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Ahead of the game

Conditioning a key in shortened season

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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Another Shawn Kemp is not walking through that door. At least, the Celtics hope not.

During the last NBA lockout, the 6-foot-10-inch, 315-pound Kemp became the poster child for lazy, out-of-shape players. Believing the 1998-99 season would be canceled, Kemp packed on the pounds - close to 35, by some estimates. He was never the same.

Now his bloated image serves as a cautionary tale: Show up in shape for training camp tomorrow or suffer the consequences.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a new one,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “We just don’t know who it is. I’m hoping it’s not one of ours.’’

From what Rivers and team president Danny Ainge have heard, the Celtics players will start training camp in good shape. Still, a 16-day preseason with two exhibition games and a compressed 66-game regular season represent a great unknown. Teams enter camps with rosters in flux and players at different fitness levels.

“What if half the guys are in shape and half the guys are out of shape?’’ said Rivers. “If you’re out of shape, you can’t function right in practice. We have no clue what the answer is going to be.’’

But if they push players too much, they risk injury. For proof, NBA coaches need look no further than post-lockout injury reports in the NFL, which are littered with hamstring and groin problems, precisely the body parts most vulnerable to overloading. But take too conservative an approach and you risk a slow start, with no time to regain lost ground during a shortened season.

“The smart coaches are going to ease on the gas pedal and continue to get stronger,’’ said trainer Mark Verstegen, founder and president of Athletes’ Performance, at which nearly two dozen NBA players trained during the extended offseason. “The other coaches may try to stomp on it. They may or may not be a little farther ahead for the first game, but 20 games into the season, it’s going to show.

“Secondly, it comes down to what systems are in place in the organization to evaluate players and identify what groups can do what. Then, you build a practice schedule around that.’’

The Celtics plan on holding two practices a day during the preseason. But Rivers will be flexible, adjusting workouts based on what he sees. He remains unsure how even Day 1 will proceed, with free agent signings needed to fill out the roster and trades likely coming.

The NBA reportedly considered delaying the start of training camp from tomorrow until Monday for undermanned teams like the Celtics.

Valuable veterans

The Celtics enter training camp with six players under contract, including Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The veteran Big Three are 35, 34, and 36, respectively. But Rivers, Ainge, and some athletic trainers who worked with players during the lockout believe age and experience could work to the Celtics’ advantage. While younger legs may better withstand the rigors of the 19 back-to-back sets and the one back-to-back-to-back stretch on the Boston schedule, there is more than that to success.

“If older guys have been doing what they need to do in the offseason, then a shortened season can be a great thing,’’ said Verstegen. “A lot of times, older guys are really banged up at the end of the season. The shortened season, shortened preseason, means less volume on their legs, less wear and tear to start out. They may start fresher and be able to stay fresher.’’

All indications are that Garnett, Pierce, and Allen have done their requisite work.

“Paul and Kevin look good,’’ said trainer Joe Abunassar, who has worked with both players as founder and president of Impact Basketball. “Kevin, Paul, and Ray are three guys that really get it. They take care of themselves really well.’’

Rivers values the wisdom that comes with age, as well as the continuity. He hopes his veteran team comes together quicker and plays at a higher level quicker than other teams.

Looking back at the last lockout-shortened season, it seems that experience can make a positive difference.

After a 50-game season, the 1999 Eastern Conference finals featured the New York Knicks, whose starting five averaged 29.2 years old, and the Indiana Pacers, whose starting five averaged 32.4 years. The Western Conference finals pitted the San Antonio Spurs, whose starting five averaged 30.6 years, against the Portland Trail Blazers, whose starting five averaged 28.4 years. The Spurs (average age of the entire roster 29.6) beat the Knicks (29.9 for the entire roster) for the title.

The average age for the Celtics’ projected starting five is 32.6, though that number takes into account only players currently under contract. In addition to age, individual fitness, team depth, and minutes management will play big roles in the team’s fortunes this season.

“I would be very surprised if the veterans were out of shape,’’ said Rivers. “I wouldn’t be that surprised if some of the younger players were out of shape. That’s the exact opposite of what people would think.

“But the veterans know their bodies. They know how to get in shape. The young guys need guidance to get in shape. Not having that, it will be interesting to see who had the discipline to do the work on their own.

“Not only do the veterans have Shawn Kemp, but they also have themselves. They probably know how they felt when they came back the last time. The ones who were out of shape are probably thinking, ‘I will never go through that again.’ ’’

Active offseasons

Adrenaline can carry players through Day 1 of training camp. On Day 2, muscle soreness starts to creep in. Then players can enter a danger zone as early as Day 3.

“The third day of camp is the worst,’’ said Abunassar. “That’s when they try to push through muscle soreness.’’

Pushing through can lead to a muscle pull or strain that bothers a player for months, potentially the entire shortened season.

Depending on base fitness levels and positions, players will come along at different rates. Verstegen and Abunassar suspect that many teams will need to group players according to fitness level for productive practices.

Additionally, big men face more of an injury risk, even if they avoid the Kemp scenario.

“It’s harder for them to cram for the test because their body takes more wear and tear and stress,’’ said Verstegen.

Reggie Evans, a free agent big man on the Celtics’ radar, started his offseason routine in July with Athletes’ Performance. The 6-8 forward proudly enters camp at 252 pounds, with 8 percent body fat.

“Knowing what happened in 1998, when a lot of players didn’t come back in good shape, I learned from that history,’’ said Evans, even though he wasn’t in the NBA back then.

The trainers at Athletes’ Performance, he said, “know when to turn the volume up. They know when to turn it down.

“When we come back, there’s going to be a rush on everything, rush to learn plays, rush to get to know your teammates. So you have to be prepared physically.’’

Evans was far from alone in his preparation. Overall, the NBA players seemed more active during this lockout than they were in the layoff before the ’98-99 season, showing up for all kinds of workouts. There was Kobe Bryant’s TMZ-reported visit to a Jewish Community Center in Irvine, Calif., for a private training session. There was the Oregon training camp for players represented by Creative Artists Agency like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. There was the YouTube video of Kevin Durant playing flag football.

Impact Basketball had almost 50 players come to its facilities in Las Vegas and Los Angeles for conditioning and pickup games, including Pierce. Abunassar also has devised training programs for Garnett over the years.

“I’ve never seen Kevin look bad,’’ said Abunassar. “He’s a freak of nature. He knows how to not beat his body up and also stay in shape.

“And when you get that guy on the court for a workout, if he was out of shape, you’d never know it because he wills his way through things.’’

Abunassar noted that the mental challenges of training through the lockout sometimes matched the physical challenges. Without a goal date in sight, players struggled to stay motivated in early November. Ordinarily, the regular season is under way by then.

Once the sides reached an agreement, phones started ringing nonstop at Abunassar’s facilities and players booked flights for intensive sessions.

Starting tomorrow, the NBA rush is officially on.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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