Every team is searching for ways to remain connected during the NBA's COVID-19 hiatus and the resulting self-isolation. Strength coaches have crafted workout plans for players and dispatched exercise equipment. The best teams have the most incentive to stay in tiptop shape and hold each other accountable, since they will have something to play for if the season resumes.
Lottery teams have to look beyond immediate goals to keep players engaged. One head coach is compiling a reading list of seminal sports journalism for players to read.
James Borrego, the Charlotte Hornets' coach, came up with something different: He picked one playoff series for the team to watch -- one game every day or two -- and break down in video chats and text chains.
"Basketball culture today is so much about watching specific plays," Borrego told ESPN. "Guys watch their highlights. They watch edits of their own minutes. This is about studying an entire series, game by game. What can we learn? What adjustments do you see?"
Borrego didn't want a series that was too recent. He spent a decade as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, but he was wary about pushing that connection too hard. He settled on the Denver Nuggets-Los Angeles Lakers first-round series from 2012 -- a seven-game barnburner that was also the last series win of Kobe Bryant's career.
Borrego liked the contrast of styles: the run-and-gun Nuggets against the behemoth Lakers, starting the Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum mega-frontcourt. Bynum averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds per game for the series, and he put up a triple-double -- including 10 blocked shots -- in the Lakers' Game 1 win.
"A lot of our guys probably don't even know Andrew Bynum," Borrego said.
The series was also incredibly physical. The offensive teams rebounded almost 37% of all misses, a mark that would lead the league today by a laughable margin. The teams combined for 47 offensive rebounds in the Lakers' 96-87 win in Game 7; Gasol had six -- all in a row -- on one pivotal fourth-quarter possession.
"Part of this is to show them what physical playoff basketball looks like," Borrego said. "This is where we want to get to someday. Let's study it."
Cody Zeller has been to the playoffs twice, but he thinks it is useful for younger teammates to absorb postseason urgency. "It's at another level," he said. "Even the crowds. The young players are realizing the intensity of it."
Jalen McDaniels, a rookie forward, texted Borrego that the physicality caught him off guard, the coach said.
Borrego liked that the style of play was so different than now -- and well beyond the emphasis on crashing the offensive boards. Denver's pace -- second in 2011-12 -- would rank last today. Both teams attempted 19 3s per game in the series; no team averages fewer than 27.5 now.
"It's crazy to see how much the game has changed," McDaniels said.
On Monday, Borrego held 30-minute Zoom meetings with players to discuss the first three games of the series. One group featured Zeller, McDaniels and Willy Hernangomez; Zeller immediately tried to get Hernangomez to admit to Borrego how many hours per day he has been playing Fortnite. Hernangomez responded by pointing out how much he had been working out, before Zeller badgered him into revealing the real number: eight to 10 hours per day, Zeller said.
"As teammates, we can get on each other's nerves being around each other so much," Zeller said. "But then one day apart, and it's like, 'Man, those are my best friends.'"
All the players said they enjoyed learning more about the classic NBA characters in that series. Obviously, today's players love watching peak Bryant -- now more than ever. Bynum has become something of a curiosity. "People forget how good Bynum was," Zeller said. "He was a monster."
Caleb Martin said he was surprised at the speed and athleticism of a young Danilo Gallinari, playing almost full time as a wing.
"You know of these guys, but you never sit down and actually watch them play a full game," Cody Martin said.
Metta World Peace missed the first six games of the series after the league suspended him seven games for elbowing James Harden -- then of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- in the head in the Lakers' second-to-last regular-season game. His return for Game 7 -- after two straight Denver wins to knot the series -- inspired a classic semi-motivational, semi-cranky Bryant remark.
"He's the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear," Bryant told reporters ahead of Game 7. "So, I'm looking forward to having that by my side again."
It was probably not a coincidence that Gasol had combined for just 12 points in Games 5 and 6, culminating in a dreadful 1-of-10 performance in Denver's series-tying win. Bynum was also subpar in that game.
The Lakers built that 3-1 lead after what felt at the time like a typical gut-punch Game 4 road win by the favorites. Ramon Sessions and then Steve Blake iced that game in the last minute in Denver on catch-and-shoot 3s out of Bryant pick-and-rolls.
Both were open, which Bryant surmised was the case because they had missed similar looks earlier -- nearly fracturing Bryant's trust in them.
"If you're observing the game in the third quarter, I hit Sessions for an open shot, Blake for an open shot and [Matt] Barnes for an open shot and they missed all three," Bryant said after the game. "George [Karl], being observant as he is, saw I was [ticked]. I was and didn't think I would trust them at the end of the game to knock down those shots, but they stepped up and knocked them down."
The Lakers had traded for Sessions at the deadline that season -- three months after they had nearly acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. David Stern, then the commissioner acting as New Orleans governor, nixed the trade. Sessions ended up the Lakers' stopgap.
Meanwhile, Denver played two point guards -- Ty Lawson and Andre Miller -- at once for large portions of the series, and Miller is a player Borrego wants all of his guys to watch. "He was so good, and so smart," Borrego said.
The coach wants Graham to pay close attention to Miller -- to both his playmaking and how Miller managed to remain a threat off the ball (despite a famously shaky jumper) when Lawson ran the offense. Graham has emerged as Charlotte's primary engine on offense, but he has to work away from the ball some when Terry Rozier takes the reins.
"Devonte' and Andre are very different, but I want him to see the game the way Andre saw it," Borrego said. Graham in the Zoom session on Monday mentioned how impressive it was to watch Lawson -- listed at just 5-foot-11 -- finish around the rim, Borrego said; Graham shot just 54% in the restricted area this season.
Borrego is peppering other Charlotte players with questions about tactics and adjustments. He told Washington and Miles Bridges, Charlotte's cornerstone young tweener forwards, to watch how Kenneth Faried changed games with energy and rim running.
He instructed the Martin twins to focus on Corey Brewer's end-to-end derring-do. Mostly, the players were happy to be with each other again -- even just virtually.
"Honestly," Zeller said, "it was just good to see everyone."