The lasting image of the best team in the NBA going into the All-Star break is that of its star player angrily shoving a Gatorade cooler to the ground after being ejected. Donovan Mitchell didn’t stop there Wednesday night, later saying his Utah Jazz were “screwed” by referees in an overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and describing the way Jazz games are officiated as “fucking ridiculous.”
Despite the loss, Utah will finish the first half of the season a league-best 27-9, with a nine- and an 11-game winning streak in that span. But even the team that’s handled this gauntlet of a season better than anyone needs of some stress-free downtime. Jazz coach Quin Snyder said they haven’t had two consecutive days off since November. Just this past week, they’ve played four games in six days, including a back-to-back and their second back-to-back losses of the season.
The days in between games haven’t provided much of a break, either. The Jazz have all but eliminated shootarounds this season, but players still show up to the gym on off days to get up shots or to get treatment. There’s film work after games and, when they can squeeze them in, practices. And then there’s health and safety protocols, daily testing, and unforeseen postponements. Winning has, in some cases, become secondary to simply getting through each day.
“I can imagine that guys are ready to recharge,” Snyder said before Wednesday’s game. “We’ve talked about really, the last week or so, just about how to handle fatigue. … I would bet that it is more significant right now.”
Around the league, players and coaches are saying the same: Every All-Star break is welcomed, but this one is needed more than usual.
“If I was a player, this break, over all the breaks, I would probably look forward to,” Doc Rivers said. “I think these guys, they want to go out and flex their wings and my guess is that’s what they’re gonna do over this break, so I hope they all enjoy it.”
Snyder says he’s instituting a “lockout”: Jazz players can’t come into the facility or use the gym until Monday. But with only five days separating the end of the first half of the season and the start of the next half, and plenty of work to do to prepare, the amount of actual time away from basketball is limited. Snyder’s and Rivers’s reward for coaching the best team in each conference—with two All-Stars apiece—is having to coach the All-Star Game in Atlanta this weekend, all but cutting their break in half.
“We don’t relax a lot,” Rivers said. “You still get a mental break if nothing else, you know, and so I’ll take advantage of that. … I’m gonna try to get some golf in somewhere.”
Josh Richardson had a break earlier this season, but not the kind he wanted. He tested positive for COVID-19 in early January, after the Mavericks played the Nuggets, which forced him to stay behind in Denver and ultimately miss nine games.
Not every player has been hit as hard by COVID as Richardson, but every team has had to deal with the mental burden of that possibility. The pressure to stay healthy and stay on the court has weighed on players and staffers alike. When Richardson was asked to describe the first half of the season in a word on Wednesday night, he paused and shook his head for a few seconds before answering.
“Interesting,” he said. “Just not knowing what all the protocols were, then waking up to a call [to tell him that he was positive], after packing for one day and having to stay in Denver for 10 days, then trying to find out when I could get back.”
In addition to the health concerns related to the virus, there are the physical demands of this condensed schedule. Teams seem to be taking notice of the wear on players and adjusting. LeBron James was averaging more than 35 minutes a game for the Lakers without missing a single game until Wednesday, when he finally sat the second half of a back-to-back to rest and “get treatment.” Steph Curry also got the night off on Thursday to rest. Both will play in Sunday’s All-Star Game—despite James and other stars expressing sharp disapproval that the event exists in the first place. With the second half of the season tipping off next Wednesday, more teams may start to emulate the Clippers’ approach with Kawhi Leonard (who has played six fewer games than LeBron) and load-manage their stars for the playoffs.
“Sometimes making sure someone’s rested is the best way for your team to get better,” Snyder said. “But I think there’s no real, real way around it [this season]. You know that there is a grind.”
The emotional fatigue is adding up, too. The Trail Blazers’ Robert Covington said he has family that he wanted to spend time with earlier in the season, but they were unable to come to Portland in December because of how stringent the protocols were. Now that some of that has eased up and his immediate family is getting tested regularly, these extra days off couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We get a consistent amount of days to where we can just spend time with our families and loved ones,” Covington, who will also be participating in the All-Star skills competition, said with a sigh of relief. “We need it, people need to reset. … It’s good for guys to get their minds together, get their bodies right, get away from everything.”
