Avoiding injuries will be key for NBA teams during the COVID-19 restart

As I write this, controversy swirls around the Miami Marlins and why they played a game after several players tested positive for COVID-19. Now questions about what will happen to that team and Major League Baseball are everywhere. The same situation could occur with the NBA, although hopefully in a bubble, the league can contain the risk better. But rather than focus on the coronavirus and how it affects the NBA restart, I looked at another area that might play a large role – injuries.

Getting NBA players ready to play will be critical

The stars of the NBA restart, which begins Thursday in Orlando, might not be the players, or even the league officials who developed the plan to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the stars could be the teams’ athletic trainers, performance specialists, sports scientists, and strength and conditioning coaches.

Many NBA players had no access to gyms, courts

Never before have we seen a return of a professional sport quite like what the coronavirus forced on the NBA. The league halted its season March 11. Now, 22 teams fight for the playoffs and their playoff seedings in an eight-game dash to a three-month playoff season. But unlike even seasons which started late due to strikes and lockouts, the players have not been able to play basketball for almost those entire four months.

Once stay-at-home orders were issued across the country, players lost access to their teams’ facilities. Some players had courts and hoops at home, while others didn’t. LeBron James showed off his complete home gym and court on Instagram, while some players living in big-city apartments couldn’t even use their building’s gym because of COVID-19 restrictions.

NBA teams tried to help their players stay in shape

Teams tried to help the players stay in shape the best they could. Strength and conditioning coaches held Zoom or Skype calls with players to give them exercises and stretches to perform each day. Some teams sent treadmills, dumbbells and resistance bands to players with no access to training equipment. Some even sent catered food to players to make sure they were maintaining proper nutrition.

Working out isn’t the same as playing basketball

Training isn’t the same as competing, though. It’s often said that the only way to prepare to play NBA basketball is to actually play NBA basketball. Shooting baskets on a backyard hoop doesn’t prepare an athlete for the speed of a game. It doesn’t prepare his body for the challenge of fighting through defenders or changing directions in a split second.

The players of the 22 returning teams have little time to adjust. Unlike Major League Baseball players, who have 60 regular season games to slowly ramp up, they have eight. And for the teams fighting for the playoffs, these eight seeding games are essentially playoff games.

Getting into playoff shape in three weeks

Performance specialists and sports scientists who work with NBA teams know that there is an enormous difference in going from being in good physical shape to being in “practice shape.” Then they must get in “game shape.” Since teams were not allowed to do any team drills until the league’s Phase 4 started July 9, players have to go from whatever their level of physical conditioning was at the end of the lockdown to “playoff shape” in three weeks.

Fans might see a large number of soft tissue injuries among players

Treadmills, stationary bikes and dumbbells are adequate for maintaining your basic conditioning, but they don’t prepare your muscles, tendons, and ligaments for the sudden movements of basketball like actually playing in practices and games can. Fans might see a large number of players suffer soft tissue injuries, such as hamstring and calf strains, Achilles and patellar tendon inflammation or tears, by ramping up so quickly.

While many observers have argued that the teams whose star players avoid COVID-19 will have the best chances to win the NBA Championship, it could also prove true that the teams who are best able to avoid these injuries make the deepest runs in the playoffs.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the July 29, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.