This season will break you if you let it
After a short offseason, a real plan to stay strong
BY HENRY ABBOTT
The NBA will make history on December 22 with, all at once, the shortest offseason in major professional sports history (for 22 teams) and one of the longest ever for eight teams. Experts are worried about injuries in both groups.
It’s hard to know exactly how the short season will affect players, but it's not hard to know who it will affect. The list of those who played the most minutes in the bubble playoffs is topped by Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, and Jaylen Brown. If you add the leaders in minutes per game it also includes players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kawhi Leonard, CJ McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Lowry.
In other words: precious cargo.
If the NBA can’t design a season to protect these players (and in fact is doing the opposite) teams need a plan better than hope. Smart teams will build in what the schedule will not: meaningful evidence-based rest. This does not mean two minutes of sitting on a folding chair before the quarter break, nor does it mean sitting Kawhi for the second night of back-to-backs.
This means getting out the calendar now and planning for top NBA starters to have breaks. Real rest. Long weekends are just the beginning. Behold the magical healing power of an entire week off.
It’s part of elite training for athletes in many sports, it has documented benefits, and it’s long overdue in basketball. This is a strange sport where players get slower, less explosive, and more injury prone as the season goes on. Two reasons:
Players get tired from overwork. Rest itself is a magic tonic for the NBA body.
Heavy-rotation NBA players don’t have time to workout hard, and recover, in season.
It turns out that games are lousy, as conditioning. They are brutal to joints, and get you beat up all kinds of ways, crashing to the floor, getting punched in the ribs, landing awkwardly. But they are also too easy in another way: they are not hard enough on your lungs to meaningfully improve cardiovascular fitness. They also fail as strength training, for similar reasons.
So NBA players are both overworked (in wear and tear) and under-exercised (in all kinds of conditioning).
With six or seven days off, there’d be a chance to nibble at that problem. You could rest and repair from games, do some serious lifting, and put in a super-hard cardio workout on a treadmill, or in a pool, and then recover fully from that, which takes days, before taking the court again.
Coaching a good team, an NBA coach once told me, is about “delivering the team to April” in the best possible shape. An approach like this gives a body a chance to get fitter as the season progresses, as opposed to more worn down.
The last time we saw Damian Lillard in games that counted he was the unanimous MVP of the bubble. He played his brains out willing the Blazers into the playoffs.
But don’t forget what happened: as the Lakers’ defense clamped down in the playoffs, Lillard, who had made 17 of 30 against the Lakers in January (he finished with 48 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds) was, by Game 2 struggling to find 14 decent looks at the basket, and sank just six. Everything was cooked: timing, strength, decision-making. The Blazers were minus-29 with Lillard on the floor in that game, his worst mark of the season. When you’re that exhausted all kinds of things go wrong. Lillard dislocated a finger first, and then a few games later his right knee. He was on a plane home before the Blazers were even eliminated.
This is no way to deliver a star to the playoffs. And nice though it may be to get him an extra few minutes to sit in games, the real difference is in getting stars like LeBron, Butler, Tatum, and Lillard stronger. Bonus points if they can skip flights, with their taxing effects on health and sleep.
Looking at the Blazers schedule, it’s easy to see some games a starter could sit with minimal impact and maximum rest effect.
Lillard could sit four games in January and create weeks without a single flight, back-to-back, national TV game missed, or period with more than the maximum-recommended five games in 14 days. Think about what this does for Lillard as a father and husband. Would it be the worst thing if he had a day at the beach now and again? Think about what it does for mental health, and staying sharp.
A team that did this all year, with its three or four best players, would arrive at the playoffs ready to destroy.
And that’s before we even get to the good part.
Harry Giles III has been a fluid-moving 6-11 basketball machine since his mid-teens. But the poor guy has had the most incredible injuries. The story of his teen years is told in ligaments, so many of which failed him. Once seen as among the very top prospects in his class, he was drafted 20th overall and missed all of the 2017-2018 season. Giles managed a total of 1,500 minutes—about half a season’s work for James Harden—over three years as a King.
Imagine how many years Giles has rehabbed and dreamed of being an NBA star. And then imagine how it feels when one of the league’s worst teams let him go. Adding insult to injury, he has tweeted that all of this happened in the very same year that he has lost several loved ones, and shared the video of an elite hooper friend who was forced to retire because of open heart surgery. Giles has been in this 2020 vibe for a while.
Giles’ career had stalled enough that it didn’t even make headlines when the Blazers signed him to a one-year free-agent minimum deal a few weeks ago.
