Editor’s Note: After this story was originally published, The Athletic has learned, via sources, of two more Wizards players who have tested positive for coronavirus. This brings the team total to five positive tests.
The next time the Wizards play a basketball game — whenever that may be — it will come after a long layoff. And COVID-19-related health matters won’t be the only concerns.
The NBA postponed Wednesday’s game against the Jazz and Friday’s against the Pistons with the team flashing two positive tests for COVID-19 on Tuesday and another one Thursday, according to sources. A Sunday-Monday series against the Cavaliers is not yet delayed but is also not guaranteed to happen. Washington is scheduled to start a road trip Wednesday and then is in Milwaukee two days after that.
Whenever the Wizards’ next game comes, it will be after lots of alone time.
It’s not like the Wizards have been practicing over these past few days. Whether someone has COVID-19 or is simply in the NBA’s health-and-safety protocols because of contact tracing, which accounts for a significant block of their roster, that person has to isolate. Workout schedules are absent right now, which could leave a player more vulnerable to injury upon his return.
Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, the chief medical officer for the MLS’s L.A. Galaxy and team physician for the U.S. Soccer men’s national team, spoke with The Athletic on Thursday about similar issues he’s encountered helping athletes back after long layoffs, including ones post-COVID-19.
“Most professional teams these days have sports science departments that focus on load (management) and understand the details of load and obviously restrict people away from that,” Mandelbaum said. The Wizards, whose medical department includes Daniel Medina, a sports scientist and the chief of athlete care and performance, are one of those teams. “(It’s) looking at the cycles of what we call ‘periodicity,’” Mandelbaum said, referring to how a consistent physical routine can help prevent injury.
If a player gets COVID-19, NBA rules say he has to quarantine for 10 to 14 days. If he has symptoms, the quarantine could be even longer than that. Once he is cleared, he has a two-day ramp-up and then has to pass a cardiac exam before returning. It means a while to go without basketball, especially considering the high-stress minutes that come with playing in a pro game. And Wizards players without COVID-19 are still missing ample court time as the team remains sidelined.
It’s been three days since the Wizards last held team activities. More are likely.
“This needs to be figured into playing time, practice time and everything else,” Mandelbaum said. “So, there’s no question we believe that long layoffs and changing patterns of training a team and the cycles of periodicity are really critical and relate to potential injuries. … It’s not that we have to be overly concerned, but I think you have to regulate that accordingly.”
There’s another angle to the Wizards’ health situation. Depending on how many of their games get postponed, Russell Westbrook, who’s been out with left quad soreness, could sit for the week-plus he was supposed to and end up missing only two games. Westbrook is still on the same timetable coach Scott Brooks mentioned in a press conference this past Monday, according to sources, and is scheduled to be reevaluated early next week. The team is hopeful he can return not long after that. He missed Saturday’s loss to the Heat and Monday’s win over the Suns before the Wizards had to shut down the next day.
But for Westbrook to come back, the team first needs to be able to play. And right now, that’s no guarantee.
Three players have tested positive. And they’re not yet out of the woods that everyone else is safe. Others remain caught up in contact tracing, a process impossible to predict. As Mandelbaum says, each contact-tracing experience is unique. Doctors can’t use one to guess what might happen in another.
“Let’s say Player 1 is positive,” Mandelbaum said. “You better wait that 10 days. Player 2 is positive two days later. It gets to be multiples of that depending on who’s been exposed. And obviously (with the Wizards), 17 people have been exposed to one another. (It becomes) an elaborate chart of people. … If you have a positive test, who have they been exposed to? And then you go, who have those other people been exposed to? And next thing you know, you work out a graphic understanding what your zone of potential transmissibility is.”
The NBA knew it would have to postpone games when the season began, which is why it released the schedule in two parts. The initial 36 games run through the beginning of March. Rebooking matches for the second half is far easier when there aren’t already conflicts on the calendar. But if the Wizards have to miss a batch of games, the second half won’t be as painless.
Think of how many doubleheaders the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals had to play when they missed large chunks of the MLB season because of positive tests on the roster. Well, the basketball version of this is ending up with more back-to-backs than originally expected. Things aren’t the same as they were back in the bubble, as Wizards star Bradley Beal alluded to while discussing how the realities of playing in a pandemic have affected the vibe amongst players.
“It’s kinda one of those things where we kinda know it’s gonna hit,” he said after Monday’s game, the day before the Wizards received their first positive test. Beal had to miss Saturday’s loss to the Heat because he got caught up in contact tracing that tied to playing against Jayson Tatum’s Celtics the previous evening.
“Our biggest thing is trying to contain it and control it as much as we can, I guess,” Beal continued. “At least from my standpoint, it’s making sure that we’re safe and we’re all in the best possible environment, whatever it looks like. I’m sure the league and the (players’ association) are doing everything they can to make sure of that. But it’s even scarier with games being postponed and teams not being able to play and it turning into contact tracing. It’s a lot. It is a lot. But it’s what we agreed to do at the beginning of the year. So, we gotta go out and get it done.”
Now, the Wizards just hope to get healthy and stay safe.
“What a unique time,” Mandelbaum said. “And it’s even a unique time for the NBA because when they were in the bubble last year, everything was controlled. It was the same environment. … Everybody was in the bubble. Now, not everybody is in the bubble. Everybody’s being safe, tested as best they can, but they’re living in the city, where there’s high levels of transmissibility from just the nature of the beast. And they’re moving around and traveling.”