In many ways, Tuesday marked an odd day for the Bulls in this NBA season scarred by COVID-19.
On the same day they were supposed to play the Boston Celtics, a game postponed amid a rising number of positive cases, and the league and players association announcing widespread enhanced safety measures to combat the virus’ spread, the Bulls actually got healthier.
Granted, Chandler Hutchison and Tomáš Satoranský remain away from the team after testing positive, although Hutchison at least finally has returned to Chicago from Washington, D.C. But Lauri Markkanen and Ryan Arcidiacono, two players who landed in quarantine for contact tracing purposes, practiced fully on what was supposed to be a game day.
Then again, nothing about this season has been normal.
“I was preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Arcidiacono said of his testing negative throughout his lengthy quarantine period.
Both Markkanen and Arcidiacono admitted they expected to test positive after learning of Satoranský's positive test because they shared a 13-hour Sprinter van ride back to Chicago together.
After the Bulls announced Hutchison tested positive before their Dec. 31 road game in Washington, D.C., Markkanen, Satoranský and Arcidiacono left in the first quarter. They stopped once at an arranged place so the assigned drivers, who were separated from the players via plexiglass, could be swapped out, and arrived in Chicago at 5:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
“I was mentally preparing to potentially get it and have to miss more time -- and hopefully I didn’t get it bad,” Arcidiacono said.
Added Markkanen: “I was just waiting for the phone call after [Satoranský] tested positive. But I was lucky enough not to get it. I'm not wasting my energy and time kind of worrying about getting tested every single morning and what we have to go through. I just try to focus on the good stuff and play a game.”
In an NBA season unlike any other, there is no normalcy. As positive cases are listed on injury reports like sprained ankles, players, coaches and staff members endure daily testing and the mental strain of playing through a pandemic.
“We knew it's not going to be perfect, so we were kind of expecting this kind of stuff, and that's been our mindset -- next man up,” Markkanen said. “Obviously, there are guys that were playing on the West Coast more (minutes) because we had four guys out. So that's just the way it’s going to be.”
It all begs the question: Is playing out this season worth it?
“A lot of teams are going through it right now, so it's not our decision to make,” Markkanen said. “I’m not going to spend any energy on that. I'm just happy to be playing basketball again. Hopefully, we can keep doing that. “
Said Arcidiacono: “You just have to have perspective of it all. We know there’s a lot of things going on in this country and in this world, just having to deal with this coronavirus. We’re fortunate enough to do what we love for a living. So when we’re able to play, it’s awesome. But when you get it taken away from you, whether you get COVID or not, I think that was the toughest part for me -- knowing I was still testing negative and how I couldn’t go out with the team on the West Coast. It had me bummed out.
"But from a perspective standpoint, you just got to be smart. You got to be safe. You just never know with this virus how your body is going to respond and how it’s going to affect other people if you’re around them. You just have to have perspective on it and keep a good mindset and be positive and keep a great attitude throughout this whole process.”
The enhanced safety protocols have raised the debate on whether the season should pause or not. Logistically, that would be difficult. If players left their home markets, they’d be subject to a lengthy quarantine period upon return.
The league also points to the number of positive cases dropping initially after players first reported for training camp because they then were subjected to daily testing and, at least in theory, the need to follow safety protocols. The recent spike was somewhat expected by the league after the holiday season.
“There’s been a lot of trust placed in the NBA, what they are doing and trying to set up the different protocols and safety measures to make sure we all can protect ourselves,” Buls coach Billy Donovan said. “We went through it a little bit. You’re seeing some other teams go through it now.
“To me, the biggest challenge in all this to people getting sick is people have fully recovered. But I don’t know if anyone knows what the long-term effects are of getting COVID and what that looks like nine, 10 years from now. So that’s a little bit of the scary part.
“But coaches, players, everybody loves what they do and you are trying to continue on and you are trying to keep people as safe as possible. Do I think it’s worthwhile? I think it’s worthwhile as long as the people still making those decisions feel very comfortable about the safety measures and protocols being in place to try to protect everybody as best as possible. I think everybody is kind of putting their trust in the doctors, in the medical experts. I’m not a doctor. You’re going off the trust level of what the league has done in terms of dealing with a lot of the infectious disease specialists that can help make these decisions.”
Donovan added that the communication level has been solid. For example, the enhanced safety protocols were announced as the Bulls practiced Tuesday. Before players left the Advocate Center, they had been briefed on them.
That said, Donovan also fully admitted he’s not a doctor. He’s a coach. So there is plenty he doesn’t understand and merely listens to the experts advising the league for its policies.
“For some reason, when players are together on the court, it doesn't seem like that maybe puts guys in as much harm or in harm’s way as people having meals together. So there's a lot of things I don't totally understand (about contact tracing),” he said. “You wake up every morning and you don't know what your team is going to look like and you hope everybody's healthy and safe. And then you just try to plan out the day on who's available and what you can do to try to help the group get better and improve.”
Along those lines, and consistent with the approach he has tried to exude and impart to his team, Donovan viewed the Bulls’ unexpected break as a positive.
After a West Coast trip that featured players having to play heavy minutes because of the shortened roster, the Bulls took Monday off. Tuesday’s postponement afforded an extra practice day, and the team doesn’t play until Friday in Oklahoma City.
“It’s good from a coaching perspective, from my perspective, when you can get a chance to have a couple really, really good practice days,” he said. “I think you just have to be flexible and you have to maximize the day. In being flexible, I think you need to take a pretty positive attitude that, 'Here's the scenario, here's the situation, we're going to make the best of it.'”