Orlando Magic Season Restart: Advantage in the bubble will go to the teams that stayed in shape

Michael Carter-Williams is eager to play again. But the Orlando Magic will only go as far as their conditioning can take them. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Michael Carter-Williams is eager to play again. But the Orlando Magic will only go as far as their conditioning can take them. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

The NBA’s restarted season will present a challenge for teams around the league. Those teams who stayed in shape will have a leg up.

Life in the NBA has been hard for the last three months.

The season went on hiatus as the world dealt with the coronavirus pandemic and the disease has not gone away — in the United States, there is evidence to suggest the “first wave” never subsided. The pandemic is a reality that everyone is trying to deal with as they push forward for some kind of normalcy.

No one could fault a business like the NBA for trying to find a way forward. The balance of staying sensitive to the disease — and to social justice movements that have swept the nation too — while still trying to finish the season is a difficult one.

The league’s return to play plan that will begin at Disney World early in July with games resuming July 30, presents a second challenge the league and players were aware of trying their best to plan for.

As part of the restart plan, the players made sure there was ample time to ramp up and get players back into something resembling playing shape.

Team facilities opened up a few weeks ago as part of phase one of the plan, allowing players to maintain social distancing but get some work on the basketball court. Not everyone had access to a hoop during the hiatus — there was even a story from Josh Robbins of The Athletic where Nikola Vucevic said he went to neighbors’ houses to get some shots up.

Next week, formal testing of players will begin in preparation for the return to the season and head coaches will begin to be allowed to interact with players. Starting in early July, teams will begin arriving at Disney and begin a more formal training camp that may include some scrimmages with other teams that share the same hotel.

That will give teams a roughly 2-3 week period to get themselves back into playing shape and back into rhythm.

Out of everything else, this is the biggest wild card teams face before they even get to the bubble. Just what kind of shape will everyone be in and how quickly can they or any team get back to peak performance?

The season and how successful one team is over another might depend on the shape they arrive in. And like any good game of poker — or any preseason before training camp — everyone says they are arriving in shape.

But that is very different than basketball shape. And nobody can predict how this factor will go.

The biggest concern for NBA trainers

The injury and getting-in-shape concern is perhaps the biggest one that NBA trainers across the league have about the return to play.

Unlike a lockout, which is probably the closest facsimile to what the league is experiencing now, teams were allowed to maintain contact with their players. And so very early on in the process, the Magic (among probably most other teams) delivered workout equipment to players’ homes to give them some equipment to furnish their home gyms.

Additionally, training staff gave players workout programs to try to maintain strength and conditioning. In the case of a player like Jonathan Isaac that included a continued rehab plan.

But even Isaac admitted the shutdown derailed his recovery. He was not able to work on basketball skills and recover under the watchful eye of the training staff. It was not a setback, it was more of a slowing down.

NBA trainers would say the biggest concern is dealing with muscle elasticity. Training camp and the early parts of the season create a rhythm and train muscles on how to react and act under pressure situations.

The reason trainers — and the Magic have been especially cautious on this front under David Tenney — hold players out longer if they miss significant time is because this elasticity decreases. After about two weeks, players are essentially starting from square one and it takes time for them to ramp back out — a quick injury with a quick recovery does not require the same ramping up.

Michael Carter-Williams is among the players who have been spotted at the Amway Center in the last few weeks. He was on a tear shooting his best 3-point field goal percentage of his career as the season entered the hiatus. That is still something he wants to work on.

He said the team is excited to get back to work and try to resume the season. They definitely feel like there is a lot to play for it seems.

Even he knows getting back to peak performance is going to be the key to the season, telling ESPN Orlando’s Scott Anez that this will be the key to the season:

"“Now we have to get in shape and just go full head of steam forward,” Michael Carter-Williams said. “Everybody is not going to be at their peak. Everybody had three months off. We all did what we could to stay in shape and keep our bodies right and our minds right. But, now it’s kind of said and done. We got the dates. We know what we are getting into. We just got to make the best of it.”"

