WHEN FRANK VOGEL has chatted with the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of traveling to the NBA’s campus at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, next week, the conversation has mostly been informational.
Players want clarity about how restrictive the so-called bubble will be — for instance, under what circumstances, if any, can they leave? The coach is asking his players to treat such matters as they would best practices for any other element of being a professional.
“Social distancing, face masks, minimizing contact — these are habits like anything else,” Vogel said. “It’s no different than being diligent about your diet, your sleeping habits, your alcohol use, weight training or getting extra shots up.”
But nothing is straightforward as teams begin migrating to Orlando on July 7 for the bubble experiment. For an NBA coach in the age of COVID-19, there are many strange, new challenges to meet on and off the court — and seemingly every question about how to approach the resumption of the 2020 season presents a paradox.
Returning players need to reestablish peak fitness as quickly as possible, but working into shape too quickly could risk injury. A playoff team must be able to leverage its talents in creative, unpredictable ways — but being too creative before players have a chance to review the basics might generate more confusion than success. Coaches and players mostly want to return to normalcy as quickly as possible — but what if trying to approximate normalcy only places more emphasis on the abnormal?
“We are creatures of habit, and our environment has been shaken up,” Vogel said. “It’s really going to be a balancing act.”
For teams with title hopes — and the coaches calling the shots — there’s an even greater urgency to pick up where they left off. If you’re Vogel’s Lakers, why wouldn’t you want to treat the first game on July 30 as if it were March 11, with your West-leading 49-14 record and less than a week removed from statement wins over first-place Milwaukee and the rival LA Clippers?
But being the indomitable 49-14 Lakers and feeling like the indomitable 49-14 Lakers are two different things.
“You basically have two weeks before you start playing scrimmages,” Vogel said. “You have to take it slow — but then you also have to get up to speed.”
It’s the classic Wooden-ism: Be quick, don’t hurry.
FOR VOGEL’S LAKERS, working toward peak fitness represents the most important objective of training camp.
When the regular season resumes, the NBA will end a 142-day hiatus, a duration 10 days longer than the end of the 2019 Finals and the start of the regular season this past October. When you consider the sedentary and isolated life most players have endured since the onset of the coronavirus, the contrast between season and downtime has never been more radical.
“Conditioning will be a great unknown,” Vogel said. “Players are [typically] playing pick-up four or five days a week a month before they get to training camp. But that’s not been the case. It’s been all individual workouts. What will their bodies be ready for, not having really played?”
While conditioning is a top concern across the league, the time off also presents unlikely advantages.
NBA teams rarely have the time midseason to contemplate their on-court identity. There’s simply too much to do when there’s always an upcoming game to scout. A normal summer would provide that kind of time, but rosters typically change too much during the offseason.
The defending champion Toronto Raptors have taken advantage of the extra time by putting together a few dozen six- to eight-minute game film edits — and that’s just on the offense. Each reel features a play or action, say, a middle pick-and-roll. There’s also a catalog of edits for Toronto’s defense, one of the NBA’s most versatile. That has allowed coach Nick Nurse and his staff the chance to dig in, be introspective and understand the team at the most granular level.
“It was interesting to do,” Nurse said. “During the season, sometimes you’ll run a package [of plays], then not run it again for a few weeks. It can get lost in the shuffle. It was invigorating to see [the clips] at work all in one place. I really like how our packages are developing on both ends.”
With the benefit of study and hindsight, Nurse can begin training camp with added clarity about what the Raptors do best, with a series of adjustments to improve what they do pretty well.
“Now we can say, ‘Let’s get back to that,'” he said.
If a pause of nearly four months offers coaches and players a rare chance to review on-court systems and refine them, it also benefits teams working in new pieces, such as the Houston Rockets.
In February, the Rockets traded their starting center, Clint Capela, and acquired lanky wing and defensive stopper Robert Covington, along with Jeff Green. In one fell swoop, Houston evolved from a team with a conventional big man into a small-ball outfit.
“We didn’t really have a whole lot of time to integrate everybody in their new or different roles,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, referencing moving 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker over to the 5 position full-time.
After a honeymoon stretch during which the retooled Rockets ripped off six consecutive wins, they hit some bumps. When play was interrupted, they were a shaky team grasping for answers after recent losses to Charlotte and Orlando. So for Houston, which has knocked on the door of the Finals for years, the break couldn’t have been more timely.
“Having that time, we really should treat this like a training camp,” D’Antoni said. “We [played with our new system] for about a month. But now we have the time to implement our philosophy exactly the way we want. We have time to change some things that weren’t working and improve. We’ll be able to ingrain some habits and learn to react to things without having to think about it.
“We have to make this an advantage.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni says he hasn’t heard anything from the NBA about his coaching from the bench in Orlando, Florida.
IN THE BUBBLE, habits might need to be broken or retrained, and long-established roles will change — something coaches acknowledge and are preparing to deal with.
For one, the spirit of team basketball relies on touch — the handshakes at introductions, the high-five, pulling a fallen teammate up off the court — but that behavior violates best practices in the bubble. How closely the Lakers monitor those gestures speaks to another paradox at play.
