Danny Green roamed the halls inside The Arena at Walt Disney World on Oct. 11, 2020, with a purple champagne-splashed towel draped over his shoulders, a backwards hat on his head and a black NBA champions shirt covering his white Los Angeles Lakers jersey.
That was the final night of play inside the NBA bubble, when the Lakers finished off the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Finals. That was also one year ago Monday, though it may feel more like a lifetime to those who were there. Those players and staff were insulated from the raging COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were approved and available, yet were managing the physical and mental toll of being confined to the Disney campus in Kissimmee, Fla., and away from many of their loved ones for weeks or months.
It also feels like longer than one year because of how much NBA basketball has been crammed into the span since then. With the league returning to its normal 82-game footprint in 2021-22, parts of three seasons — the 2020 Finals, the 2020-21 complete-yet-condensed regular season and playoffs, and training camp and early preseason for 2021-22 — were all part of the same calendar year.
Now, players, coaches and staff are charging toward the start of a season that should mostly resemble pre-pandemic times, while continuing to work through any lingering fatigue that began when the league restarted at Disney World in July 2020.
“You have to realize when’s a perfect time to let your body rest, but then [when to do] active recovery and when to ramp it up, since this was another shortened time [between seasons],” said Sixers big man Georges Niang, who played for the Utah Jazz last season. “You kind of have to find new ways to be innovative with how you’re going to get your work in and how you’re going to get your rest in a condensed time.
“It’s crazy to think it’s been three seasons in one [year], but I’m happy that we got to do it, because I enjoy coming to work every day.”
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he will continue to lean on the team’s medical and training staff to dictate this season’s workload. Though there will generally be more days off during this season compared to last season, the time between the end of the 2021 Finals and the start of training camp was still about a month shorter than in the average year.
Guard Seth Curry expects Rivers to “[balance] the right amount of work to be sharp, but also make sure our legs are healthy and a full go for the entire season. ...
“Whether that’s taking games off, practices off, you may not like it, but that’s just the truth of the matter,” Curry said. “You have to be smart about it for a long season. You’re going to be your best at the end, so we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
That approach was on display for the Sixers’ third preseason game Monday vs. Brooklyn, when Curry rested and Tobias Harris (knee soreness), Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness), Shake Milton (ankle sprain) and Tyrese Maxey (adductor tightness) were all out with minor injuries.
Adhering to that advice by “trying to sit when I’m supposed to sit” will be the biggest challenge for Green this season. But the 34-year-old wing is the perfect case study on the long-term impact of this much basketball.
Green is a three-time champion who is used to playing deep into the postseason with the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, and Lakers. But perhaps only Jae Crowder, who was in back-to-back Finals with the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns, played more during a 10-month span than Green. He, along with former Sixers teammate Dwight Howard, followed that bubble title with the Lakers and short seven-week turnaround for the 2020-21 season by playing into the playoffs’ second round with a Sixers team that finished with the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record.
Green acknowledges now that he could feel the strain “wearing” on him throughout last season — and that it likely played a role in the calf injury that knocked him out of the Sixers’ playoff run. Though he wishes the Sixers had advanced past the Atlanta Hawks, he believes he benefited from being forced to rest and heal instead of trying to rush back for the Eastern Conference finals.
“The adjustment is taking the time and focusing on April, May, and June,” Green said.
Now, Green said he is more efficient with his workouts, with less heavy lifting and more stabilization. He also no longer plays many pickup games during the summer, preferring to wait until the team-specific contact workouts that generally begin after Labor Day. And though he came up in a respected Spurs organization and saw firsthand how the Raptors handled Kawhi Leonard’s health by coining the phrase “load management,” Green said he learned “a ton” from the way LeBron James and the Lakers’ veterans took care of themselves daily in the bubble environment.
“We made it worth it,” Green said. “It wasn’t the greatest of memories of being there, but winning, the outcome, was one of the greatest memories. I remember how my body was coming out of there, my mind was coming out of there. … Going through something that tough mentally just shows what the human body can do and the human mind can do.”
All NBA players and staff, who are largely creatures of habit, have been forced to adapt to the changing calendar during the past year.
Curry, who during a normal offseason would hit the court two or three times a day for shooting and skill work, said he cut back on that this summer and instead spent more time in the weight room, improving strength and mobility. Niang made sure to complete a yoga or Pilates session even on days when he did not take the court.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse, whose team endured the additional stress of relocating to Tampa, Fla., for 2020-21 home games due to Canada’s COVID restrictions, was reminded of how crucial player development is during the offseason, especially for a team that started to go younger after winning the 2019 championship.
“That just kind of got all messed up here for the past couple summers,” Nurse said.
Green was not alone in feeling the lasting effects of the bubble run that quickly transitioned into a condensed season. The Lakers were injury-riddled for much of the season and lost to the Suns in the playoffs’ first round, while the Heat were swept as the initial opponent on the Milwaukee Bucks’ road to the title.
Rivers is curious to see how another short turnaround impacts the Bucks and Suns — particularly because Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker also played in the Olympics immediately after the Finals — but mused “that’s a great problem to have.”
Rivers was also in favor of the league immediately shifting back to its normal schedule for this season, rather than gradually moving back toward the late-September start of training camp. (Practice began the first week of December last year, before the season ran from about Christmas to mid-May and the Finals wrapped July 20.)
No more daily COVID-19 testing for vaccinated players should help with rest, and the continued return of fans inside arenas should give them an extra jolt of energy for each game, Sixers wing Furkan Korkmaz said.
“That gives us motivation,” he said. “I think we’re going to have more fun than last year.”
Then next summer, Rivers said, the league will collectively “take a deep breath.”
What will become a 23-month NBA marathon began for most teams at Disney World. Players perhaps look back at the bubble experience more fondly today than in the moment, when James called it “probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as a professional” and the Clippers’ Paul George talked openly about its impact on his mental health.
Niang said he felt “real safe” in an environment that produced no positive tests among players, a feat even more impressive after the number of outbreaks and infections throughout the 2020-21 season (including the Suns’ Chris Paul during the playoffs).
Nurse said he enjoyed being back in his hotel room by 10:30 p.m. after every game, instead of flying to the next city and settling into a new bed around 3:30 in the morning. Niang spent his down time working on his “average, at best” golf game with former teammate Mike Conley and Jazz general manager Justin Zanik on an extravagant campus that also featured fishing, Spikeball, and other activities.
And Curry appreciates that he was part of a historic time in basketball and society — as long as he never needs to participate again.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “It wasn’t fun in the moment, but looking back on it years from now, I think it’ll be kind of cool to say we actually played in the bubble and we were a part of it.
“We were waking up playing basketball every day, which we loved to do as kids and [for] our entire life, so it wasn’t all bad.”