When various players on the Los Angeles Lakers started showing up to the team’s practice facility for individual workouts when it reopened, the team’s general manager, Rob Pelinka, couldn’t help but notice from his office how great of shape they’d stayed in while the NBA was on hiatus. How everyone on the team looked like they had maintained an equal commitment to staying in shape.
And while Pelinka would not comment on whether or he’d heard if any of the Lakers had been breaking NBA protocol and working out together, as has been frequently rumored and sort of confirmed — he said “no” when asked, his sole one-word answer during a nearly 30-minute Zoom conference with select members of the media on Tuesday — he was more than happy to expound in his typically effusive, uniquely Pelinka way about how great of a job his team had done of staying in shape.
“I think guys have been really creative, and have sort of attacked the quarantine in unique ways to stay in shape and stay in world-class fitness,” Pelinka said. “There has been new and creative ways to do it, but with the players that have come through to do individual workouts at our facility, I’ve been really impressed with the level of fitness, and how these guys find ways to stay in world-class shape.”
If the Lakers actually did manage to do so — even if they had to break quarantine to do it, or get photographed playing in pickup games without masks, the latter of which Pelinka also (wisely) passed on acknowledging — it could help them get a head start on getting ready to resume the season in less than a month in Orlando.
Still, the Lakers have some hurdles to clear before getting there, hurdles that Pelinka was a lot more happy to discuss than allegations of off-the-books workouts. The team will start training camp tomorrow, on July 1, but will do so with only individual workouts. Pelinka said the players are being tested for coronavirus every two days as part of that resumption process, and will not work out as a team until they arrive in Orlando. They also have to finalize their roster, something that also won’t be possible until July 1 at the soonest, and decide on who will be in their 35-person traveling party, which they can’t completely finish until they leave because if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus, they can’t fly with the team and will have to be replaced.
Add in that if things go well, the Lakers will be at Disney World for more than three months, and it’s far from a normal road trip.
“Orlando itself is going to be as much of a mental test as it is a physical test, just because of the extraordinary circumstances there,” Pelinka said, although he doesn’t think that necessarily works against the Lakers.
“I think a team like ours that has such a strong togetherness component will have an advantage at that part, because this team of guys loves being together and they love playing together,” Pelinka said.
That’s an advantage he thinks his team gained over their first 63 games in their season, when they all-but locked up the best record in the Western Conference (49-14). Still, it’s been months since the Lakers accumulated that record, and Pelinka admitted that “the biggest challenge” the team he built last offseason will have to face is regaining the habits they had developed on the fly.
“We haven’t been able to be in that environment as a team in our building for three or four months, so Orlando will be the first time with that type of entire-team training... and we’ll only have three weeks to do that,” Pelinka said. He thinks that will put a burden on a part of the team that doesn’t get as much outside attention, but will be as critical as any going to Orlando.
“I think a lot of it is gonna come down to our sports performance staff, and their ability to care for these guys with any injuries they come up with, and managing through getting back in elite shape and playing, and all the things that may arise as a result,” Pelinka said.
“But as much as Coach Vogel and his staff are going to be prepared from a strategy and planning standpoint... I think so much of the weight of this is going to shift to the sports performance staff — and we have a great one — in how they keep the guys healthy and in shape, and then treat injuries. That’ll be a huge part of our process there.”
Another part of the Lakers’ process will be making sure that players stay emotionally healthy and engaged while cut off from their families, friends and loved ones for as long as their team is playing.
“We have put a ton of thought into the mental part of this journey,” Pelinka said. “It is going to be as much of a physical grind as it is gonna be a mental grind, and I think the mental component might even be more paramount.”
As a result, Pelinka said the Lakers have been consulting with the “mental wellness people” they have on staff, and trying to build a protocol to help the mental health of their players and other staffers in the bubble. He used the way the Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance” showed Phil Jackson and the Bulls’ coaching staff switching up practices with meditations, or skipping them to golf, and other things they did to keep monotony from setting in during a long playoff run as an example.
“Those things will probably be part of the longer protocol there. Keeping things fresh, keeping life interesting, keeping everyone’s passions sharpened. I’m sure there will be many, many stories coming out of Orlando about some of the different practices that evolve once we get there,” Pelinka said.
But determining who will take part in those activities and get sent to Orlando remains an ongoing question. The Lakers’ 17 players will obviously be a part of things, and Pelinka’s references to the training staff would seem to indicate that at least a few of them will go. The Lakers’ coaches will also obviously be going, and Pelinka said he himself would be heading to Disney World as well, due to the NBA requirement for each team to have a lead basketball executive there.
The spaces fill up quickly, and it will mean another challenge that the Lakers and other teams will have to face will be people doing jobs they don’t normally do, and others that normally travel with the team doing their jobs in a different way.
“I think one of the things we’ve talked about internally is the importance of this concept of flex staffing in Orlando. We’re all going to have to call upon different things we can do and be service-oriented for the players, and if it means any of us pitching in to an area that we normally don’t do in our day-to-day operations, we’ve got to be willing to do it,” Pelinka said.
“And I think even for the staff members that don’t go, let’s be clear, they will continue to do their jobs. They will continue to be a big part of what we do as an organization in Orlando. They’ll just be doing it remotely, like many of us have been doing our job during this COVID pandemic anyways,” Pelinka continued. “Just because you don’t get on the plane on July 9 doesn’t mean you won’t be in Orlando in spirit with the Lakers, doing the work you do. That’s been a big message, too.”
And if everyone can overcome all of it — from the people who are there to the people that aren’t — to help things go as well as the Lakers hope, they’ll all be celebrating a title, too. Unfortunately, some of them will just have to do so in spirit.