COVID-19 Looms Over Rockets as They Head to Bubble

Former Rocket Luc Mbah a Moute is back with the team for the stretch run.
Former Rocket Luc Mbah a Moute is back with the team for the stretch run. Photo by Eric Sauseda
On Thursday, the Rockets will head for the NBA bubble in Orlando. Those who have not tested positive for the coronavirus, anyway.

Therein lies the problem for every NBA team as we head toward a restart at the the end of July. As teams begin their migration to the NBA bubble at the ESPN sports complex, only those who have tested negative for the virus may enter. Anyone testing positive must register at least two negative tests before joining his teammates.

And, at this point, no one is sure who that will be.

In a recent interview, Thabo Sefolosha, who has opted out of the end of this season, told Swiss media that at least one Rocket had tested positive and that played a role in his decision to opt out. He did not say who it was, but it certainly could have ramifications for the team as they huddle in Orlando for "training camp" ahead of a late July restart.

The Rockets announced last week that they would replace Sefolosha on the roster with former Rockets Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute had a very good run with the Rockets in 2017 before an ankle injury derailed him in the playoffs. He chose to sign with the Clippers in 2018, but has been out with injuries since then. The Rockets hope his defensive skills can help replace Sefolosha, who hadn't seen much action after the Robert Covington trade.

The move by Sefholosha to opt out of playing the remainder of the season and playoffs underscores the complications of continuing to play in the shadow of a virus that has killed 130,000 Americans and infected over two million in the United States alone. He is certainly not the only player to opt out and is likely to be the last as teams move closer to completing the season starting at the end of the month.

Because of the shortened season and postseason — teams will play about seven regular season games before starting the playoffs — any player testing positive for the virus is unlikely to play at all. Any team could be decimated by COVID-19 sweeping through a locker room. The entire league could be brought to an abrupt halt given the circumstances.

Such is the risk that come with playing during a pandemic in a state that has perhaps the worst outbreak of the virus in the nation at the moment. Players are concerned as is the league, but the show, apparently, must go on.

For the Rockets, any trepidation is outweighed by a desire to get back on the floor and prove that they have what it takes to get an NBA title, even in a bizarre season, irreparably altered by the virus. Even if the swap of Sefolosha for Mbah a Moute means very little in the grand scheme of things (and it probably won't make that much difference), even small changes seem to take on greater significance in the era of the coronavirus.

Now, we have to wait and see if the Rockets and the NBA can make it through an abbreviated end to the season.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke