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Nation & World

The Latest On The NBA's Struggles With The Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Brooklyn Nets' dreams for an NBA championship may have become more attainable thanks to a major trade that sent their way one of the game's best players, James Harden. The news is tempered, though, by troubling questions facing the league to do with the coronavirus. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: When this season began, the Brooklyn Nets were considered an NBA title contender. They had superstar forward Kevin Durant and superstar guard Kyrie Irving back from last season's injuries and a talented supporting cast. And then, in the words of a veteran NBA writer, the Nets became a paper champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Harden sets, fires - boom.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Oh, James Harden.

GOLDMAN: On paper, adding James Harden, an eight-time All-Star and the league's top scorer in the last three years, makes the Nets unbeatable. But that same writer and many others will tell you paper does not a champion team make. David Thorpe is one of those many others. He's a long-time player development coach and basketball analyst for truehoop.com.

DAVID THORPE: It's fraught with risk.

GOLDMAN: Thorpe says the Nets are pinning their championship hopes on three megaplayers with issues.

THORPE: They're depending on a guy that just came off of a major Achilles issue in Durant and a player that's significantly overweight right now in James Harden, who is a very ball-dominant player just like Durant is.

GOLDMAN: And there's the current mystery of Irving, who isn't playing or practicing, the team citing personal reasons for his absence. Thorpe says the Nets also don't help themselves defensively with Harden, and, you know, defense wins championships. So do non-superstar but productive players, and the Nets have traded away several of those guys to create the Big Three. Basketball, though, is jazz, says Thorpe. He even wrote a book with that title. And he says new Brooklyn head coach and Hall of Fame player Steve Nash can mesh all the talents together.

THORPE: They are actually playing good music together. They move well. They're moving the ball. They're not just relying on their heroic talent. Adding Harden makes that harder, but it's still possible to do.

GOLDMAN: Basketball fans hope they get to see how the Nets' experiment pans out. This week has been ominous on the COVID-19 front. The latest testing revealed 16 players had positive results. Nine games have been postponed since last Sunday, and the NBA announced new, stricter health and safety protocols. The league's protective bubble in Florida last season was the gold standard for other pro sports battling the coronavirus. Now without a bubble, Thorpe says the NBA is basically trying to tread water until most of its players can be vaccinated, whenever that is.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHO SONG, "EMINENCE FRONT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.