When the NBA tips off its 2020-21 season on Dec. 22, as has been tentatively agreed upon, just 71 days will have elapsed since the conclusion of the 2020 NBA Finals. It will be the shortest season-to-season transition in MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Such a speedy turnaround has many in the league concerned from a health and wellness perspective, as illuminated in a recent feature from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. While first instinct might be to assume that teams fresh off deep 2020 playoff runs (e.g. Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers) will be most disadvantaged by a truncated offseason due to fatigue, some health officials cautioned Holmes that teams with too long a layoff will be at increased risk too.
“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,” Holmes wrote. He went on to report that same training official saying: “That period is now cut in half.”
Take the Bulls as an example. Their last dose of true game action came on March 10, one night before the league suspended the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While 22 teams congregated for the league’s Orlando restart in July, the Bulls and the rest of the so-called “Delete Eight” stayed spread apart -- some players engaging in limited individual workouts at team facilities, some not.
Each of those eight teams were allowed to conduct voluntary group workouts and scrimmages in home markets under stringent coronavirus-pertinent protocol for three weeks in September/October. Those, even, came with concerns related to player safety because of an accelerated ramp-up after an extended break.
“Going into the bubble, one of the things that was a focal point for us was making sure that we don’t put our players in harm’s way in terms of kind of just throwing them out there,” Bulls general manager Marc Eversley said in a Zoom press conference during those workouts. “And the performance staff has done a really great job about monitoring loads and levels and output.
“We’ve seen the results of that already. The first couple of days in the bubble, quite honestly, the basketball was sloppy. I mean, it was great to see [the players] out there. But the last three or four days, the basketball has really risen to a nice level. And I think the health and wellness of our players will continue to be a focus for us and making sure that we are continuing to put them in a proper environment to succeed.”
Myriad factors will make the environment of the 2020-21 campaign a taller task to pull off than the 2019-20 restart bubble. Even reportedly reduced by 25 percent, travel between markets will be required, which could cut into recovery time amid a 72-game regular season sprint in which the risk of injuries could already be higher than normal. COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country as winter approaches.
In anticipation of an early start, the NBA again began allowing teams to open their facilities for group workouts up to 10 players in late October. Abridged offseasons have taken place in the past.
Still, Holmes reported, health officials "pointed out that [players] 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."
The Eastern Conference athletic training official Holmes cited went on to break down the bodily adjustment players diving back into action after an eight-month layoff will have to go through:
The Bulls, specifically, will also need to acclimate a freshly-minted coaching staff, (likely) top-five draft pick and possibly a free agent signing or two in a span of days between now and the start of the 2020-21 campaign.
Still, it appears the league and its constituents will push forward. By the day, the difficulties involved in doing so safely are becoming clear.