The Phoenix Suns shocked the basketball world becoming the ultimate underdog story of the Orlando bubble, dominating their way to a perfect 8-0 record. Their success on the hardwood sparked excitement in the hearts of Suns fans back home in the Valley, but a crucial aspect to their stellar play was their training and recovery methods.
Just as the players had to adapt to a new norm and unforeseen circumstances, so did Sr. Director of Health & Performance Brady Howe and his staff. It was critical for the Suns trainers to develop a sense of normalcy inside the bubble when it came to recovery in order to properly prepare the players for their next matchup.
“Ice bathing, ice bags, cryotherapy in general is probably one of the oldest traditional practices,” Howe said. “Even in our youth, we've all been told ice, but a lot of it is analgesic. It's kind of a masking agent from the pain. Some of our players like it and they'll admit it, it's just a mental state. They know that if they slap ice bags on after a game, they're jump-starting their recovery. For us, in the bubble, everything's basically the same. Nothing has changed with our approach or rationale for its use. It's just how we get it done.”
While the adjustments to living inside a bubble were already complicated enough, the COVID-19 pandemic provided even more changes and precautions in order to keep the players, coaches and staff safe throughout their time in Orlando. That safety began with Howe and his staff.
“The biggest changes that we've seen with everything is our day-to-day operations from a germs-illness [perspective],” Howe said. “Everything has been sanitized - making sure that we don't share a lot of things. We clean things often, which should be the practice anyways, but it's been amplified ever since COVID-19. We spend the majority of our time wearing PPEs - from gloves, masks and having hand sanitizer everywhere. You're keen on those items and making sure that our players and our staff are all in the safest environment.”
The Suns organization has remained at the forefront of sports medicine with their revolutionary technology and innovative ways of training and recovery. One of those key resources is the Delos Postural Proprioceptive System designed for balance, awareness and overall training, beginning with the foot and ankle.
“Delos is a company that I think probably two thirds of the NBA teams now have,” Howe said. “We're proud to say that we were the pioneer basketball club to actually integrate the use of Delos here with the Phoenix Suns. It's a phenomenal product. It's a tilt board that is connected to a computer and is a testing and training device. The biggest derivative you can get from it is your interaction from your foot in the ground.”
Delos allows Howe and his staff to assess each one of the players on an individual and personal basis while educating and coaching them to benefit them on the hardwood.
“You're talking about gravity,” Howe said. “You're talking about how your foot actually interacts with the ground. Anybody that's an athletic trainer in the performance industry knows that there are a lot of different methods to training, starting from the foot contact with the ground. Knowing basketball, there's a lot of interactions. The highest injury rate is ankle sprains. You see a lot of foot surgeries and you see lot of ankle sprains. It starts with that. Proprioception itself is a term to know your spatial awareness - knowing where your body's at in space.”
The system contains wearable sensors that are able to provide detailed, real-time data from each of the players as they balance on an electronic rocking board. The staff begins by testing the players over a span of a few weeks before ultimately studying the results and developing individualized, custom programs. So, whether the player relies more on the outside, inside or middle of their foot, this data allows for the staff to determine any faults and make changes along the way.
“If anybody was just standing there with their eyes open, it's nothing different than what we do every day, but as soon as you close your eyes and you try to stand on one foot, you start to lose your balance,” Howe said. “You just don't know where you are. That's exactly what Delos is training. It's putting you on tilt board, that's an uneven surface and it's teaching your foot and ankle - then up the chain, your entire body. It's teaching you how to interact with the floor. Basketball, you're jumping, you're running, you're cutting. If you really watch a play in basketball, you'd be surprised to see how many feet and ankles are in the paint around the basket at once. These guys have shoe sizes anywhere from size 11 to 20. There are a lot of uneven surfaces that basketball players can jump, stand on and that's where you see a lot of contact ankle sprains.”
Delos is one of many different resources, techniques and methods that the Suns training staff utilizes to improve every small detail that can help the team become more efficient and better prepared on the court.
“Everything that we do, any tool we use, any philosophical approach methods in general is to optimize health and performance,” Howe said. “Keeping your team healthy for the entire season is going to put yourself in the best position to be successful. To do that, you've got to start by reverse engineering or mitigating the big rocks or injuries that you see in basketball, which usually starts with the foot and ankle.”
While the Suns missed their friends and families back home, the team never felt trapped inside the bubble. Instead, the players, coaches and staff used the opportunity to grow closer together, develop stronger relationships and ultimately work more efficiently as one unit.
“This might be some of the most fun we've had in a couple of years,” Howe said. “From a camaraderie and a chemistry standpoint, we've seen it with how we're performing on the floor. Our team and our organization will attest that this has been such a positive experience for us. Being in the position where you put us in a hotel that's a little bit smaller than the others, it's a little bit more intimate. All of these variables have forced us to spend more time together and to get to know each other more. It's honestly been the best thing for us.”
It was all basketball, all the time inside the bubble. That time together eliminated potential outside distractions and kept everyone focused on improving themselves and furthered the overall success of the team.
Now coming back home, Howe and his staff are looking to replicate these benefits from the bubble and apply these takeaways to the Suns’ state-of-the-art performance center that is nearing completion in the Valley.
“The biggest takeaway that I'm trying to instill moving forward into the brand-new performance center is eliminating distractions,” Howe said. “I think some of the things that I've seen with our players who have played very well is just being locked-in. It's all about basketball here. When you're put into a bubble, it's live, breathe, basketball.”
Next step: walking through those newly installed doors on 44th Street and Camelback Road.
“We knew when we left here, we were going to be walking into a brand-new practice facility,” Howe said. “As a staff, we've been working on it all year with our management to put things together from pieces of equipment, to the layout, to flooring, you name it. We were working on that behind the scenes, but now that we're about to walk into that, it's now, what's our daily approach going to look like? How are we going to integrate that, now that we have a practice facility that is state-of-the-art that we've never had before? That's new to Phoenix and that's new to our team.”
The offseason for the Suns has officially begun as many of the players return home to their families throughout the country and around the world. But in order to ensure that the progress made throughout this season and inside the bubble is upheld, it remains crucial for Howe and his staff to continue to keep in touch with the players during this time off.
“As soon as the season's over, it is a much needed a break for the athletes and the staff,” Howe said. “It's nice to be able to step away and rejuvenate. It's a matter of just keeping up with those players. Some of them go to Croatia or Spain or California, Pittsburgh - they're scattered all over the globe. Our staff is usually tasked with trying to keep tabs on them as far as being in constant communication and making sure that we have custom program for those players. The programs are individualized to what they need to continue working on.”
The Suns overcame the seemingly insurmountable odds that lied before them as they finished undefeated in the bubble. The excitement for the team’s young core mixed with the transformation of Talking Stick Resort Arena and the state-of-the-art performance center has carried over the momentum from the Orlando bubble into the Valley. The future looks bright as the team will look to continue to build throughout the next few months, leading into the highly-anticipated tip-off for next season.
“It's just been fun through and through,” Howe said. “Winning changes a lot of things. Even before the bubble, we started doing workouts at the Coliseum. The culture started right there. It's been starting all year, but usually things take a little bit of time to settle down. We had quite a few changes this year from players, staff, coaches. We got to a point right before the bubble that it was all about us and we were focused and locked in. I think that everybody has seen that we're a different team. We're a different culture now.”
For a more in-depth visual inside the bubble, tune-in next Wednesday on FOX Sports Arizona as well as the Suns YouTube Channel at 7 p.m. PT as we take you behind-the-scenes in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.