The 2021 season is going to be a strange one for the Orlando Magic and the NBA prep. The team is leaning on its bubble experience to get ready.
There is a bit of nervousness around the league.
The one thing everyone hoped would work to their benefit as they planned a path forward after the bubble was a complete success in October was time. Time for the country to get the coronavirus under control. Time for everyone to reset themselves. time to get things back to normal.
The U.S. has not done those things. Cases are back on the rise again. At least there is the hope for a vaccine coming in the next few months.
The NBA has had to push through and plan its season through all of this, trying to provide some entertainment for a weary populace yet again and trying to protect their bottom line and lucrative television contracts.
The players, equally invested in the league’s financial success, are pushing through with a season that already feels like it will be completely unique. The schedule is packed in tight with teams staying in the same cities for multiple games regularly. There are strict COVID protocols once again as the league trusts teams and players to police themselves.
Things have picked up quickly to get ready for this season. It is not unlike the bubble that 22 teams entered to finish last season. Nobody wanted to repeat that. Certainly not for how long it would take to get an entire NBA season in. But it still provided key lessons as teams prepare to play again.
The season will come. The players have chosen to play. And they are doing their best to get a crash course to start the season.
Things are not the same as the bubble, but the approach to preparing and getting players ready to play again seems very similar.
"“What we’re going to do is play as much as we can,” coach Steve Clifford said after the team’s first group workout last week. “We’re going to get organized and we’re going to play. We’re going to be very whole in the way that we approach this.”"
This was the exact same approach as those early practices after the Orlando Magic arrived at Disney. Clifford wanted them to play as much as they could to regain rhythm and conditioning. The early days then were spent getting rhythm and conditioning back before they started playing and doing physical, contact drills.
Because teams were allowed to do individual and group workouts before training camp this time, the focus in the early days of camp was spent on playing and trying to establish a rhythm.
That is the primary thing Clifford has tried to focus on. There is enough installation of offensive and defensive schemes to be organized when they play, but the goal right now is to get everyone in rhythm. All in preparation for Friday’s preseason opener in Atlanta.
Still, Clifford has warned that this team is not where it would normally be this close to the beginning of the season. It would be impossible to be that far along with the limited court time they have.
The Magic did at least a quarter of scrimmaging straight through in the first two days of camp. Following a non-contact day Sunday, the Magic played a full half straight through in Monday’s practice before taking the day off Tuesday.
Clifford said there would be some installation especially of pick and roll coverages in the coming days in preparation for that first preseason game. But still playing and getting some live work appears to be the focus.
It feels like the team is again constantly playing catchup. Just as everyone else is.
The team did not have its normal offseason, as has been often repeated. There was no Summer League for rookies to get acclimated to NBA playbooks and practices. There were no September optional workouts, the place where a lot of the foundations for the team’s offense and defense are installed so they can hit the ground running in camp.
The Magic have talked openly about their continuity as a strength. Something they hope will cut down the learning curve and allow them to get through the early stages of the process quickly.
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It is one of the reasons there seems to be little concern about Terrence Ross sitting out parts of training camp with his broken toe. He did not seem to be too worried. And he plans to continue participating in the non-contact parts of practice.
The team has had to put its part on the court. But there is still a lot to worry about.
"“I think some of it is the mental part of the unknown especially when we start to travel,” Clifford said after a practice last week. “Just like when we got to the bubble, we are all a little bit wary of what this is going to be like. When we came back last time, the hard thing about the training camp part was guys had been able to be in the gym but they hadn’t been allowed to play or have contact at all. This time, they have.”"
The next step
The next step then is getting ready to play actual games. And that brings a host of other problems.
The virus is still raging throughout the U.S. MLB, MLS, the NFL and college football all ran into trouble as they started their season within the context of the pandemic. They have all had to navigate how to manage rosters with players testing positive and figure out how to master travel.
MLB was able to get around this because their schedule is based on series — leaving teams in one city for several days. MLS tried to navigate around it by having teams train in home markets, where they could separate and isolate anyone with symptoms, and then travel to game sites on the day of hte game (limiting exposure in a new city).
The NFL and college football. . . their results have been much more uneven.
The bubble too was a massive undertaking. And players and staff traveling into the bubble were a bit nervous about what the situation was going to be like. But once they got the hang of things and adjusted to life inside the bubble, it became something they could live through.
This season is a similar challenge. But there is that trepidation as things get going.
That should subside once the team finds its rhythm off the court as much on the court.
The lay of the land
For now, Orlando is trying to get the lay of the land. The experience from inside the bubble has certainly helped the team get an understanding of how to prepare for the curveballs this season has already thrown at them.
Considering only the Washington Wizards went into the bubble and missed the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The team feels like it has an advantage at this point in understanding how they need to prepare — the mini-camps that non-bubble teams went through just does not compare.
"“I would say to be honest a significant advantage,” Clifford said during a media teleconference last week. “I was talking to Dwayne [Bacon], he was with Charlotte, he hasn’t played since March 5-on-5. Guys can do one-on-one workouts and all that is necessary and it is a critical part of getting better.“To play well they have to have been able to play. He was saying for him because he wasn’t with us when they were allowed to play 3-on-3, 4-on-4, it has been so long since he played it is going to take some time to feel like he has his game together. For the teams in the bubble, I think it was a big advantage.”"
The Magic at least will not have to overcome this obstacle. The team has played more recently than others. They know the kind of work it takes to play basketball in the midst of a pandemic.
But playing and getting back to rhythm is the biggest priority beyond implementing any strategic changes.
That was the big lesson in preparing for the bubble the team has brought to bear now.