Brief layoff, quick start worry NBA health officials

    Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

Health officials around the NBA have expressed concern for how to prepare players for a potential 72-game regular season with a training camp that starts on Dec. 1, less than a month away — especially for the teams that haven’t played games since March and the two conference champions.

“It’s going to be especially challenging to not only get ready to play December 22 or whatever, but to maintain that for a period of four or five months,” said one head athletic trainer of a Western Conference team, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“This is going to be another period of unchartered territory. As unchartered as the [Orlando] bubble was [this summer], this is the bubble times three or four or five [because we’re] trying to extend it to that period of time with a minimal ramp-up.”

The league’s 71-day offseason from its Finals conclusion in mid-October and its resumption on Dec. 22 would mark the shortest offseason in the history of the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Trying to jump start the league in December presents obstacles, these health officials said, especially as they enter a longer slate of games than what teams played in the bubble. And while they acknowledge the financial and scheduling realities in the push to start the next season, health officials point to travel as a health and physical factor not needed to be considered to conclude the 2019-20 season.

“I’d be more worried about travel, because we saw in the bubble, not having travel really helped guys recover,” said one official intimately involved with player health. “So I don’t know if it’s actually the amount of games (72), but it’s just the fact that you’re getting to 2 a.m. in the morning and you’re traveling now — that becomes a bigger issue.”

League officials are confident that the number of reduced games and adjustments to reduce travel will aid teams. Such adjustments, though not finalized, would include more instances of teams playing the same opponent twice in the same city, as well as instances where teams would play more games against teams in nearby markets. (For example, more teams visiting Los Angeles would play the Lakers and Clippers on the same trip.) One other instance that could reduce travel is limiting one-game road trips.

League officials also noted that a shorter offseason is typical during years in which there is an Olympics or other international offseason, which is to say that they believe the timeline players are facing now isn’t unusual.

In terms of conditioning, several health officials said they were hopeful that teams would be able to return to game-shape in a three-week ramp-up, particularly if they followed the same blueprints as when they had a similar timeline before the Orlando bubble. But they also pointed out that they would have to build up a stronger base of conditioning and strength to last for the 72-game slate, especially and in order to stave off soft-tissue injuries that de-conditioned players tend to suffer, such as hamstring strains. It was noted that more players stay in shape in the offseason and have been doing so in the past month as chatter has built about a December re-start.

In a late October memo, the NBA informed teams that they’re allowed to open their facilities for offseason group practices and scrimmages of up to 10 players provided that they undergo daily COVID-19 testing — a move that several health officials said should help. Still, these officials were unsure about this timeline for the eight teams — Chicago, Atlanta, Golden State, New York, Minnesota, Charlotte, Cleveland and Detroit — that didn’t play in the bubble.

“They haven’t played competitively since March,” said one veteran head athletic trainer for an Eastern Conference team. “How are they gonna react?”

Said one official involved in player health, “I would be more worried about the teams that haven’t played in over eight months, honestly, as opposed to [other 22] teams.”

In a typical offseason, one Eastern Conference athletic training official noted, players would start returning to the team practice facilities after Labor Day in early September, to work out about a month before training camp, which would last about a month.

“That period is now cut in half,” the Eastern Conference athletic training official continued.

That same official, as did others, echoed the point about teams that haven’t played since March.

“You have to consider what these super high-end exertions are, the max speed, cutting and multi-directional movement and the high-end athletic environment that only a game can give you,” the official said. “When you see the teams that were fortunate enough to go to Orlando, they got that stimulus as recently as 120 days ago. For the two finalists, it is a pretty quick turnaround to allow for full recovery. But it’s a far greater thing for someone to not have that stimulus since March.”

Multiple officials also said they expected the two teams who just played in the Finals to potentially rest their stars and others early on while treating the first month of games as a sort of extended training camp and preseason. The Lakers and Miami Heat would be the only teams to experience a season turnaround of just 71 days whereas the traditional offseason since the 1983-84 season lasts 141 days for Finals franchises.

“I don’t foresee all the Lakers guys playing the first month of the season [and going] all out,” said the second official involved with player health.

“The problem is, it’s a shortened season, so the games matter,” said the first official involved in player health.

On Friday, LeBron James reacted to the NBA potentially starting its 2020-21 season in late December by posting the Elias Sports Bureau statistic on his Instagram. Beneath that stat, the Los Angeles Lakers star, who helped lead the team to its 17th title last month, posted an emoji of someone with their head in their hands, a sign of his displeasure.

Load managing players was also mentioned as a likely option for other teams who made deep playoff runs in the Orlando bubble, though a complicating factor is the NBA’s guidelines on how teams can rest players, depending on whether the game is, for instance, nationally televised.

While acknowledging that teams are in different situations in terms of how long their offseason has been, league officials remain confident that there will be adequate time for players to properly prepare for the season both before training camp — with facilities having been open for weeks — and then during what has been standard three-week training camp.

A number of unknowns loom that officials say could impact preparations for the season. Will there be fans at games? What will the health protocols be? How will individual arenas prepare? Many of these logistics, among others, are in talks and are expected to be finalized by or before Thanksgiving, multiple officials said.

Both team and league officials admit that whatever logistical obstacles exist in creating the schedule, the coronavirus pandemic remains the biggest issue facing the league, and their comments come as America continues to set daily records for new cases.

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