As both Kristaps Porzingis and Terry Rozier said, some players are just hoping to spend some time outside a practice facility, an arena, or a hotel, or maybe in warmer weather or simply outdoors in order to catch some rare sunlight. The league is allowing players to travel, but not internationally, and will continue to test them daily. Richardson emphasized to his teammates through the media Wednesday that staying safe and virus-free should be the priority.
“It’s been a grueling first half more than people know,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “Everybody needs a mental break, a physical break right now. That’s an understatement.”
For some teams, though, the work continues apace. The Hawks and Timberwolves both fired and hired coaches in the past few weeks. Atlanta is 2-0 under Nate McMillan after firing Lloyd Pierce, while Minnesota is 0-5 in the Chris Finch era after firing Ryan Saunders. Finch, in particular, may benefit from the break, considering just a few weeks ago he was on the Raptors bench and working with Nick Nurse’s playbook, not his own. Both teams haven’t been shy about expressing how badly they need to regroup.
“I feel like it’s the best timing possible in light of the situation,” John Collins said after the Hawks beat the Magic on Wednesday. “It would be a lot of commotion to continue the season like this, having a new coach, so we will enjoy it and use it.”
Karl-Anthony Towns, for his part, was asked about how patient he can be during what is a nine-game losing streak. “Thank God for the break,” Towns said. “That’s all I’ll say.”
Steve Clifford’s whiteboard is currently covered with an All-Star break to-do list. The Orlando Magic coach typically uses the few extra days to take a closer look at areas in need of improvement. Last season, the extra time he devoted to film revealed two things the Magic needed to do: play faster and screen better. This season, there’s one thing on the whiteboard that is weighing on him more than most: how to best use the limited time he has with the team.
“One of the things that the pandemic has done is it just wears everybody out,” said Clifford, who in 2018 took a medical leave of absence from the Hornets due, in part, to exhaustion. This season, the Magic have been hit hard by injuries and now rank second to last in the East after a 4-0 start. Clifford is already wondering how Orlando will have the right amount of energy and intensity for games during a busy second-half schedule.
“There’s going to be very little practice time here,” Clifford said. “To me it’s about the best way to attack this schedule, best use of time—be it ballroom walk-throughs or film sessions. … It’s just something that I think you have to put thought into, unfortunately.”
Coaches are welcoming the break but can’t help themselves when looking at what they can do to maximize the time off. Rivers said that even if he does golf, he’ll probably be back watching film by 5 p.m. and looking for areas of improvement and exchanging notes with Sixers assistants. It’s hard to blame them given what lies ahead.
The number of postponements in the first half of the season and the league’s desire to stay on schedule for a Finals in July has further complicated the road ahead. The Mavs, for example, have 38 games in 68 days. The games will have bigger stakes, too, with teams fighting for not just playoff seeds, but play-in tournament bids too.
Though the league didn’t take players’ advice on canceling the All-Star Game, it is trying to account for fatigue concerns and the ever-present potential of positive tests. The NBA is lifting the 50-day restriction on two-way players, allowing them to remain with the team into the playoffs. One front-office source said that while the additional depth is much needed, they were hoping the league would even consider adding a third two-way slot. A number of teams have also been calling up players performing well in the G League bubble, which ends on March 11; they’re trying anything in order to help with depth and managing players’ loads.
“Mentally, it’s really important for them to get away to see something different and to get out of the facility,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Physically, it’s tricky. … They’re not going to be fully ready to play the next game because they can only practice once before that game. So when guys take five, six days off, it’s very difficult.”
Even as the games hit pause, the demands of this season remain. So while players and coaches are excited to step away for a bit, there’s an understanding that it won’t be for long.
“I’m not new to this, so I take a day or two off and right back to what I need to do for my body to make sure I’m fully ready for the second half,” Rozier said. “And I’ll make sure to be on the young guys too because we’re going to be in the same area, so I’ll make sure they’re doing what they need to do too.”