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NBA Fact or Fiction: Respect for the Phoenix Suns and NBA COVID-19 protocols

·6 min read
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Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

The Phoenix Suns need your respect  

The Phoenix Suns had won 18 consecutive games — tied for the 10th-longest single-season streak in NBA history — before Friday night's loss to the Golden State Warriors. Of the nine teams that won 19 or more straight, five captured the championship that same season.

Yet, who really talks about the Suns outside of Phoenix?

The Suns' odds to win the title have finally surpassed those of the Los Angeles Lakers, even if they still trail the Brooklyn Nets, Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks in that regard. Talking heads may be sleeping on the reigning Western Conference champions, but the sharps have taken notice.

We should not be surprised by the media's fascination with the Lakers, starring LeBron James. Whether you love them or hate them, you have an opinion on them, and the conversation is blustering on both sides. Their exceptionalism leads them to believe they can make Russell Westbrook work in ways no one else could and welcomes bloviating sports television segments dedicated to the dysfunction his arrival generates.

The Suns, meanwhile, transformed from perennial lottery afterthought to bona fide contender overnight, largely skipping the customary years-long discussion that follows most young teams' rise from potential sleeper to plucky playoff challenger and ultimately serious threat. That conversation usually fizzles once said team's ceiling is set below championship level, unless an MVP-caliber performer emerges, in which case the debate about his ability to win the title will only grow louder with each successive playoff loss.

Phoenix is removed from all that noise. Devin Booker was not a winner, and then he was. Nobody thought Chris Paul would have another chance to make the Finals, and then he did. Deandre Ayton was a project, and then he wasn't. We got a crash course in Mikal Bridges' two-way contributions. Adoration for coach Monty Williams came from every corner of the NBA. The casual fan only had a month or two to process all of it.

When it was over, they were told it was a fluke. Phoenix beat the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray and the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. All true, but that take ignores one fact that became increasingly clear throughout the playoffs: The Suns are rock freaking solid.

The conversation for most kind of just ends there: Yeah, they are really good.

Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker have the Phoenix Suns atop the Western Conference as an encore to their NBA Finals appearance. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker have the Phoenix Suns atop the Western Conference as an encore to their NBA Finals appearance. (Harry How/Getty Images)

With the possible exception of the Warriors, no team fits so seamlessly together, only the Suns do not have Stephen Curry, the most electrifying player of his generation. Williams' rotation runs at least 10 deep, and seven of them are averaging between 7.6 and 12.6 points per game. The closest thing Phoenix has to a box-office hero is Booker, who is comfortable in his role as a silent assassin. He is not one thing. He is all things, scoring in isolation, as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, spotting up or coming off screens.

Paul is no high-flyer, either. His impact requires a deeper look, and that does not play well on Skip Bayless-based programming. If being rock solid, fitting into an ensemble and having a keen understanding of your craft were the sexiest of subjects, we would all probably be having a lot more Christoph Waltz discussions.

And we should have more Christoph Waltz discussions. You can find them if you follow people who care more for substance than empty calories. A casual observer's begrudging respect does not really matter in the end. Waltz has won two Academy Awards, and the Suns will take that hardware over fanfare any day.

Determination: Fiction

NBA COVID-19 protocols are working

LeBron James registered a false positive test for COVID-19 this week, and eight negative tests later, he cleared the NBA's health and safety protocols in time for Friday's showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers, according to ESPN's Dave McMenamin. Naturally, this launched a thousand online conspiracy theories ranging from James' superhuman immune system to an NBA cover-up and outright coronavirus denialism.

The truth is James' ordeal is more proof the NBA's strict COVID guidelines are working. 

Ever since Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving brought the league to the center of the vaccine debate in October, my inbox continues to be littered with questions that take some form of, If vaccines are so effective, why are NBA players still getting COVID-19? In NBA terms, it is the Bradley Beal defense.

"LeKaren gets COVID while Kyrie is still free," one email read. "Obviously the vaccine DOES NOT WORK."

As if breakthrough cases were not something discussed in great detail on a daily basis in this country.

By my count, 18 of the 510 players on the NBA's 30 rosters have tested positive for COVID-19 this season. Fourteen of them have been reported to be vaccinated. The vaccination for the other four is undisclosed. Even if all of them were fully vaccinated, that is a 3.5% positivity rate, slightly higher than most studies.

You could understand that, considering NBA players are a) among the most tested individuals in the country and b) traveling from city to city, where their public interactions are exponentially higher than the average American. Health care workers, for example, are susceptible to a much higher breakthrough rate.

It is probably no coincidence that six of the NBA's 18 positive tests have occurred since Thanksgiving.

The NBA does not disclose whether a player is vaccinated or not, or which vaccine he has received, but the league has reported that 97% of its players are vaccinated. That means about only 15 players are not.

Even if one of those four players whose vaccine status has not been disclosed tested positive, that would be a 6.7% rate — twice that of their vaccinated counterparts in the smallest of sample sizes. If all four were unvaccinated, that is a 26.7% positivity rate. None of this accounts for the NBA's stricter guidelines for unvaccinated players, which prevent them from social interaction outside practice and game settings.

The vaccines are working.

Still, a recent study conducted in coordination with infectious disease experts found 34 breakthrough cases in the NBA among 2,300 players and staff whose antibody levels were previously tested in the preseason, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Thirty-one of them had lower than normal levels of antibodies, and the other three had no detectable levels at all, only natural six months after vaccines became available.

The logical conclusion here: Time to get your booster shot. More holidays are around the corner.

Determination: Fact

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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