Basketball, golf and conversations: Pistons sought balance during in-market bubble

DETROIT — For the past two-plus months, many eyes turned to the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Fla., for the resumed season. Just 22 teams traveled to the Sunshine State and the remaining eight teams were limited to individual workouts.

As the NBA playoffs unfolded, the league and the National Basketball Players Association announced that the eight teams, now known as the “Delete Eight,” could host in-market mini-camps. The Detroit Pistons and the seven other teams created a bubble of their own in their respective cities to host group workouts.

“It’s very much uncharted territory, kind of the first project everyone was able to work on especially being away from basketball for so long,” said Jhonika Hawkins, Pistons’ Director of Executive Operations. “I think everyone hit the ground running.”

The mini-camp, which wrapped up on Friday, occurred in two phases. The first (Sept. 14-20) included individual workouts, similar to what the teams did during the prior three months. Players were tested every day for COVID-19.

Then phase two (Sept. 21 to Oct. 6) began and the Pistons needed to form a campus-like environment in the city. The campus included the practice facility and the MGM Grand Detroit for all participating players and team staff.

To participate in group training activities, players and team staff had to live in the “bubble.” The participants isolated for two days upon entering the bubble before activities began.

In planning the bubble, the Pistons’ basketball operations and business operations departments coordinated to make sure everyone would have what they needed. They also had to follow guidelines that the NBA set for all eight markets to pull off the second bubble.

Like phase one, players would have daily COVID-19 testing and movement would be restricted between team activities and the hotel. The team chartered buses to transport the bubble participants from the hotel to the facilities.

“We go through so many protocols, changing shoes, washing so much that the days of just coming and stepping on the court are over with,” head coach Dwane Casey said via Zoom. “So safety is our first, the whole league’s first agenda. Whatever we have to do to stay safe, we’re with it.”

While basketball is the focus of the bubble, the Pistons wanted to make sure that the players would have plenty to do when they weren’t on the court. Basketball operations and business operations coordinated with each other to make sure that the players’ schedules lined up accordingly.

With the practice schedule as the baseline, the sides built in activities around practice times. They then balanced fun things for the players to do, while making sure they had ample free time for themselves.

“(Hawkins and Michael Lindo) were really able to work with our partners, work with our players and get firsthand information on what they would want to be able to do as opposed to us just kind of deciding what they would do,” said Britta Brown, Senior Director of Basketball Administration.

Sometimes players had one practice a day. Sometimes they had two. Sometimes practice times varied throughout the day.

So when players wanted alone time, they could go to their rooms which were filled with their favorite snacks, a yoga mat, family photos and an essential oil diffuser. They also had personal gaming systems.

The planning committee drew a little inspiration from the bubble in Orlando that had opportunities for players to go fishing, play golf and go swimming.

“We couldn’t do everything that they were doing in Orlando, simply because of size and the amount of time that we had, but we had to create the experience,” said Lindo, who is the Director of Player and Family Engagement.

At the hotel, the players and staff had access to lounges so that they can move freely about without being confined to their rooms. They also had access to Topgolf Swing Suite in the MGM Grand Hotel.

“The team has done a great job of putting activities together, to kind of clear our minds from feeling like we’ve been locked up type of thing,” Pistons center Thon Maker said. “So they have a Topgolf suite set up in the heart of the hotel here. They have a game room and books and stuff to read over there.”

The players also hit the green for some live golf on Tuesday to get outside.

While the team wanted to make sure the players had fun, they also wanted make sure that they were mentally stimulated. So they penciled in time for the players and coaches to have conversations about the current social climate and the importance of voting.

They also carved out time to watch the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” on the late congressman.

With movement restricted to a few places, the Pistons had team psychotherapist Corey Yeager available to facilitate group and individual talks.

“Dr. Yeager was able to come and kind of set a baseline for what players would need, mentally, and also be able to take inventory on where they are right now and where we need to progress from where they are and kind of put together a plan for that,” Lindo said.

On Friday, the Pistons exited their in-market bubble. As of now, the NBA has not finalized when the 2020-21 season will begin and when teams can host training camps. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he doesn’t believe the season will start before January. Until then, the Pistons practice facility will be closed to players for two weeks, then reopen for potential voluntary individual workouts.

“Our bubble is finished right now,” Casey said in a Zoom call on Friday. “I think it goes back to one coach, one player. And the question is, whenever we start back, do we get another gathering together?”

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