COVID can help your NBA career

NBA exec says it's "like getting a FastPass at Disney World.”


The Golden State Warriors have:

  • Roughly $300 million in salary and luxury tax, 

  • a limited number of peak-Stephen Curry years, 

  • the ninth place in the West, 

  • four games over the next six days against teams within three games,

  • and not one healthy center. 

In normal times, this riddle would be solved with a quick free-agent signing. Right this way: Dewayne Dedmon, Jaylen Hoard, or Thon Maker. But these are not normal times and, in the strange world of NBA COVID protocols, the Warriors could really use a center who has recently recovered from the virus.

An executive who spoke to TrueHoop says he had a most unusual conversation with a high-powered agent. Like the Warriors, his team had been ravaged by injuries and needed fast help. The call began in standard fashion: The executive asked if such-and-such free-agent clients were in shape and ready to go. The agent replied yes, several of them were. 

Good. They went back and forth on some candidates, but both could sense that neither had asked the real question. Nobody had addressed the elephant in the room. 

Finally, the agent blurted it out: “Remember … he’s had COVID-19 already. He might be, um, more employable for you.”

The NBA has exhaustive health and safety protocols—as Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner told our pal Kevin Arnovitz: “It’s a bubble within a bubble.”

But the web of rules includes—two teams and the NBA, itself, confirm—a loophole for players who have tested positive within the last 90 days. They can join your team after only a two-day quarantine. Otherwise newly signed players would have to be properly quarantined for six days, or in some cases even longer, before taking the court. (One such example: The Brooklyn Nets signed guard Iman Shumpert this past Saturday and he still hasn’t been cleared).

However, if a player has tested positive in the last 90 days, has recovered from the virus, and consistently tests negative, he can join the team in as few as two days. 

An agent told TrueHoop that he heard from the Celtics, who were looking for, in the agent’s words, “a free agent center who had recently recovered from COVID-19.”

An NBA general manager who spoke with TrueHoop put it this way: “[Getting COVID-19] is, unfortunately, like getting a FastPass at Disney World.”

In order for GM Bob Myers to add a free-agent center, the team will have to first open up a roster spot, which could mean waiving Alen Smailagic or Mychal Mulder. That comes with its own costs, both developmentally and financially. Or, the team could sign a player to a 10-day contract using the NBA’s hardship exception. To be worth it, you’d probably want someone who could play before James Wiseman returns from injury, which could be next week. 

But a lengthy quarantine nearly renders the ten-day contract option useless. Said one executive: “A ‘ten-day’ is now basically a ‘four-day.’ So, what’s the point?”

If the Warriors sign a COVID-recovered player immediately, he could play this weekend. If they sign someone who has assiduously followed CDC guidelines and remained COVID-free, that player might not play until next Thursday against the Magic, potentially leaving the team centerless for four games against the West-rival Mavericks and Spurs. 

The executive who told the story above found himself considering the logical extension of this dilemma: If you’re just outside the NBA and dreaming of a call-up, is there an argument to get infected?

Some team officials make analogous comments: If COVID is going to rage through a team at some point this season, is it better now than in the middle of a playoff run? Another NBA source says, “I guarantee those conversations are happening in locker rooms.”

Here we get into the bizarro incentives of the NBA in a pandemic. 

We still don’t know the long-term effects of COVID on the human body. Many NBA players have bounced back quickly. But some small studies have found worrying evidence about the long-term effects even for young, healthy athletes. The word “myocarditis” comes up a lot.

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks says his team’s sharpshooter Davis Bertans “hasn’t been the same.” Nassir Little described being in misery around the clock, and has recovered slowly. 

Most NBA personnel I’ve talked to believe in the NBA’s protocols, and are determined to do everything they can to keep the virus away from their employees, no matter how uncomfortable or alien it all feels. 

But there is also a general sense that—with the NBA’s many infections this season and the CDC warning of highly infectious new variants—this could spiral quickly.

On Thursday, reports surfaced that the NBA and NBPA have agreed to All-Star events on March 7 in Atlanta. It’s the NBA’s traditional party weekend, in a city with a reputation for NBA nightlife (where just this week a courtside fan made news for taking down her mask to yell at LeBron James). Teams tell TrueHoop the NBA has made the case, behind the scenes, that there’s evidence from other leagues around the world that taking a break and letting players and coaches go home can itself lead to surges in cases. In other words, letting everyone go home might not be the right answer, either. There’s an argument that an All-Star game will keep more players inside the NBA’s “bubble within a bubble.” 

To Dr. Zachary Binney, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, the “risk doesn’t seem worth it.”

“Cases are dropping, but they're still extremely high,” Binney says. “It doesn't seem like we've earned the right to do things like this yet, and we all need to be doing everything we can right now to avoid indoor gatherings and get things under control for just a little longer. We're so close to the finish line with vaccines; now isn't the time to let up. It's quite surprising to see how wildly the NBA's pendulum has swung here."

It’s a cautious approach that has been shared by many in NBA team circles.

“To me,” said one long-time Western Conference executive, “less is more right now.”

That view was echoed by Sacramento Kings point guard and All-Star candidate De’Aaron Fox on Wednesday night, calling the reported All-Star plan “stupid.”

Despite his personal concerns, Fox ultimately conceded that he’d go to Atlanta if the NBA named him to the All-Star Game. Not going, he said, would cost him a lot of money in fines.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop!