Rico Hines prides himself on guiding the development of the NBA’s best. During the season, he works as the director of player development for the Sacramento Kings, nurturing the likes of Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox. During the offseason, he trains players like Pascal Siakam, and oversees the famous pickup runs inside UCLA’s Student Activity Center, where ocassionally Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James sharpen their skills.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the league into a bubble in Florida this past summer, Hines’s routine, like the rest of the basketball world, was thrown out of whack.
Typically, NBA players have between four to six months to prepare for a season, giving them ample time to recover and improve their skill sets. However, after the five-month shutdown, eight teams were left at home while the rest of the league reconvened at Disney World. The decision to accelerate the start of this coming season has left some teams with limited training time and others with a nearly nine-month offseason.
Hines attended the bubble with the Kings and came back to Los Angeles, where he lives in the offseason, in August. But with local preventative protocols in place, UCLA was no longer available for training. So he took his workouts to El Camino College, a community college located 20 miles south of Westwood. He says there was daily rapid testing onsite for the players and coaches, but there weren’t the usual extra spectators along the baselines for the pickup games.
“Nothing is bulletproof. We all get that and understand that,” Hines says. “But, if we can just try to obey by the rules as much as possible, we could get some good work in and create our whole miniature-type bubble for us to continue to get better.”
Hines’s runs later moved to the Sports Academy, formerly known as the Mamba Sports Academy, where workouts were already in progress. Superstars from around the league descended on the complex, including Durant, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, and James Harden. On one occasion, all four played on the same court. Paul and Harden, who were reportedly at odds during Paul’s two-year stint in Houston, seemed to be on good terms during the run, according to one person who witnessed it.
Up the California coast, Warriors guard Stephen Curry was organizing his own runs at the University of San Francisco. Curry is a unique case among NBA superstars. A broken hand kept him out for most of last season, and the Warriors weren’t invited to the bubble, which means he’s played in just five regular-season games since the 2019 NBA Finals. Following the season’s postponement, Curry was confined to his home, lifting weights and shooting on his outdoor court, unsure when he’d see an arena floor again.
Uncertainty over the start of the 2020-21 season loomed over every player. Initial timetables had the season starting in mid-January, presumably the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, according to multiple league sources. Eventually, December 22 was selected. In the meantime, Hines said Paul, the president of the players association, kept him aware of the latest intel on the start date, which helped Hines guide his training sessions. Nonetheless, the ambiguity made it difficult. Players are creatures of habit, and the fluctuating dates made it hard to map out when to ramp up training or when to pull back.
“I am a 100 percent certain that [the restart date] impacted the advice that they were getting from our trainers and their trainers,” said Tzvi Twersky, chief marketing officer of the Sports Academy. “And even just as far as recovery goes, downtime, and how many hours you put in a day and what are you focusing on? Are you working on those little individual things to improve more? And all of a sudden now you’re diving into a team concept. And I think guys just went from like, ‘I have this long offseason to focus on numerous objectives’ to being like, ‘Oh shit, I got to get ready to get back in. I got to get ready to get back with my team in a couple of weeks.’”
“I mean, they’re all professionals, they’re all being paid very well to do their job so getting them motivated is not an issue,” said Brandon Payne, Curry’s trainer. “But loading them appropriately has everything to do with the calendar. How much you’re running, the pace of the workouts, the pace of their lists, all that factors in. Having your cardiovascular protocols in place in terms of how quickly you’re ramping up the cardio work, all that stuff is factored in normally based off a start date. It was just challenging.”
Payne and Curry were in this situation before during the 2011 lockout. Curry was 23 years old then and months removed from an offseason ankle surgery. But Payne’s philosophy at that time was similar to this summer: manage Curry’s workload.
“If we had one or two consecutive days where there was a good bit of running, then we’ve got to back it off for a day or two,” Payne said. “You just have to balance the work, you have to balance to make sure that you’re not leaving your legs in the summer, and you have legs for 72 games this year. ”
When the start date to the season was set, Curry began organizing scrimmages at the University of San Francisco gym, inviting teammates, including Eric Paschall and Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Atlanta Hawks guard Cam Reddish, who trained with Payne during the predraft process in 2019. Payne said each player was tested for COVID-19 upon arrival, then sat in their cars until a negative result was received. Curry quickly proved to be the best player on the floor. On one occasion, according to Toscano-Anderson, Curry fell down on the wing, kept his dribble beyond the arc, got back up, and drained a 3-pointer over a defender.
“It’s just like, bro, only he’s going to make those plays,” Toscano-Anderson said. “And he’s making these plays so consistently, it’s not like you see him doing amazing plays every three times you see him or every three practices. It’s like he’s doing this shit every day. So it’s just amazing to watch.”
It’s a slightly different calculus for teams that went deep in the playoffs. Siakam, for instance, played into the Eastern Conference semifinals, giving him just a three-month turnaround from his last game. The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers face the biggest challenge, having played their last games in mid-October. Just after the Lakers won the title, Danny Green suggested on The Ringer NBA Show that LeBron James, who is entering his 18th season, could sit out the first month of the season to rest. James has since said he would adhere to a to-be-determined “load management plan; he sat out the Lakers’ first two preseason games and played just 15 minutes of the third. There are health concerns generated by a lack of a proper offseason.
“It does inherently raise the risk of some potential injuries,” said Jeff Stotts, an injury analyst for InStreetClothes.com and Rotowire.com. “I’ll be keeping a close eye on stress-related injuries, like stress fractures, stress reactions, those kinds of things, early on. You’ve seen in the NFL, there was a bump in ACL injuries. I’m not as concerned quite as much with the huge jump in ACLs for the NBA. But there is some concern about early-season soft-tissue injuries, like hamstring strains, things like that.”
Stotts says teams will have to use lower impact methods of training during downtime to reduce the amount of weight put on a player’s body while keeping them fresh. He also says teams will have to rely more on their depth; some franchises may not have an active G League team this season, but the NBA is expected to expand active rosters from 13 to 15. Nonetheless, players from the bubble’s postseason teams say they’re adjusting.
“I mean you don’t really care, nobody really cares,” Miami guard Jimmy Butler said last week about the shortened offseason. “I got a job to do, so that’s what I got to be ready to do. I’ve got to be ready to compete when these games start.”
The teams that either suffered an early playoff exit or didn’t make the bubble entirely would seem to be in a better position entering the season. But at the Sports Academy, Twersky said he didn’t see much of a difference in how players from the postseason approached training versus those who didn’t. Hines said the same.
“I don’t know how much of an advantage it is,” Hines said. “We’re just trying to put it back together, to get back to the normalcy and get to the work. Just get back to the work and the grind of every day.”
Draymond Green played in more games last season than Curry, his Warriors teammate, but he didn’t suit up for the final six. When he plays the Nets on opening night, it will be close to 10 months since his last regular-season game. He noted recently that players usually take that long of a layoff only for a serious injury. “Missing that amount of time of basketball is a completely different thing,” he said.
Green showed up to training camp noticeably thinner than usual. “My body feels as good as it’s felt in a long time,” he said. “I was able to get a lot of work in on my game as opposed to a month and a half leading up to the season.”
But Green and Warriors rookie James Wiseman reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, and were held out for the entire preseason. It was a stark reminder: No matter how long a player’s offseason was, returning to normalcy will be difficult in a season unlike any other in league history.