NBA discussing plan to require teams short-handed by COVID to sign additional replacement players, sources say

In the wake of dozens of players being sidelined in the league's health and safety protocols, and with looming concerns leaguewide about more games being halted, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association are discussing a plan that would require teams decimated by COVID to sign additional replacement players, league sources tell ESPN.

On an NBA Board of Governors call Friday, there was an overwhelming sentiment among NBA owners to do whatever is necessary to avoid postponements and cancellations this season, league sources said. In the backdrop of that view, the outlines of a plan regarding replacement players were approved by the Board of Governors during a meeting Friday, league sources said.

Previously, hardship rules were left up to the purview of teams. Some during the pandemic have declined to add replacement players even while they've had several of their own sidelined by COVID.

The league and the NBPA have to agree to the plan, and those conversations are ongoing.

In the proposed plan, after the first case of COVID, a team would be permitted to add a 10-day player, league sources said, but after a second, third and fourth case, teams would be required to add a 10-day player. Teams would be limited to three replacement players, but the new plan would, overall, require teams to maintain enough depth so that the league wouldn't be forced to cancel or postpone games because some teams didn't have the league-required eight healthy players.

Under the plan, the additional replacement players also wouldn't count against that respective team's salary cap or luxury tax, league sources said. For example, the Brooklyn Nets would've been charged an additional $500,000 toward their luxury tax bill with the signing of Langston Galloway.

The same hardship exception rules criteria would exist under the proposed plan: Just because a player tests positive for COVID wouldn't automatically allow a team to sign a replacement player. That team would need to have four players sidelined -- either by injury or COVID or some combination of the two -- and down to only 13 health players for them to add a replacement player. But once a team had five players sidelined, it would then become mandatory for them to sign a replacement player.

Through Friday, 84 players total have entered the NBA's health and safety protocols this season, including 68 in December. In three of the past four days, there have been double-digit additions of players to the protocols list, with Friday marking a single-day high of 16, followed by 13 on Tuesday and 11 on Thursday.

Team executives believe the numbers will continue to climb in the days and weeks ahead.

Around the league, there remains considerable frustration among some teams facing outbreaks.

"I do know certainly when we were testing as much as we were testing, not every team was testing under the same premise that we were testing under," Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan told reporters this week as his team reels from 10 different players entering the protocols. "So you could've had, for some teams, players that were maybe asymptomatic or guys that were positive that just didn't really feel a lot of symptoms out there playing. And I think the league is probably looking at those things."

A number of team executives and coaches are eager for the protocols to quickly change to allow asymptomatic players to play in games -- or, essentially, for COVID to be treated in the same way as the flu: Only those who are feeling ill are sidelined.

That sentiment has been expressed to the NBA, league sources said.

Yet within the league office and in the NBPA, there remains no willingness to allow asymptomatic players who have tested positive to play in games, league sources said.

Both the NBA and NBPA are mindful, as leading medical agencies and infectious disease experts have roundly stated, that those who are asymptomatic can still spread COVID.

The NBA and NBPA are likewise aware that allowing players who are COVID positive to play in games -- even if they're asymptomatic -- could send a troubling signal to the public, league sources said.

While there may be an appetite among some around the league for asymptomatic players to play, a number of team health officials noted that doing so would fly in the face of tragedy that has impacted the world and the NBA community, with Minnesota star Karl-Anthony Towns losing his mother and six other family members to COVID.

Team executives and team health officials have privately believed that altering the protocols to require daily testing of every vaccinated player and staffer could help stem the current surge, but the NBA and NBPA, in accordance with guidance from their respective infectious disease experts, have so far felt that such a move wouldn't be as impactful.

Team executives and team health officials have also wondered if the protocols could change in such a way to restrict what those who are vaccinated can do outside of a team setting, thus returning to the strict protocols that existed last winter before vaccines were widely available.

While there's skepticism about buy-in from teams and players for such a move, league sources said there is an understanding and acceptance from all parties that difficult steps may be necessary to salvage the season should the situation become dire in the weeks ahead, especially as the Omicron variant spreads.

"You got a side that's going to be happy and a side that's not going to be happy so you just got to live with the decision that's made," said Golden State Warriors wing and NBPA executive committee member Andre Iguodala. "And I think as a group we have to continue to understand it's 450 players and the majority vote wins. So someone's going to not be happy so you got to make that decision -- you sacrifice something.

Whether it's your check or putting your family in danger. I was talking about it postgame -- it's the machine. It's the nature of the machine ... it's business over the human element. And you got to be able to decide whether you want to participate in it so it's just tough."

On Thursday, the NBA and NBPA agreed upon and informed teams, via a league memo, about updated health and safety protocols centered on increased testing around the holidays along with ramped-up policies regarding facemasks.

Players and staff will be tested on game days except for those who received their booster shot 14-plus days earlier or recently recovered from the virus.

ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this report.