The NBA announced Monday afternoon that it will take the extraordinary step this week of postponing two Chicago Bulls games. COVID-19 has shredded Chicago’s roster to such a degree that the league, which very much would prefer to ignore what has been an alarming outbreak in the organization, finally can no longer pretend that everything is fine and normal. A positive test for fourth-year reserve forward Alize Johnson Monday was the unlikely straw that finally broke the camel’s back. With all due respect to Alize Johnson, an NBA rotation that cannot sustain his sudden absence is pretty much by definition in shambles. And that is more or less where and what the Bulls are at this moment—the forced excision of Johnson from Chicago’s gutted rotation for their scheduled game against the horrendous Pistons registered as a genuine disaster.
The team’s outbreak started on Dec. 1, when Coby White returned a positive test and entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Occasional fill-in starter Javonte Green tested positive three days later, but the core of the team’s rotation was still fully intact for an impressive victory over the first-place Nets later that night, in Brooklyn. Shit would not begin to really hit the fan for another 48 hours. On Dec. 6, immediately prior to Chicago’s shorthanded win over the Denver Nuggets, leading scorer DeMar DeRozan returned a positive test and hit the protocols. Two days later, lightly-used Matt Thomas followed; the very next day Derrick Jones Jr. joined the fun; two days later it was Ayo Dosunmu and Stanley Johnson. Dosunmu, a 2021 second-rounder, had already made the leap from apprentice to emergency starter, and logged a ridiculous 42 minutes the night of DeRozan’s positive test. Johnson, in another emergency move, had just joined the Bulls, less than 48 hours before his own positive test, on a 10-day contract. Bill Wennington and Stacey King are also in the protocols, which looks like and I suppose actually is a Remembering Some Bulls Reserves gag, but is also true; because of their illnesses, the team doesn’t have a healthy TV color commentator, either.
The Bulls say 100 percent of their roster is vaccinated, so these players are as protected as possible from the virus’s worst symptoms. Head coach Billy Donovan noted with a mix of exasperation and relief last week that his team has “a lot of guys sitting at home with no symptoms right now,” with the worst cases experiencing “very, very mild symptoms.” But despite stepped-up testing, the situation appears nowhere close to containment. On Sunday afternoon the contingent of protocoled Bulls grew to nine, when Zach LaVine and Troy Brown Jr. both returned positive tests. This left the Bulls roster in absolutely gruesome shape, even before Monday’s news about Johnson.
The situation is now well past absurd. An NBA team must dress at least eight healthy players in order to participate in a regular season game. Devon Dotson, Tyler Cook, Marko Simonovic, and Alfonzo McKinnie—four of Chicago’s eight available players—have played 11 combined games with the Bulls, and 106 total combined minutes. Alex Caruso is working his way back to full strength following a hamstring injury; Dotson and Cook are on two-way contracts; McKinnie joined Chicago on a 10-day contract on Friday, via a hardship exemption. The Bulls somehow have 18 players rostered now, and a whopping 10 of them are in the league’s health and safety protocols. They’re one more positive test or ill-timed stomach flu away from having to teach the playbook to a call-up from the janitorial staff.
Chicago’s healthy players have already had to bear an unhealthy, unsustainable burden, as the available roster shrinks and shrinks. Lonzo Ball, now basically the only available rotation-grade ball-handler on the entire team, has played 40 minutes in four consecutive Bulls games. Caruso returned from a week’s absence Saturday, and would’ve had to play huge minutes on a still-vulnerable hamstring Tuesday night, in a rotation likely to feature the literal minimum number of available players. That’s a lot for Donovan and the Bulls to juggle, let alone a wild risk to run for the reward of the mere completion of a December game against the godawful Detroit Pistons. This postponement gives them a chance to get back as many as four of their guys, but at this rate there is also plenty of time for the entire rest of the team and indeed the whole city of Chicago to become infected in their stead.
With the omicron variant making its stateside debut and positive tests spiking both across the country and around the league, it feels like things are approaching an inflection point in the NBA. Ten different teams now have at least one player socked away in the health and safety protocols. The Bulls aren’t even the only alarming outbreak: The Charlotte Hornets are currently missing two starters and five players overall. The NBA seemed content to ride this out until Chicago’s stepped-up testing program revealed how alarmingly difficult it is at the moment for a team to find and integrate a player without immediately forwarding him along to the COVID-19 shelf.
Ultimately that’s what is most worrying about the situation in Chicago. The NBA’s present testing program only requires that vaccinated players be tested under a narrow set of circumstances, such as contact with a known case or the presence of potential symptoms. But the Bulls caught a couple positives coming out of Thanksgiving, increased the frequency of their testing program, and now their whole goddamn team is shut down. It seems unlikely bordering on impossible that Chicago’s disastrous outbreak is an isolated case, but it’s not hard to imagine other teams simply deciding not to look for bad news they don’t want to get. As pointed out by K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, the Bulls were putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by catching asymptomatic positives that might otherwise have been missed. For now, teams and the league have pretty strong incentive to hang on to the status quo, limit testing as much as possible, and pray like hell that the situation in Chicago just needs a couple days to sort itself out.
The NBA has presented itself as a pandemic success story from the start, a narrative it has pushed forward stretching back to its shutdown in March 2020, through the broadly successful bubble reset and the condensed but orderly 2020–21 regular season, and most recently by touting the high overall rate of vaccination among players. New variants, a still-recovering bottom line, and a weary public with far less patience for pandemic interruptions have combined to create a new set of dynamics. How much does the NBA want to know about the extent of the problem? I guess we’re about to find out.