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.