“There are two schools of thoughts,” Vogel said. “One, that good pandemic habits mean no handshakes, and touch people as little as possible, and have as little physical contact as little as possible. But the bubble was created so that everyone inside it is free of the virus. I think we’re going to follow the lead of the league and their expectation.”
For the coaching staff, there will be new duties. With much of the usual personnel unlikely to make the trip to Orlando, the Lakers’ skeleton crew in the bubble will have to multitask on the floor. More senior assistant coaches might find themselves picking up duties normally performed by player development assistants.
“Everybody will cover for each other and everybody’s got to do multiple things,” Vogel said. “There’s going to be more player-versus-player portions of practice where there would normally be players doing no contact work against coaches. It’s everything — we’ll have to help the equipment guy out.”
However stripped down the infrastructure is in Orlando, the coaches expect their guys to be ready. The muscle memory of an NBA player is otherworldly, and if he has to do his shell work in practice without a full complement of staff, that’s a small worry. Everyone’s in the same boat.
“It’s like a snowy football game,” Vogel said. “It’s snowy for both teams.”
Well, one thing is clear.
Vogel received definitive word from the league last week on the dress code for the sidelines in Orlando, and his hopes were fulfilled: Polo shirts it is. He and his peers won’t be schvitzing through their suits. Amid all the uncertainty surrounding what lies ahead for coaches in Orlando, at least that’s one less thing for them to think about.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton to sit out again
Despite getting up and down the court for 5-on-5 action during practices, both players will remain out as they as they continue to work themselves back into game shape after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The NBA-best Bucks (54-12) were able to pick up the slack without them in their 119-112 restart opener win over Boston, but know they’ll need those key guys down the stretch. There is currently no timetable on their return to action, but they’re staying ready.
“I’m just preparing for whenever Coach calls my number,” Connaughton said after Sunday’s practice. “I think obviously they have a plan; we have a great strength staff, sports science staff, and a great coaching staff, so I’m kind of just following directions as I’m told them. And I think it’s kind of being taken day by day, and we’ll kind of figure that out the more I do, the more simulated games, 5-on-5, 3-on-3 or whatever the stuff that they have me do on a daily basis as they see I’m ready to play. I’m sure they’ll let me hop in there at some point.”
With a victory against Houston, the Bucks can clinch the best record in the Eastern Conference. Connaughton is averaging 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game this season as a solid rotation player.
Throughout this process, Connaughton says he experienced “mild symptoms” with muscle aches after he tested positive for the coronavirus, which lasted about 12 hours. Other than that, it felt like a normal fever with lack of energy and loss of taste to him.
“When I have had the flu or a head cold or something like that, the only difference was that little period where I had some muscle aches,” Connaughton described. “After about five days, I pretty much felt healthy.”
NBA campus intel – Schedule and live updates for Day 4 of seeding games
For the Blazers, the goal is to build upon the momentum they carried over from their stunning 140-135 overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. That victory was a massive one for Portland; not only did the Blazers manage to overcome an 11-point, second-half deficit to win their first game at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, but it also allowed Portland to move to within 2½ games of Memphis for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Everybody knew how important that game was,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said afterward. “This is playoff basketball from us, and we have that pressure and you can’t shy away from it.”
For Portland to make the playoffs, it will need to both remain in ninth place and within four games of Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West to enter into the first play-in tournament, something the NBA instituted as part of its return to play inside the campus.
Finding a way to get another win over the Celtics would go a long way toward securing either option. To do so, they’ll need to continue to see the kind of game they got from Damian Lillard, who had 29 points and nine assists in 45 minutes after missing Portland’s final two scrimmages because of inflammation in his left foot.
Speaking of injured point guards, the Celtics couldn’t care less about playoff positioning during these seeding games. Instead, the singular focus for Boston between now and when the playoffs start later this month is to get Kemba Walker back to full strength.
Though Boston lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in their first game in Florida on Friday night, what they saw from Walker in that game made the night a success. Walker played only 19 minutes, as part of a carefully mapped out build-up plan during these seeding games as he tries to ease his balky left knee back to normal. But he scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field, playing with precisely the kind of burst Boston will need from him if the Celtics want to beat Milwaukee in a potential third straight showdown in the playoffs.
“It felt pretty normal,” Walker said. “It felt very normal. It felt good.”
No matter the result, if the Celtics hear Walker say the same thing after this game, they’ll be happy. — Tim Bontemps
Sunday’s must-see games
The Trail Blazers got off to exactly the kind of start they needed, taking down the Grizzlies in the opener to close the gap, because things start to get tougher from here. The Celtics played the Bucks to the wire, getting a terrific game from Marcus Smart and looking every bit prepared, conditioned and ready. The Trail Blazers are definitely a better team today than they were in March. They’re going to need to show it against Boston. — Royce Young
There’s a decent chance the Bucks might drop 190 points on Houston. But then again, the Rockets might return the favor, because the microball is still cooking. James Harden didn’t show any signs of rust, and for the most part, Houston just continued on with what it was doing in March. If anything, the restart might have given the Rockets more of a chance to work out some issues, and a showdown against the Bucks is a great chance to try it out in a rematch of both teams’ season opener.— Young
In contrast to Saturday, Sunday’s games are almost exclusively bubble-flavored. Only the Bucks-Rockets matchup is free from seeding drama (a Bucks win clinches the top seed in the East for Milwaukee).
