“We really haven’t been able to do anything at all.”
With those words, Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan began his nearly 18-minute session with reporters on Thursday — his first since Alize Johnson became the 10th player on his team to enter the league’s health and safety protocols on Monday.
Donovan, it should be noted, spoke to reporters via Zoom rather than in-person, a nod to the team's desire to keep as many people healthy as possible.
Yes, these are tenuous times for the NBA, which happens to exist in a world that is 21 months into a global pandemic where vaccines exist. But so do troubling variants like Delta and Omicron.
“I think the league is trying to do everything it can possibly do to play games and also keep teams safe and healthy,” Donovan said.
How tenuous are these times? Donovan didn’t yet know if the league would clear the Bulls for any formal team activities on Friday, much less whether Sunday’s scheduled home game against the Lakers will take place. The Lakers, it also should be noted, have five players in protocols and are dealing with their own outbreak of COVID-19. That included Russell Westbrook and Avery Bradley entering on Thursday after Donovan spoke.
“I think the league is probably in the process of figuring out how they’re going to go about testing everybody else,” Donovan said. “And certainly, when you do more testing like that, you’re going to come across more guys that are going to test positive.”
There it is. This season began devoid of the daily testing routine that defined last season. This spoke not only to the league’s impressively high vaccination rate of roughly 97 percent, but also to the lower case numbers around the globe.
But when the league ramped up testing around the Thanksgiving holiday, detection of more positive cases followed. And when a team began sliding down the cliff like the Bulls did, testing increased dramatically.
That introduced a dynamic that the Bulls felt placed them at a competitive disadvantage, a point directly distilled by Donovan on Thursday.
“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. So everybody was kind of in different situations,” he said. “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 all those things.”
That most of the eight remaining players in protocols are asymptomatic, and that the team said nobody else entered as Coby White and Javonte Green exited this week, should be considered a win at this point.
“Obviously, we’re going to need some sort of ramp-up period as it relates to practice,” Donovan said. “I don’t know what Friday and Saturday are going to look like for us.”
The 17-10 Bulls haven’t held a normal team function since Saturday’s loss in Miami.
Donovan did say players gathered Monday at the Advocate Center in advance of what became the league’s first postponement of the 2021-22 season — Tuesday’s scheduled home game against the Pistons. But that gathering ended up being a briefing from the medical staff after Johnson tested positive.
“The guys that are actually in the protocols have not been able to come into the facility,” Donovan said. “They’ve had to test outside the facility and then basically go home.’’
The Bulls reached full vaccination status in early November. Following Saturday’s loss in Miami, Nikola Vučević said “most” players received booster shots.
Donovan wouldn’t wade into that territory. Nor did he opine about what the right number of eligible players is in order to play.
What’s becoming certain is that a 2021-22 NBA season that began with aspirations of smoothness will be disrupted. If Omicron produces the number of cases — breakthrough and otherwise — most scientists and medical experts predict, more postponements are almost certain to follow.
And in the grand scheme of things, pauses to fun sports seasons rank way down the list of pandemic-induced pain. But in the Bulls’ world, where basketball isn’t just a sport but their livelihood, it’s a lot.
“Certainly, we're dealing with a conditioning factor, we're dealing with a rhythm and timing situation, we're dealing with our team where, really the last probably 12 days, two weeks, it’s been pretty much every day we've had somebody that has been in health and safety protocols and our team has totally changed,” Donovan said. “I'm hopeful the league will give us some time here Friday and Saturday to get the group back together that would be available to play on Sunday.”