Anderson believes the two prior months he’d already spent working out in preparation to land with a team made a big difference. “I actually felt better than I thought, I think because of my preparation,” he said. “I talked to a couple other guys who were late additions and they were basically not doing much during their quarantine, that first seven-week period. So they couldn’t really bounce back from that two weeks or three weeks, however long it took to recover from COVID, because they didn’t have a base.” Anderson credits the Nets for being patient with him. “If I had to come in and play 35 minutes right away, then my story right now might be a lot different,” he said.
Anderson thinks that players who tested positive for COVID-19 were at a competitive disadvantage. “Absolutely. And it’s not an excuse at all. It’s our reality. It’s OK if some players had a competitive advantage. With COVID you just take a pitfall physically, maybe mentally a little bit, and then you have to figure out a way to come back up. I think those guys were definitely at a disadvantage, but we’re all competitors.”
It’s impossible to draw firm conclusions about how coronavirus affected the playoffs. There are myriad variables at play and every person who contracts the virus responds differently. But timing does matter. The Los Angeles Lakers had two positive tests way back in March and none since, while the Rockets could have used a healthy Westbrook for their second-round matchup with the Lakers. Eric Bledsoe did not begin practicing with the disappointing Milwaukee Bucks until a week before their first game, and the New Orleans Pelicans, who were a trendy pick to make the playoffs but fell far short, revealed that three of their players tested positive one week before the team traveled down to Orlando.
But at the same time, players like Bam Adebayo and Nikola Jokic tested positive in July and elevated their games to even higher levels inside the bubble. The effect is case by case.
The NBA and its teams will know more about the coronavirus and how it impacts high-intensity athletes by the time next season begins, but there won’t be a solid answer for every serious question. With no vaccine available and cases rising by the thousands all across the country just last week, it’s only natural to assume that players will contract the virus in the outside world, removed from the artificial cocoon in which they just spent the hardest stretch of their professional lives. They are no longer getting a regular test, nor is everyone they’re in contact with on a daily basis.
So far, there haven’t been any serious complications, and a few doctors interviewed for this story believe that if coronavirus is like any other viral infection, those who were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms are not likely to develop any long-term health issue. But the word “likely” can be terrifying in this context.
“At the end of the day you don’t know what’s going to happen if you tested positive and now you’re feeling good and then you get a player, let’s just say like a Russell Westbrook, that plays as fast and hard as he does and his heart rate is up at 170,” Alexander said. “We don’t know if he’s going to have a heart attack. And that’s the problem. That’s the thing with this disease.”
Until more data is collected, physically-debilitating precautionary measures will become part of how the NBA operates. It’s a frustrating byproduct of navigating the unknown. “Doing any kind of activity in the COVID-19 pandemic era has some level of risk,” Dr. Adalja said. “And people are going to assume risks based on what values they want to pursue. But so far there don’t seem to be any insoluble problems with the athletes returning to play, yet.”