SportsPulse: The Los Angeles Lakers are headed back to the NBA Finals after knocking off the Nuggets in Game 5, but LeBron James is not ready to celebrate anything yet.
In normal circumstances, the exercise may have caused some players to roll their eyes or sleep walk through it. When the Atlanta Hawks began layup lines during their first group practice this week, however, they reacted as if they made a game-winning play.
“We’ve never done a layup drill with such intensity. We were doing layup drills, and guys were clapping and cheering,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said, laughing. “It goes to show we haven’t practiced in a long time if they’re excited doing layup drills.”
The NBA halted the season March 11 because of the coronavirus outbreak, teventually restarting its season July 30 at a quarantined campus in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Because of safety concerns, however, just 22 of the 30 teams participated in bubble play.
That left the Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks without any games or scrimmages to play.
Until this week.
After hosting voluntary individual workouts at their respective practice facilities Sept. 14-20, those eight teams held voluntary group practices starting Monday that will last through Oct. 6. During that time, all players, coaches and staff members will undergo daily testing for COVID-19 while staying in what the league called “a campus-like environment” between the team’s practice facilities and a quarantined hotel.
“It’s tough to watch these guys play at a really high level and be competitive at basketball and not be a part of it,” said Gersson Rosas, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations. “So there’s a motivation and there’s a hunger. We know we have a lot of work to do.”
What should these teams prioritize in their two weeks together? How should they blend instruction, scrimmaging and team-sanctioned activities? Amid the uncertainty on when next season even starts, how much of a workload should teams place on their players during these workouts?
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“Usually in the summer when you take your time off, you know when it’s time to ramp yourself back up,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “That’s been the hard part for us – trying to maintain something instead of these big ups and these downs. That’s difficult when you don’t know exactly when the date is going to start.”
After Oct. 6, teams will be required to take at least two weeks off from reporting to their respective training facilities. Though players might be allowed to return after that for individual workouts, it remains unclear what any more offseason workouts might look like. The NBA has also not established how much time will be allowed both for training camp and any voluntary or mandatory workouts leading into that.
“We will try to appeal to the league just like every team will to have our team together as much as possible,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Having said that, we have no idea what the guidelines are going to be based on the virus and based on health and safety precautions. We’ll have to wait and see.”
When the Knicks began their first day of group workouts this week, perhaps it was not surprising that first-year New York coach Tim Thibodeau held a lengthy practice. He wants to become familiar with a new coaching staff and wants to develop a young roster that includes R.J. Barrett, last year’s No. 3 overall pick who failed to make any of the NBA’s All-Rookie teams.
“Usually the first day, there is teaching that goes on. So it was a good first day in terms of what we were able to get accomplished,” Thibodeau said. “There’s no magic formula where you’re going to get everything done in one day. It’s about establishing and building the right habits to be successful. You’re putting in the foundation of an offensive system and defensive system. It’s all about building the right habits so the team can improve as time goes on.”
But how much can teams really improve during this process?
“If you try to go through a minicamp in two weeks and lay out a bunch of long items … you want to accomplish, you’re going to run into a brick wall,” Pierce said. “You’re going to overdo it. I’m very mindful of that.”
The reason for the skepticism seems understandable. Attendance has varied and teams are not preparing for an actual game.
The Timberwolves gushed about their franchise pillars in D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns attending as well as Malik Beasley, despite his entering the free agency market. So did the Cavaliers for All-Star Kevin Love. Same thing with the Warriors for having Klay Thompson practice for the first time since injuring his left knee in their Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Beasley may be an exception, as most pending free agents are not expected to be a part of these workouts because they could get hurt just as they are negotiating a new deal. The Warriors excused Stephen Curry and Draymond Green from participating for family reasons, depriving that team the chance to bond and forge chemistry with the two stars.
“Would I like them to be here? Of course. The ones that didn’t make the playoffs, even they got six weeks together to practice and play games and try different combinations and lineups. And we haven’t had that opportunity,” Kerr said. “A lot of guys are going to get a lot better and really thrive in this environment. I’m not worried about Steph and Draymond. I know how hard they work and I know they’ll be prepared for next season.”
To prepare themselves for next season, most teams have pivoted their priorities.
“This is not training camp,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “This is a time for group work with our players on just focusing on getting them better and getting our team better. It’s about getting us into a position when next season does come, we’re ready to hit the ground running.”
Teams have put more emphasis on conditioning drills, some scrimmaging and basic sets. Since teams stay at a hotel near their facility, they have constructed numerous team activities.
They have organized team dinners, such as the birthday celebration the Hawks put on for forward John Collins. They have watched playoff games together, while the coaching staffs point out strategy as they do in normal film sessions. They have talked about racial justice issues and the importance of voting. At both their practice facilities and hotels, they have hosted games of ping-pong, air hockey and cornhole. Some players have held wine-tasting sessions, including Love, who joked, “I can sweat some of it from the night before and we can get going.”
“The biggest thing we want to accomplish is just to get our group together and build more camaraderie,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said. “It’s tough from a two-week window to really accomplish a lot from a basketball perspective. But from a team-building perspective, we feel like we can accomplish a lot with this little window.”
Will that be enough? Of course not. But at least those players and coaches can feel the joy of returning to the gym with a ball in their hand again. So much that they might even continue to cheer during layup lines.
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