If you’re one of the world’s best players, and in the NBA sphere—but not in a rotation—most years feature two summer leagues, eight preseason games, and garbage time of 82 games to show what you’ve got. Shine in any of those places, and you might get a shot.
In a pandemic, though, who would know if Giles was back to being the super-quick 6-11 basketball delight he once was? (There have only been hints from the practice gym.)
This season the Blazers play a total of four preseason games. As a minimum player at the tail end of a crowded roster, the pressure to perform this preseason is real. And, over a two-game opening weekend, playing 51 minutes and 32 seconds, Giles was a revelation. Thirty-seven points on 24 shots. Twenty-seven rebounds. Eighty percent from the line. Five steals, four assists, three blocks (one from outer space), and he made one of his two 3s. He’s dunking everything, often after steals.
Two good games against the Kings (who were missing some of their best bigs) doesn’t exactly prove he’s an All-Star. But it does prove he’s healthy, skilled, and deserving more minutes. A player with big dreams can dream again. That’s why he was shimmying and puffing out his chest as his new teammates roared with delight in Friday’s first preseason game.
Giles has a lot to prove, and he’ll prove it in a Portland uniform. If you can play like that—the Blazers find you playing time.
Here’s the ESPN depth chart.
Remember how 750 minutes a year wasn’t enough for Harry Giles in Sacramento? He’s a fourth-string center in Portland. How’s this going to work?
Try it. Here’s a shared spreadsheet where you can map it out. There are 17,280 minutes in a 72-game season. Play Terry Stotts here and hand out minutes in a way that makes any sense.
I did it a stupid way, which would have every single player on the roster pissed off for lack of playing time. But that’s the point: every way is a stupid way. (A lot of NBA players are pissed off for lack of minutes and touches.) Giles makes 14 credible rotation Blazers, in a league where 13 can suit up. He’s far from the only one who can make a case for more minutes.
It has made headlines that Carmelo isn’t starting for the first time in his career.
Gary Trent Jr. is on a special path as a scrappy defender and lights-out shooter.
Zach Collins is due back in January and is used to starting.
Rodney Hood has never averaged less than 21 minutes per game, just signed a $10 million deal.
Anfernee Simons played three times that much last season.
I know what you’re thinking: Good problem to have, right? In this weird COVID year, with its dense schedule and specter of COVID-benchings for two weeks here or there mean … well it’s good to have a deep bench. And it’s a long season, these things have a way of working themselves out. Or … there will be trades.
Maybe that’s the end of it. Just be patient, Harry.
This is a very tough business.
A better idea
Tell Giles right now that if he stays ready, he’ll start a dozen games. Put them in the calendar. And then rest a starter for those games.
Imagine how fired up he’s going to be, how well he’s going to eat, how early he’ll show up for lifting sessions.
The team needs him. Jusuf Nurkic, the starting center, needs him. Nurkic and Giles can both afford to play harder. Nurk because he knows he’ll get some relief, and Giles because he won’t have the rotting feeling of never knowing when you’re going to play.
Then I’d do exactly the same thing all over the place: Simons, Trent Jr., Hood, Collins—the Blazers have won games with these players as starters before. This is how you get Lillard and his co-stars to the playoffs at their best.
Relief from superstar exhaustion is essential. Keeping talented young players believing in their career paths is fantastic.
But the real benefit of this kind of approach is: you never know what might develop.
When injuries sidelined Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, Daniel Thies, and Gordon Hayward in 2018, it forced the team into a terrible position: they had to put all their playoff aspirations in the hands of rookies Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
And they blossomed. Thank the heavens Tatum and Brown got the ball when they did.
Look back at NBA rotations in the bubble last year, and it’s almost sad that coaches of good teams trust so few of their players. An active roster of 13, and on many teams only six or seven play much in the playoffs. They’d all play better if they could be fresher, they’d all be fresher if eight or ten players played. An incredible thing that could come out of all this: maybe, like Tatum and Brown, a young player or two can impress their coaches enough to qualify for playoff minutes.
A few games into the preseason some of the best performances have come from Talen Horton-Tucker, Sekou Doubouya, and Jaylen Nowell, who are not guaranteed real minutes. What do you tell them, as a coach?
Tell them they will start a dozen games, and you’ll be making your star, and your whole team, stronger too.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop! Check out Monday’s BRING IT IN, where David Thorpe reviews some of the first weekend’s finest performances from Obi Toppin, LaMelo Ball, Malachi Flynn, Cole Anthony, Devin Vassell, Deni Avdija, Facundo Campazzo, Tyrese Halliburton, Patrick Williams, Rui Hachimura, Sekou Doumboya, and DeAndre Hunter.