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Will the NBA allow enough time with the restart of games to avoid injuries?

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It finally happens — the NBA returns. The coronavirus forced stoppage ends and the NBA races into action. As quickly as they can teams gather in a “bubble” in Las Vegas, players are on the court in games televised across the nation and streamed around the world. The NBA’s elite are back and thrown into a condensed playoff format…

Then in the first game a superstar player goes down with a torn ACL.

Just a few games later, another is sidelined with a strained quad. Another player suffers a torn meniscus. The injuries quickly start piling up.

It’s the scenario that is keeping NBA athletic trainers and staffs up at night.

“We call it spiking the workloads, you never want to go from zero to 100, that’s when you see a lot of injuries,” one team’s strength and training coach told NBC Sports, speaking on the condition of anonymity [his team did not want this discussed]. “You’re going to need a slow ramp-up. How slow it is going to be somewhat limited, with everyone wanting to get things going.”

As the NBA and its fans dream of returning to play, the league must find a balance. When the NBA restart happens, there will be a rush to move fast and get games going, but move too fast and it could lead to injuries. Guys need time to get back into game shape.

Any athlete at any level will tell you: working out in a gym is not game shape. For the NBA, the consequences of moving too fast could devastate some players and teams.

How long a runway into games will teams need before they can play?

“I think it’s going to take time… Realistically three weeks, four weeks would be ideal, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” one strength trainer said.

Other training staff polled seem to expect two-three weeks, with games of some form — maybe some regular season games, perhaps just exhibitions — as part of that. The league itself is not discussing publicly the return — there are too many variables in play to make predictions — but sources said a training camp is factored into the equation.

Just having the games is critical.

“Conditioning is a primary reason for pre-season exhibition games… live game speed simulation remains ideal,” said Javair Gillett, Director of Athletic Performance for the Houston Rockets.

Knowing they could return to work at any time, NBA players are trying to work out at home — and team strength and conditioning staffs are using new technology to help out with that. Everyone understands that whenever the suspension is lifted, things are going to move fast.

That short window has players from playoff-bound teams seeming a little more focused than those who are near the start of their off-season (and may not play again this season).

“As we’ve been preaching and saying around our team, amongst coach, we want to win the wait,” the Clippers’ Paul George said on the team’s Instagram feed. “When this thing gets back going, we want to be the team that’s in the best shape and ready to go.”

“Guys know that they won’t be able to use games to play themselves into shape,” Gillett said of the Rockets. “So if we continue the season, the hope and expectation is that we see guys returning with a higher level of fitness than the state they typically return in at the onset of a full season…

“We know where we’re at in the season, what’s on the line, what’s at stake, with that in mind our players are very motivated because there’s still that end goal in sight, to win a championship.”

Technology helps training staffs push their players in ways they couldn’t have years ago.

Gillet and the Rockets are among the franchises using Teambuildr, an app and website site where staff can plan, track, and demonstrate through videos how to do remote workouts. It allows the staffs to design and modify workouts for each player individually. In the NBA alone Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Minnesota, and Detroit use the site, as do teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB.

“Technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, we’ve gotten to the point teams can present their programs online or through apps,” Gillett said, adding it makes it easier for players to follow along and stick with a program.

Other teams have gone different directions.

“The players had bikes and weights delivered to their homes,” Brad Stevens said of the Celtics. “We’ve had some voluntary strength and conditioning sessions.”

The Warriors’ players have been doing group Peleton classes.

One challenge is simply nobody knows what the timeline of a return will be.

“Like the rest of the country, they don’t know when they are going to go back to work,” Gillett said.

Another challenge has been the limited equipment some players have available to work out with in their home. Highly-paid players and ones that live in bigger homes in the market (often veterans with families) may have impressive workout facilities in their houses. Even among those players, having half-a-court to practice shooting is rare. Stephen Curry didn’t have one.

It’s even harder for younger players and guys living in apartments, they had very limited tools.

“Their homes aren’t equipped with a lot, so we tried to communicate with them on an individual basis and address individual needs as best we can,” Gillett said of the Rockets’ approach. “In the offseason we send guys home with a care package, a duffel bag of items we feel is necessary, that we know is going to be part of their program. I think in this case it’s no different, we’re trying to provide some things we know they may not have at their home.”

Even for the teams taking their suspension workouts seriously, nobody is going to be in game shape.

“It is very difficult to maintain basketball, NBA level conditioning, without playing games… the volume, the intensity, the stress levels all come into play and it’s very difficult to replicate,” the Rockets’ Gillett said. “Which is why we’re stressing [to players] you have to maintain a certain level of fitness so that when you are to return it’s not going to take a long time to get you back into basketball shape.”

There will need to be games when the league returns, which is one reason for the discussion of playing some regular season games upon the league’s return. Even if the long hiatus forces the NBA to jump almost directly to the playoffs, there will need to be some exhibition games to get guys ready.

“I feel no matter what guys are doing, unless they have a court in their house, or access to a court, they’re just not going to be ready physically to handle the stress that a player goes through during the game,” one trainer told NBC Sports. “Then you add to that it could be right into the playoffs, and that’s an added stress.”

And that added stress could lead to injuries the NBA desperately wants to avoid.

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.