The day starts off with the Washington Wizards getting a crack at the current 8-seed, the Brooklyn Nets. Both teams are in dilapidated roster states, and it showed in their respective opening losses Friday. The Orlando Magic beat the Nets to take hold of the 7-seed; they’ll look to put some distance between themselves and Brooklyn when they play the Sacramento Kings, who need to bounce back from Friday’s demoralizing loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs will look to continue the momentum from that win by taking on Southeast Division rival and current West 8-seed Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. The Grizzlies are the hunted, and they’re already reeling from Friday’s overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers; the Rip City outlet needs a win over the Celtics and/or some help to maintain their hold on the 9-seed.
8. Memphis Grizzlies | 32-34 (.485) | —
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 30-37 (.448) | 2.5 GB
10. San Antonio Spurs | 28-36 (.438) | 3.0 GB
11. Sacramento Kings | 28-37 (.431) | 3.5 GB
12. New Orleans Pelicans | 28-38 (.424) | 4.0 GB
13. Phoenix Suns | 27-39 (.409) | 5 GB
Analysis and intel
The restart games have already changed the play-in and playoff odds in the East and West.
How Carmelo Anthony, Nikola Jokic and other athletes changed their look during the coronavirus shutdown
Some professional athletes have become even more fit while staying home this spring and summer. What nerve.
The NBA returned on Thursday, the MLB last week — and, as sports slowly come back, our eyes are on these players’ new, post-lockdown looks:
The Portland Trail Blazers player is now dubbed “Skinny Melo” after arriving in Orlando looking noticeably slimmer. He had been starting at power forward for Portland, but with the return of big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, he’s preparing to return to small forward.
“For me, I had that in the back of my mind, once Coach told me the position, that I’d be switching back to the 3,” Anthony said. “I kind of challenged myself to get down to that weight where I feel comfortable with playing the 3, comfortable running around and utilizing things I can do within our system from playing the 3.
Skinny Melo still doing work in the paint 💪 pic.twitter.com/beaXImRSCe
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 26, 2020
The veteran Raptors center focused on his fitness during the break in an effort to play to his full potential now that a nagging hamstring injury has finally healed.
Marc Gasol has lost some serious weight😳 pic.twitter.com/iKFddDKdaV
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 20, 2020
“It was a frustrating season for me personally because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” Gasol said earlier this month. “As soon as … we got informed the [Toronto training] facility was closing down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”
Harden was already a scoring machine ahead of the NBA lockdown, and now the Houston Rockets star looks fitter than ever.
Focused On Staying Ready 😤
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) May 28, 2020
The 2018 NBA MVP told The Athletic in May: “I’ve been doing a lot of cardio. I’ve got treadmills in my houses, weights and all that good stuff. It really hasn’t affected me like it’s affected a lot of other players.”
The first picture of the Denver Nuggets center since the break was shocking. Are we sure that is Nikola Jokic?!
👀 JOKIC! pic.twitter.com/NNsyW4HHRE
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) June 11, 2020
“He sent me a picture. No shirt on. He’s got abs. I’ve never seen him have abs before,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said recently. Are the Nuggets ready to make a run for the title in the bubble?
The New Orleans Pelicans rookie clearly put in work in the downtime. And we are ready to see the show.
“Zion used the time off to shed 25 pounds of pure fat and put on 10 pounds of lean, explosive, dynamic muscle” pic.twitter.com/s8NaNtIas0
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) July 2, 2020
“Zion has been diligent about taking care of himself,” David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, told ESPN. “He’s in a good space physically and mentally.”
The MLB opened its season last week, and a handful of players have been showing off their new physiques as well:
Now that the regular season has begun, Yankees fans could celebrate that on Wednesday, Voit has been on their team for two years.
Like his teammate, Chapman — a closer for the Yankees — increased his fitness level during the shutdown.
“I definitely wanted to take advantage of that, actually wanted to cut some pounds during quarantine and being at home and training at home,” the 32-year-old said during a Zoom call with reporters in early July. “I was able to do that, I was able to cut some pounds, 10 pounds, and I feel really good right now. I find myself at a great weight for an athlete.”
If you followed his Instagram at all the past few months, it comes as no surprise how shredded he has become.
The Philadelphia Phillies star has always been muscular, but his ridiculous squat workout is putting the rest of the NL on notice.
The former MVP is jacked!
And to round out these new looks, we’ve also appreciated the new hairdos in soccer. Most important, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe revived her iconic pink locks:
While others were looking long — or buzzed:
Buzzing to be back 🤩 pic.twitter.com/xikxrR5Y6X
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) May 20, 2020
Some interesting new haircuts on show! 💇♂️ pic.twitter.com/6BUVumJPbG
— Leicester City (@LCFC) May 20, 2020
Ashley Young has hair now. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 18, 2020
May we never find the need to take the buzzers into our own hands again.
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