In the weeks following the Los Angeles Lakers' victory over the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals, all signs were pointing towards next season beginning sometime in the middle of January, likely on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then, as they have so often over this strange year, things changed.
Now, the players and the league have agreed to start the 2002-21 season a few days before Christmas and play 72 regular-season games. The move will help the league get back on their traditional October-June schedule, but the true incentive for starting early was money -- reportedly $500 million if you believe the league's estimates.
One thing that clearly wasn't a priority in the decision-making process was health. Players -- especially those on teams that made deep playoff runs -- weren't thrilled about starting so soon, and veterans such as Danny Green have suggested that some stars may be doing a lot of load management early on. It's not just players who are concerned, however. Health officials around the league are worried about how such an abbreviated offseason and pre-season schedule is going to affect players. Via ESPN:
"It's going to be especially challenging to not only get ready to play Dec. 22 or whatever but to maintain that for a period of four or five months," said one head athletic trainer of a Western Conference team, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"This is going to be another period of uncharted territory. As uncharted as the [Orlando] bubble was [this summer], this is the bubble times three or four or five [because we're] trying to extend it to that period of time with a minimal ramp-up."
While the quick turnaround for conference finalists is an obvious issue, as is the abbreviated training camp period, there are also questions about teams who haven't played a competitive game in nearly a year.
Said one official involved in player health, "I would be more worried about the teams that haven't played in over eight months, honestly, as opposed to [other 22] teams."
"You have to consider what these super high-end exertions are, the max speed, cutting and multi-directional movement and the high-end athletic environment that only a game can give you," the official said. "When you see the teams that were fortunate enough to go to Orlando, they got that stimulus as recently as 120 days ago. For the two finalists, it is a pretty quick turnaround to allow for full recovery. But it's a far greater thing for someone to not have that stimulus since March."
As the various medical professionals have noted, there are a ton of unknowns right now, and it certainly doesn't help that everyone is trying to navigate this while also dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. COVID-19 protocols and a varied amount of time off from the end of last season means every team will be affected differently.
On the bright side, players take their health and training much more seriously than they did in the past, and there will be fewer games and travel than in a normal season. Hopefully, that combination, along with the efforts of the medical staffs around the league will prevent a serious uptick in injuries this season. This will be a storyline to follow, however, especially over training camp and the first few months of games.