After around a nine-week hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles Lakers finally got to re-open their practice facility in El Segundo after getting the go-ahead from state authorities on Saturday, May 16. Players will finally be allowed to train again — while maintaining social distancing and cleanliness protocols like trainers wiping down the ball, all equipment and touch points being sanitized and more.
With momentum of an NBA restart growing — including rumors of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida potentially hosting — that naturally brings up a major question: How much time do players need to get back into shape after the nine-plus week layoff while not putting themselves at serious risk of injury?
The short answer: It depends.
The long answer: It depends on numerous factors. Lets go into them.
What are the players’ current fitness levels?
Although each player was provided with individualized training programs and very likely kept in touch with the training staff, each player is still going to have a different level of fitness depending on what equipment they had access to.
For example, you have LeBron — who seemingly has a full-fledged gym at his house — whereas Quinn Cook has been trying to keep in some cardiovascular shape doing sprints in his apartment. Then of course you have to factor in if players actually kept up with their programs, and to what extent.
The players who fall more towards the LeBron side of the picture — extremely disciplined with appropriate equipment — will arrive back to the facility in much better shape and therefore need less ramp up time.
However, make no mistake, no player will be at the level of readiness they were prior. A nine-plus week quarantine without access to the training facility and without being able to play in games will dent anyone’s fitness, even LeBron’s.
This is especially the case for what’s known as ‘neuromuscular adaptations’, which refers to how efficient the nerves become at activating and coordination muscle and joint movements during high-intensity training. These adaptations require a level of intensity and power that isn’t available to players unless they have an extremely high-end home gym — eg. a full squat rack with droppable weights, Keiser machines, dynamic resistance trainers etc.
Further, and beyond just fitness and looking at broader overall health, the quarantine has disrupted in-season routines and habits which can impact sleep, nutrition and lifestyle factors. NBA players get into a certain rhythm and flow during the season and that’s now been taken away from them in jarring fashion. It will take time to readjust and acclimate to the new normal.
The injury risk
Another major consideration with the season restart timeline is injury risk. The reality is that ramping up too quickly — “too much, too soon” — is one of the most prevalent ways to increase injury risk. Research on soft tissue injuries (muscles, ligaments, cartilage, etc) clearly indicates that being overworked significantly increases injury risk. For more information on this, check out this article.
This may help explain why there’s an uptick in injuries at the start of the season, and that’s with players training over the summer and having a full training camp. Imagine the risk after nine weeks off without access to training facilities or courts.
Further, research also shows that higher intensity games and competition is associated with an increase in injury risk. A shortened regular season places greater importance on each contest, and obviously playoff games are the most intense of all. This further adds to the injury risk.
So how long do players need?
Considering the extended layoff period, the variable extent of players’ returning fitness levels, and a very likely truncated regular season, a four-week training camp would be reasonable to cover that large spectrum while also being cognizant of the NBA’s preferred timeline, with a reported preference that the playoffs be completed before the NFL season is slated to begin in early September.
This four week period has been echoed by Lakers veteran Jared Dudley, and also lines up with the four-week period that’s required to calculate the aforementioned acute to chronic workload ratio. That’s not to say the Lakers’ training staff directly uses these calculations, but it is a widely utilized concept.
Even if players are given four weeks, there’s still numerous unknown variables in play considering the novelty of this COVID-19 shutdown and that how it will affect on-court chemistry is yet to be seen. There’s a possibility some of these games look like Saturday morning 5-on-5 games at the park.
If the season does indeed come back, the championship very well might come down to which team best navigated and mitigated the fitness deficits of the quarantine delay and stuck together through uncharted waters. To that end, Lakers players not being in “vacation mode” and carrying over their tight-knit relationships during quarantine bodes very well for their title chances.
Dr. Rajpal Brar has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University, and runs his own sports medicine and performance business, 3CB Performance, in West LA and Valencia, CA. He also works at a hospital — giving him experience with patients in the immediate healthcare setting and neurological patients (post stroke, post brain injury) — and has been practicing for 1.5 years. Brar is additionally training at UCLA’s mindful awareness research center (MARC), and analyzes the Lakers from a medical perspective for Silver Screen and Roll and Laker Film Room.