Everyone is going to have to get themselves back into basketball shape.

Previous lockouts hurt offensive efficiency

The most comparable situation anyone has experienced to this hiatus is the lockout seasons in 1999 and 2012. And those two seasons are well known for players arriving to camp out of shape (more so in 1999 than in 2012) and for major injuries (Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first round that season and Dwight Howard suffered his back injury during that season and Patrick Ewing suffered a major knee injury in the playoffs in 1999).

There is evidence from those seasons to suggest that things for the league will be very different when it resumes.

As Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated argues, teams that defend well and do not rely on 3-point shooting could have an advantage. It is going to be about what teams can control more than anything else.

Players will be trying to work themselves back into rhythm as games are going on. That could lead to 3-point percentages taking a dive.

In the 1999 lockout year, the median 3-point field goal percentage was 34.1 percent and the median offensive rating was 102.3 points per 100 possessions. The median field goal percentage was 43.9 percent.

The year before, the median 3-point percentage was 34.7 percent and the median offensive rating was 104.1 points per 100 possessions. The year after in 2000, the median 3-point percentage was 35.8 percent and the median offensive rating was 104.7 points per 100 possessions.

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The league’s 3-point field goal percentage did not drop significantly during the 1999 lockout year but the league’s offensive rating did. Just watching games that season was a drag.

Players came to camp out of shape too — just look at Shawn Kemp before and after. There was not a culture to treat the lockout as anything but a vacation.

It is safe to say that changed by the time 2012 came around. Players were caught playing basketball everywhere they could and most players came back in some shape.

They did not stop just because the league closed down.

But even then, the 2012 lockout season was hardly normal. Even with a normal training camp and a 66-game schedule rather than a 50-game one like in 1999.

The 2012 season saw teams post a median 3-point field goal percentage of 34.6 percent, a median field goal percentage of 44.8 percent and a median offensive rating of 105.0 points per 100 possessions.

The 2011 season saw a median 3-point field goal percentage of 35.5 percent, a median field goal percentage of 46.1 percent and a median offensive rating of 107.7 points per 100 possessions. The 2013 season saw median splits of 35.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage, 44.8 percent field goal percentage and 105.8 points per 100 possessions.

Even with players doing their best to stay in shape entering the 2012 season after the lockout, there was still a significant drop off in offensive efficiency and shooting. One that took a while to recover — although the 3-point field goal percentage dropping could also be a product of the increased volume the league was starting to experience.

The bottom line is, no matter how much teams prepared or stayed in shape, offensive efficiency is going to take a dive.

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The only conclusion to draw then is we should expect some bad offense when the league enters the bubble.

Defense puts the emphasis on conditioning

And that brings everything back around to conditioning and physical shape.

Defense is all about effort and the ability to stay focused on the game plan for a highly intense 24 seconds. The offense is supposed to be the “easy” part, at least if you listen to coaches.

And so the teams that will succeed will be the ones who arrive to camp in shape and get on the same page defensively the quickest.

Teams like the Orlando Magic who rely on containing ball handlers and protecting the paint — the Magic are seventh in the league giving up 45.3 points in the paint per game and 20th in the league in 3-point field goals made allowed at 12.4 per game (a rarity for Steve Clifford-coached teams) — will have an advantage if they can get back to that level quickly.

And so players will have to arrive at camp and can get their conditioning back quickly will have the leg up.

It is not clear which players are in good shape. Clifford said he has been pleased with the reports he has gotten from team training staff about where his players are at physically. He said most players stayed in Orlando during the hiatus and did a good job following the workout plan.

But every team would surely admit that nobody knows how players will react when they start playing games again. As everyone says, staying in shape is very different than staying in basketball shape.

When the NBA returns, nobody really knows what it will look like. The on-court product is probably not high on the list of worries for the league as they try to manage a return in a growing hot spot for the coronavirus.

Next. Where we left the Magic: Injury bug keeps biting. dark

Whoever gets to basketball shape first will have the biggest leg up in the league. But even that is a much more complicated and uncertain process.