For the first time since Dec. 1, the Chicago Bulls have zero players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Thursday morning, Zach LaVine, Ayo Dosunmu, Troy Brown Jr., Alize Johnson, Matt Thomas, and – after testing out of protocols early – Devon Dotson all practiced at the Advocate Center. The only non-participants were those dealing with injuries: Alex Caruso (left foot sprain), Derrick Jones Jr. (left hamstring strain) and Patrick Williams (wrist surgery recovery), according to head coach Billy Donovan.
The Bulls were the harbinger for the NBA’s leaguewide COVID-19 surge, seeing 10 of their players enter protocols between Dec. 1 and Dec. 13, then having games on Dec. 14 and 16 postponed.
Those were the NBA’s first postponements of the season. But the league is now up to nine, including a third Bulls game in Wednesday’s matchup with the Raptors at the United Center.
Now, the Bulls are taking significant steps towards becoming whole once again. The team doesn’t play again until Dec. 26 after the Raptors postponement, giving them six days in between contests to acclimate, and ramp up the conditioning, of their protocol-affected players.
“Today was productive. We need to make tomorrow productive,” Donovan said. “The biggest thing for me is with Zach being out and [Nikola Vučević] going through it (when he tested positive for COVID-19 in November) and Coby (White) going through it (when he tested positive on Dec. 1), they need to get back to a rhythm and a continuity and a chemistry and we need some playing. It was hard to do that yesterday. Today we were able to do a little bit more.”
The Bulls’ morning shootaround on Wednesday began before news of the postponement came down, offering protocol-affected players an early chance to springboard their acclimation process. All were in attendance and worked out, though Donovan said they wouldn’t have played in the game if it had happened.
“I give our guys a lot of credit. Yesterday could’ve been a wasted day and they made it a productive day,” Donovan said. “We were in shootaround when we found out we weren’t playing. And then you’re shifting from a shootaround where you’re talking about Toronto to, ‘OK, let’s practice. Let’s get some work done.’ And they did a great job.”
Recent 10-day signees Ersan Ilyasova and Mac McClung were also at practice on Thursday, but Donovan said he isn’t yet sure how much run they’ll actually receive. Both of those signings were reported on Tuesday, and made with the intention of beefing up their depth for the Raptors game.
“The league was requesting that we field a team. We had to go find players not knowing, going into the Toronto game, what our team would look like in terms of the guys that were coming back and cleared,” Donovan said. “We didn’t feel comfortable with Troy, Matt, Zach and a lot of those guys playing last night. We’re starting to get a little bit more whole. We went from trying to add players to our team to looking at what our roster is going to look like going forward.
“I worked with Ersan in OKC for a period of time. He’s a great guy. I don’t know Mac at all. I just got a chance to meet him yesterday. He’s a great guy. You’re thinking you don’t have enough roster spots and 24 hours later, you have maybe too many roster spots. We’ll have to figure all that out. I know (general manager) Marc (Eversley) and (executive vice president) Artūras (Karnišovas) are on top of that. I’m not really worried about it.”
Players who exit health and safety protocols still must be medically cleared of cardiac screening and conditioning before returning to game action, but once a player is cleared, the hardship exception contract of the player signed for them is terminated. So stay tuned for the status of the Bulls' protocol-affected players, and hardship additions Alfonzo McKinnie, Ilyasova and McClung, for Sunday.
LaVine, Brown Jr. and Alize Johnson missed two games apiece while in protocols – the Bulls’ wins over the Lakers and Rockets this week. Dosunmu missed three dating back to Dec. 11’s loss to the Heat. Thomas missed four dating back to the road loss to the Cavaliers three days earlier.
Still, at 19-10, the Bulls are sitting pretty all things considered – and guaranteed to exit Christmas second in the Eastern Conference.
This pandemic has proven any and everything is possible. But with their recent outbreak behind them, Donovan is eager to get back to putting the pieces together.
“As we get whole, we have to find roles, rotations. Forty-eight hours ago, we were trying to figure out who is playing and who isn’t. Now we have a bit more of a menu of players,” he said. “You have to build out a first unit and second unit and build a chemistry and connectedness that you need to have that we had for a period of time but lost because all we’ve had to deal with.”
But basketball problems are better to have than health and safety ones.