when almost every seat in every building remained empty for the Christmas matchups.
"You don’t ever want to lose sight of our reality of the last two years," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We were playing these games last year at these times and there was nobody in there. It was eerie. And the season two years ago was truncated. The energy of the crowds, the enthusiasm, the passion of fans in the building, it’s what everybody wants whether you’re at home or on the road."
There was good news Friday: Milwaukee said Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, is no longer in the protocols. That doesn't guarantee that he plays Saturday in the traditional Christmas appearance for NBA champions, though it's a positive sign.
The NBA has seen 519 players appear in at least one game already this season, the most ever before Christmas. And the 490 players — and counting — who have gotten on the court in December is also a league record for any month. Those numbers have soared in large part because of all the players who have had to be brought in on hardship deals to replace those out because of virus-related reasons.
And the call-ups are having a trickle-down effect.
The G League said Friday it is delaying its regular season, pushing back the planned Monday start to Jan. 5 and delaying about 50 games.
"The delay will give teams an opportunity to safely return players to market after the Christmas holiday and to replenish their rosters following NBA call-ups," the G League said.
Lakers star LeBron James is set to play on Christmas for the 16th time, which would tie Kobe Bryant’s all-time record, and enters Saturday 13 points shy of Bryant’s mark for the holiday. James has scored 383 points on Christmas; Bryant scored 395.
That means this Christmas should be record-setting for James.
He also expects it to be lacking in many ways.
"Is it going to be one of the premier games that I’m accustomed to playing on Christmas? No," James said. "So many guys are out. This whole protocol thing has gotten the worst of a lot of teams in our league right now, so it won’t be as star-studded."
The Lakers are 16-17 so far this season, and James said the team has no chemistry simply because it hasn’t had an opportunity to build any. The numbers show why: The Lakers — who have had eight players miss time so far this season for virus-related reasons — have used 18 different starting lineups in those 33 games, compared with seven in the first 33 games of last season and 25 in the full 72-game campaign a year ago.
"You can literally have one guy one night and the next night you won’t," James said. "You really don’t know."
New protocols — the league and the union are trying to find a way to change the rules and potentially help some players get back on the floor more quickly than has been the case now after positive tests — may help alleviate some of those unknowns. But the new rules, which have been a top priority in recent days, apparently aren't quite finished yet.
Plus, testing is also likely to increase over the next few days, which means the soaring numbers may just continue soaring.
"There’s been some totally unpredictable things that have been happening this year," Spoelstra said.