The strange new challenges facing NBA coaches in the age of COVID-19

WHEN FRANK VOGEL has chatted with the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of traveling to the NBA’s campus at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, next week, the conversation has mostly been informational.

Players want clarity about how restrictive the so-called bubble will be — for instance, under what circumstances, if any, can they leave? The coach is asking his players to treat such matters as they would best practices for any other element of being a professional.

“Social distancing, face masks, minimizing contact — these are habits like anything else,” Vogel said. “It’s no different than being diligent about your diet, your sleeping habits, your alcohol use, weight training or getting extra shots up.”

But nothing is straightforward as teams begin migrating to Orlando on Tuesday for the bubble experiment. For an NBA coach in the age of COVID-19, there are many strange, new challenges to meet on and off the court — and seemingly every question about how to approach the resumption of the 2020 season presents a paradox.

Returning players need to reestablish peak fitness as quickly as possible, but working into shape too quickly could risk injury. A playoff team must be able to leverage its talents in creative, unpredictable ways — but being too creative before players have a chance to review the basics might generate more confusion than success. Coaches and players mostly want to return to normalcy as quickly as possible — but what if trying to approximate normalcy only places more emphasis on the abnormal?

“We are creatures of habit, and our environment has been shaken up,” Vogel said. “It’s really going to be a balancing act.”

For teams with title hopes — and the coaches calling the shots — there’s an even greater urgency to pick up where they left off. If you’re Vogel’s Lakers, why wouldn’t you want to treat the first game on July 30 as if it were March 11, with your West-leading 49-14 record and less than a week removed from statement wins over first-place Milwaukee and the rival LA Clippers?

But being the indomitable 49-14 Lakers and feeling like the indomitable 49-14 Lakers are two different things.

“You basically have two weeks before you start playing scrimmages,” Vogel said. “You have to take it slow — but then you also have to get up to speed.”

It’s the classic Wooden-ism: Be quick, but don’t hurry.

FOR VOGEL’S LAKERS, working toward peak fitness represents the most important objective of training camp.

When the regular season resumes, the NBA will end a 142-day hiatus, a duration 10 days longer than the end of the 2019 Finals and the start of the regular season this past October. When you consider the sedentary and isolated life most players have endured since the onset of the coronavirus, the contrast between season and downtime has never been more radical.

“Conditioning will be a great unknown,” Vogel said. “Players are [typically] playing pick-up four or five days a week a month before they get to training camp. But that’s not been the case. It’s been all individual workouts. What will their bodies be ready for, not having really played?”

While conditioning is a top concern across the league, the time off also presents unlikely advantages.

NBA teams rarely have the time midseason to contemplate their on-court identity. There’s simply too much to do when there’s always an upcoming game to scout. A normal summer would provide that kind of time, but rosters typically change too much during the offseason.

The defending champion Toronto Raptors have taken advantage of the extra time by putting together a few dozen six- to eight-minute game film edits — and that’s just on the offense. Each reel features a play or action, say, a middle pick-and-roll. There’s also a catalog of edits for Toronto’s defense, one of the NBA’s most versatile. That has allowed coach Nick Nurse and his staff the chance to dig in, be introspective and understand the team at the most granular level.

“It was interesting to do,” Nurse said. “During the season, sometimes you’ll run a package [of plays], then not run it again for a few weeks. It can get lost in the shuffle. It was invigorating to see [the clips] at work all in one place. I really like how our packages are developing on both ends.”

With the benefit of study and hindsight, Nurse can begin training camp with added clarity about what the Raptors do best, with a series of adjustments to improve what they do pretty well.

“Now we can say, ‘Let’s get back to that,'” he said.

If a pause of nearly four months offers coaches and players a rare chance to review on-court systems and refine them, it also benefits teams working in new pieces, such as the Houston Rockets.

In February, the Rockets traded their starting center, Clint Capela, and acquired lanky wing and defensive stopper Robert Covington, along with Jeff Green. In one fell swoop, Houston evolved from a team with a conventional big man into a small-ball outfit.

“We didn’t really have a whole lot of time to integrate everybody in their new or different roles,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, referencing moving 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker over to the 5 position full-time.

After a honeymoon stretch during which the retooled Rockets ripped off six consecutive wins, they hit some bumps. When play was interrupted, they were a shaky team grasping for answers after recent losses to Charlotte and Orlando. So for Houston, which has knocked on the door of the Finals for years, the break couldn’t have been more timely.

“Having that time, we really should treat this like a training camp,” D’Antoni said. “We [played with our new system] for about a month. But now we have the time to implement our philosophy exactly the way we want. We have time to change some things that weren’t working and improve. We’ll be able to ingrain some habits and learn to react to things without having to think about it.

“We have to make this an advantage.”



Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni says he hasn’t heard anything from the NBA about his coaching from the bench in Orlando, Florida.

IN THE BUBBLE, habits might need to be broken or retrained, and long-established roles will change — something coaches acknowledge and are preparing to deal with.

For one, the spirit of team basketball relies on touch — the handshakes at introductions, the high-five, pulling a fallen teammate up off the court — but that behavior violates best practices in the bubble. How closely the Lakers monitor those gestures speaks to another paradox at play.

“There are two schools of thoughts,” Vogel said. “One, that good pandemic habits mean no handshakes, and touch people as little as possible, and have as little physical contact as little as possible. But the bubble was created so that everyone inside it is free of the virus. I think we’re going to follow the lead of the league and their expectation.”

For the coaching staff, there will be new duties. With much of the usual personnel unlikely to make the trip to Orlando, the Lakers’ skeleton crew in the bubble will have to multitask on the floor. More senior assistant coaches might find themselves picking up duties normally performed by player development assistants.

“Everybody will cover for each other and everybody’s got to do multiple things,” Vogel said. “There’s going to be more player-versus-player portions of practice where there would normally be players doing no contact work against coaches. It’s everything — we’ll have to help the equipment guy out.”

However stripped down the infrastructure is in Orlando, the coaches expect their guys to be ready. The muscle memory of an NBA player is otherworldly, and if he has to do his shell work in practice without a full complement of staff, that’s a small worry. Everyone’s in the same boat.

“It’s like a snowy football game,” Vogel said. “It’s snowy for both teams.”

Well, one thing is clear.

Vogel received definitive word from the league last week on the dress code for the sidelines in Orlando, and his hopes were fulfilled: Polo shirts it is. He and his peers won’t be schvitzing through their suits. Amid all the uncertainty surrounding what lies ahead for coaches in Orlando, at least that’s one less thing for them to think about.

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