The Wear & Tear of a Shortened Season

Head trainer Gary Vitti is prepared to deal with the wear and tear of the compressed 66-game schedule.

When the NBA announced the shortened 66-game season that commences on Christmas Day, the first thought in the mind of Lakers Head Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti was how best to protect his players from and through inevitable injuries.

After all, the compressed 2011-12 campaign will feature roughly one extra game every two weeks from a regular 82-game schedule. In L.A.’s case, this translates into 10 percent less rest for the players, now charged with playing 20 of the 66 games without a day of recovery on the second night of back-to-backs.

Wouldn’t you like to know how are the bodies of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Co. are going to hold up?

With so many situational differences between players’ bodies, so much randomness, no one can really answer that question. But Vitti has carried L.A.’s medical bag for 27 years, when Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got taped up first, and can give us as good of an idea as anybody else.

While Vitti and his staff have been busy setting up physical exams and any additionally required diagnostics (MRI, X-Ray) with the players coming in randomly since last week, the focus for those players is trying to get their respective bodies ready as quickly as possible … but hopefully not too quickly. Acutely aware of injury risks of 66 games in 124 days, Vitti has studied trends from the 1998-99 season, in which a lockout rendered only 50 regular season games.

“What we saw back then is more overuse injuries,” he said. “As you stress your body, it will lay down more muscle, tendon and ligamentous tissue according to the loads you put upon them. It's the same with bone.

"The problem arises when you overload tissue before it's had the chance to adapt to the loads, the tissue will go through a metabolic change.”

That's exactly what the Lakers do not want, as Vitti and his staff are focused on mitigating that overloading. In a trainer’s words, tendons can become inflamed, resulting in tendinitis; joints can become inflamed, causing arthritis; and bones can become inflamed, causing stress fractures.

But, in essence, a shorter camp can mean that players will be trying to make up for lost time, and that can be dangerous. Since there is simply no way to recreate what it takes to play in an NBA game except to actually compete against NBA talent on a daily basis, no amount of individual activity/pick up games/NBA2K12 (OK, not the last one) comes close.

“The bottom line is that you can be in good physical condition, you can be in basketball shape, and then there is NBA shape,” said Vitti. “The NBA is made up of the biggest, strongest and quickest in the world, and whatever you do isn't going to mimic it.”

Of course, the health of Kobe Bryant is as vital to L.A.’s ultimate success as anything else, and treating his right knee has been a focus of Vitti’s for years. The good news is that a Lakers-encouraged treatment of the knee in Germany over the summer has produced “great” results thus far, but Vitti will be watching closely to see how Bryant holds up.

As the season progresses, and you hear “patellar tendinitis,” “Achilles tendinitis,” or “stress fracture,” think about the increased usage of body parts. Traumatic injuries like ankle sprains or knee tears, on the other hand, have more to do with how often a given player leaves his feet in general. In other words, Vitti hasn’t found any correlation between traumatic injuries and a shortened camp.

Another area of concern with a shortened schedule is a lack of time not just for physical recovery but for mental recovery. There’s simply less time to sleep.

“Since I believe lack of recovery time is the biggest issue in our league, you couple the travel, time change and sleep pattern disruption to make it very difficult to recovery from the game or practice the day before,” Vitti said. “The margin for error is now lower given the schedule.”

With that in mind, the Lakers are looking closely at brain mapping and how that translates to focus, teaching focus and sleep patterns, in accordance with the team neurologist. Vitti hopes this can help make up for some of the nights the team lands in Denver, Miami or New York at 2 a.m. with a game to play the next day.

Vitti’s next task, now that the schedule is out, is to figure out times for the players to obtain some extra rest, which he’ll work out with Coach Mike Brown.

Regardless, injuries will happen, and some may be more likely to occur given the condensed training camp and cramped season. All L.A.’s training staff can do is prepare to deal with whatever issues may arise, and nip as many as can be nipped in the bud so that the focus can remain on the basketball court, and not the training table.