How quickly can players get into 'game shape'?

It was just over three weeks ago when Luka Doncic’s trainer was misquoted when discussing the Dallas Mavericks star’s physique. “Not in top shape yet” was the translation, missing a key qualifier. So when Doncic addressed reporters last week for the first time in nearly three months, he was immediately asked about the state of his physical shape.

“He said, like, ‘game shape,'” Doncic said. “I know what shape I’m in. I think I’m in good shape, and I’ll just get better until Orlando games start.”

Good shape vs. game shape is an important distinction. And as teams prepare for actual game play, trainers are juggling conflicting priorities: ensuring the safety of the players and staff by following the protocols outlined by the league, even though it limits the ramp-up for players in a truncated season restart.

“We never envisioned a four-plus-month layoff with no contact,” said one performance coach for a team heading to the Orlando bubble.

The prognosis is about as good as can be expected: So far there are few horror stories of players falling so far out of shape that it would be impossible to recover in time. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said his players look good physically “and have clearly worked hard to prepare as well as they can.” One Western Conference athletic training official said, “It’s not like all of them have just been sitting on their couch the whole time.”

And multiple general managers said the pressure to not let down their teammates or appear out of shape when play resumed would motivate players — particularly with a large national television audience tuning in.

Individual workouts have been useful. One performance coach for a team not headed to Orlando said that this window has allowed coaches to drill down on minute details in a player’s skill development — something they aren’t typically able to do this early in the summer. But the ability to transition from individual to group workouts remains critical, according to athletic training officials across the league. What is difficult to replicate in individual workouts, compared with group workouts, is basketball rhythm and game shape.

Physical therapist Fabrice Gautier, who has worked with dozens of NBA players in recent years, pointed out that biking, rowing, lifting and various exercise classes are functional but only to a point. “Imagine not playing 5-on-5, not getting hit, not getting hit in the air and landing — all those little details that are so critical to your brain, [to] your central nervous system.”

Celtics guard Kemba Walker hit on this theme recently with reporters: “You could do all the running you want, but basketball shape is just so different.”

The deceleration, change in direction and unanticipated movements when playing off a teammate or opponent and how the mind and muscles react to those stimuli are the variables that can’t be reproduced in training and individual workouts, one head athletic trainer said.

So coaches and training staffs have made do with the few solo basketball workouts that can help players with tendon conditioning: cutting, jumping exercises, start-stop motions. They focus on on-ball skills training — shooting, ballhandling, individual player moves — all to try to get creative given the limits of individual workouts.

That’s not to say there haven’t been players who have participated in pickup games. LeBron James and Ben Simmons have been seen on social media working out together. Buddy Hield recently got a few runs in at the Skinz League pro-am in Oklahoma City.

“You’re in la-la land if you don’t think these guys have played pickup games,” said T.O. Souryal, who was the Dallas Mavericks’ team physician for 22 years and served two terms as the president of the league’s association of team physicians.

Souryal noted that concerns about injuries are common after any length of time off, especially as players head into training camp. “We are always concerned when players come back from a long layoff because of the possibility of injuries, hamstring, calf, ruptured Achilles,” he said. And he wouldn’t be surprised to see such injuries in the first few games back in Orlando.

Because players are largely in an age and health range that places them at a lower risk for severe issues from the coronavirus, multiple athletic training officials on teams headed to Orlando said that, for the moment, they’re more concerned with injuries tied to the long layoff and lack of group workouts.

Souryal noted that the culture of year-round basketball among modern athletes leads them to be in better overall condition. Gautier also mentioned that a contributing factor to injury in recent years — frequency of travel — would not figure into the bubble environment.

“That could be a game-changer,” Gautier said.

So as teams make their way to Orlando and intersquad scrimmages start on July 22, trainers are balancing the restrictions on larger workouts while trying to mitigate the potential for game-shape-related injuries as much as possible.

“It’s an impossible mathematical equation,” the head athletic trainer said. “It’s impossible.”

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