Nets’ Irving clears NBA protocols, Hawks add to COVID list

Sports
Mark Daigneault

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault watches from the sideline in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Kyrie Irving is out of the protocols. More than 100 other NBA players are still waiting to take that step.

The Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets announced Tuesday that Irving, along with Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols — a major step toward getting them back on the court.

Some other teams are bracing themselves for more games with in some cases deeply depleted rosters. Atlanta added three more players to the protocols, putting its total at an astonishing 13 — a figure that doesn’t even include assistant coaches who are also sidelined.

“It’s just a sick feeling,” said Hawks coach Nate McMillan, whose team is about to start a six-game road trip. “The timing is definitely bad to be losing guys. … Every day, you’re just wondering what’s going to happen next.”

Leaguewide, entering Tuesday evening, the number of players known to be in the protocols was at 122, with some presumably on the cusp of returning and others just starting their stints in isolation. Also out for now: five head coaches, the latest addition being Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault, who entered the protocols on Tuesday.

Daigneault joins the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel, Chicago’s Billy Donovan, Portland’s Chauncey Billups and Phoenix’s Monty Williams as head coaches who are out for now. Many teams are also missing assistant coaches, athletic trainers, media relations personnel, video and equipment staffers and others.

“I don’t know what tomorrow means,” said Lakers assistant coach David Fizdale, who has been filling in for Vogel. “I really don’t. I don’t make assumptions about tomorrow in today’s NBA.”

Daigneault was ruled out from coaching the Thunder game Tuesday against Sacramento. Mike Wilks will be the acting coach for that game, the team said.

Irving has not played this season, largely because of his decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and the Nets initially not being willing to have the perennial All-Star with them on a part-time basis. Irving has not been eligible to play home games because of a local rule in New York requiring vaccinations, and he and the Nets decided earlier this month that having him back — even if only for road games — will allow the team “to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”

Durant hasn’t played since Dec. 16, but he has missed only three games so far because the Nets had three others postponed due to their virus issues. Aldridge has not played since Dec. 12, missing five games.

Another notable addition to the protocols Tuesday: Miami’s Udonis Haslem, who has had to play far more than usual lately because the Heat have been without centers Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon because of injury. Haslem was ruled out of the Heat game Tuesday against Washington, a matchup where the Wizards were bracing to miss at least a half-dozen players for virus issues alone.

Numbers tend to change frequently as players test in and out over the course of each day, and the league updated its protocols Monday to allow shorter return-to-play procedures for players provided they meet certain criteria related to symptoms and test results.

That should mean some players who are on the current protocols list could be back on the floor quicker than first planned.

“Can’t wait to get back with the guys again … trying to make sense of all the protocols but it is what it is!” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who hasn’t played since Dec. 18 and was out of Toronto’s game against Philadelphia on Tuesday, tweeted. “Feeling good see you soon.”

The surprising Cleveland Cavaliers, who have managed to win seven of eight while dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, got back rookie forward Evan Mobley while placing guard Darius Garland into protocols. But Washington — which was hoping to see Rui Hachimura make his season debut at Miami on Tuesday — will wait a bit longer, after he got added to the protocols. The Wizards were without eight players because of protocols on Tuesday and had newly signed Alize Johnson arrive at the arena in Miami about three hours before game time.

“A lot of teams are going through this,” said Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr., whose team was again without Bradley Beal as he continues his progress through the protocols. “Not a lot you can do.”

With so many players in protocols this season, the NBA has allowed teams in need to sign players to hardship contracts in recent weeks without the burden of adding those unplanned salaries to salary cap and luxury tax totals. That is the biggest reason why the NBA has already seen more players appear in a game this season than in any other year in league history — 546 and counting, entering Tuesday, with the season not even to the midway point yet.

The previous record for players used in a full season was 540.

“It’s not as if there’s one solution,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You’re trying to keep a business going, trying to keep everybody healthy, keep everybody safe, manage the unpredictable every single day. If anything, I think that part of it has been normalized. The unpredictability of every single day, you just have to accept that’s what it’s going to be like for a while.”

Not long after Spoelstra said those words, he got told that Heat guard Max Strus — having a breakout season — was being placed in the protocols and couldn’t play Tuesday night.

There was that unpredictability again. In today’s NBA, it’s very normal.

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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