The Houston Rockets' sudden struggle to field a competent team Wednesday night in their season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder is unfortunate, frustrating and problematic as the league was forced to postpone the matchup after the Rockets did not have the league-required eight available players to proceed with the scheduled game.
It's also, NBA sources say, an inevitable start to what will be a very "bumpy" and "ugly" season.
That's according to a myriad of team personnel, former players, agents and other NBA league sources who believe the Rockets situation tonight is just the tip of the iceberg for this most unusual of seasons — one, they say, that is far from guaranteed to be successful.
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins sent home because of contact tracing? A Rockets rookie reportedly having tested positive? Disgruntled star James Harden seemingly admitting — again — on his social media that he violated the NBA's COVID protocols?
Welcome to the new normal.
"It's going to be a very, very bump road," one team executive said. "You're only going to be as OK as your weakest link. You have to stay out of nightclubs and restaurants, you have to be careful, and some of these guys want to go out. It's that simple."
Here's another simple truth: this NBA season will be a lot like your kids' schools, your social circles, your family gatherings, your neighborhood: The degree to which COVID spreads will depend on the behavior of each and every single person involved.
Only in this case, even asymptomatic cases — positive tests, even if accompanied by a healthy individual — will have the power to grind the gears of this season, if not to a halt, at least to a lurching and awkward reality.
Think that Denver Broncos game with no quarterbacks, only on steroids, where it's half the team sitting and over a period that includes multiple games altered as a result.
As the Rockets story spread Wednesday, already soiling the start of an otherwise exciting NBA season, many around the league had a knew-it-was-going-to-happen fatalism. Few believe this season will proceed outside of a bubble without a wave of problems similar to what the Rockets are experiencing. Many believe strongly that things could get bad enough that the season, if not postponed, will at least face the likelihood it will be paused and the calendar pushed back.
This is also a unique and difficult test for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver has been an outstanding leader for the game, successfully navigating a host of contentious issues dating back to the Donald Sterling fiasco. And Silver's strong relationship with the stars of the league and by extension, the players association has gone a long way toward navigating divisive and important matters like negotiations with the players union, Black Lives Matter, last season's shutdown and the subsequent Orlando bubble, experimentation with the playoffs format, and more.
Now Silver will have to decide how aggressively to pursue COVID-protocol scofflaws, starting right now.
Because Harden, already pushing to leave Houston and disgruntled in the extreme with his circumstances there, seems to have twice in the past month violated the very rules aimed at keeping this season going.
The latest example came from a video circulating online that seemed to show the Rockets star partying at a club this week, maskless, in defiance of the NBA's rules prohibiting players from going to bars, lounges or clubs and from socializing in groups of more than 15 people.
Harden's subsequent social media post wasn't exactly a rousing denial:
"One thing after another. I went to show love to my homegirl at her event (not a strip club) because she is becoming a boss and putting her people in position of success and now it's a problem," Harden wrote. "Everyday it's something different. No matter how many times people try to drag my name under you can't. The real always end on top."
For the NBA, the issue isn't so much Harden's name being dragged under as Harden's actions — and those of other players who might take a similar course over a very long season — dragging down the NBA itself.
Let's be real. It's not easy to turn your life off — to stay home, avoid friends, accept boredom and isolation as necessary evils. Even those of us who think those actions are important recognize the difficulties in following through, whether you're a multi-millionaire single dude or not, whether you're accustomed to having your world designed to your every liking (as is reportedly the case with Harden in Houston before this season), or not.
Yet this is a testing moment for Silver. Let Harden skate, and the message is clear: The rules aren't really the rules. Come down aggressively — as Silver should — and an already discontented superstar could become so disillusioned it poisons any plans the Rockets have for him, as a player or as trade bait.
But we've seen this story in the real world: The COVID boundaries that are set aggressively are the only ones followed, if at all.
So, yes, the Rockets and the NBA have a problem, and Wednesday night's, now postponed, game is a perfect example. But Harden's actions compound that.
This will be a hard enough season to get through for the league if players believe there will be consequences for getting caught breaking the NBA's COVID rules.
If they don't believe it?
Then you can kiss this NBA season goodbye.