How COVID-19 vaccines could impact the 2021 NBA playoffs

·7-min read

The number of coronavirus cases in the NBA has not reached double figures in any single week since the nationwide January spike. Widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines soon followed, but all it takes is one superstar testing positive to cripple a team's playoff chances and stamp an asterisk on the season.

Even a rotational player entering health and safety protocols for a standard of 10 to 14 days could swing a playoff series, which potentially makes vaccines a competitive advantage in the weeks and months ahead.  

Even then, there is no guarantee COVID-19 will not have some bearing on the outcome of this NBA season. Golden State Warriors guard Damion Lee confirmed last week he experienced considerable symptoms and tested positive for the virus roughly four weeks after receiving his dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Lee is the exception, not the rule. Of the more than 95 million fully vaccinated Americans, only 9,245 similar "breakthrough cases" (0.001%) have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, at least six fully vaccinated members of the New York Yankees coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, per multiple reports. All reportedly received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only one experienced symptoms. The NBA also tests fully vaccinated players on practice and game days.

The NBA continues to convey its trust in medical experts by loosening protocols for fully vaccinated players and teams whose players and staff are at least 85% vaccinated. Some are lifestyle upgrades, like increased flexibility to leave hotels, host visitors and dine at restaurants. Others ease workplace restrictions, allowing players to gather in the practice facility without masks and broadening their access to training and recovery.

One is yet another competitive advantage: Vaccinated players are not subject to the same contact tracing standard, so long as they continue to return negative tests. Non-vaccinated players are subject to quarantines following exposure to the virus, even if they test negative. The league has no set quarantine timeline, but players missed as much as one week during the regular season. Even one missed playoff game could have serious ramifications, and removing that risk for vaccinated players is no small edge.

The possibility of delaying playoff games

The league continues to monitor every potential impact coronavirus could have on its players. Discussions are near constant and have included the possibility of delaying playoff games in the instance of positive tests, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Those conversations have not gone so far to set a tipping point. Teams with fewer vaccinated players are naturally at greater risk of seeing cases spread among teammates.

A COVID-19 warning is displayed over the floor before a game between the Utah Jazz and New York Knicks at Vivint Smart Home Arena earlier this season. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
A COVID-19 warning is displayed over the floor before a game between the Utah Jazz and New York Knicks at Vivint Smart Home Arena earlier this season. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Of the 497 players tested since May 5, one returned a confirmed positive test, the NBA announced on Wednesday. Four players tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the highest total since the week starting Feb. 24. A total of 33 players have tested positive since the January surge — a weekly average of two.

More than 70% of players had received at least one shot of a vaccine at the end of April, according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver. They will presumably be fully vaccinated or close to it by next week's start to the playoffs. That figure is significantly higher than the American population (35% fully vaccinated and 46% administered at least one dose, per the CDC) — a reflection of the NBA's efforts to encourage and educate its members toward vaccinations — but on average one player per playoff rotation may not be vaccinated.

Are teams actually 85% vaccinated?

No team has revealed its roster to be 100% vaccinated, if only because it violates player privacy. Major League Baseball publicly announced that 85% of players and staff on nine teams had been fully vaccinated, but the NBA has yet to acknowledge any team has reached the recommended threshold for relaxed protocols.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sarah K. Spencer reported in mid-April that the Hawks will achieve that number with 15 players fully vaccinated prior to the start of the playoffs. The Miami Heat were "on pace to meet the NBA's threshold" in the last week of April, per the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman.

It is unclear whether or not that is the norm. 

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles Lakers reportedly arranging first doses for personnel on April 16, coach Frank Vogel said, "I don't believe we're near the 85%," according to Lakers Nation's Damian Burchardt. By April 26, Lakers guard Dennis Schroder indicated in a German media outlet that he and LeBron James were the only Lakers yet to be vaccinated. Schroder entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols on May 2.

When asked about his stance on the vaccination at the All-Star Game in March, James told reporters, "That’s a conversation that my family and I will have. Pretty much keep that to a private thing." He echoed the National Basketball Players Association's stance, as union president Chris Paul told USA Today's Mark Medina prior to the season, "When it comes to all different types of vaccines, a lot of that stuff is personal."

Some players are on record with their decision against vaccines. Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins said in March, via NBC Sports' Monte Poole, "I don't really see myself getting it anytime soon, unless forced to, somehow." When asked his plans, Warriors teammate Kent Bazemore added, "No sir."

Reasons not to be vaccinated are many, not the least of which is the justifiable concern that the healthcare system has historically underserved the Black community. The Tuskegee Experiment is evidence of worse.  

"This is not something that was just made up out of whole cloth," NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill in January. "There was a history of abuse of our community in the space and has not been lost or forgotten. And so whatever we try to do going forward has to respect that."

Following a series of public service announcements regarding COVID-19 vaccines in previous months, which included San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and retired legends Bill Russell and Julius Erving receiving their shots, the NBA released its first PSA with active players receiving and endorsing vaccines last week. It featured Jrue Holiday, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaren Jackson Jr., Domantas Sabonis, Robert Covington, Tyler Herro and Klay Thompson.

"We are starting to see signs that our lives and communities can get back to normal, but there is still more for us to do," Holiday said as the narrator. "Vaccines are one of the most important tools we have to control the spread and effect of COVID-19. It is safe, effective and will help protect you and your loved ones."

It could also protect teammates from missing extended playoff time. The ramifications of a player of James' caliber missing games is painfully obvious. The Lakers' drop in the standings during his recovery from an ankle injury is all the reminder we needed. Teams featuring star players who avoided coronavirus-related absences have for the most part enjoyed greater success during the regular season. In a year with no clear championship favorite, the playoffs will only amplify the importance of health, even among role players.

Less than 1% of players have tested positive in each of the past 10 weeks, but that trend also suggests the league will not avoid the virus over the next two months, and all it could take is one case to alter the outcome of a series. Gone is the protection of the bubble. In its place is roughly a 70% vaccination rate as players travel back and forth between cities to compete in the playoffs, often in front of thousands of fans.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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