Hawks adapting to new NBA schedule, including limited practices

122820 ATLANTA: Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce coaches up his team against the Detroit Pistons in a NBA basketball game on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
122820 ATLANTA: Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce coaches up his team against the Detroit Pistons in a NBA basketball game on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The last time the Hawks had a full-on practice, they were in Phoenix and had the opportunity to do so only because their game against the Suns on Jan. 13 was canceled because of contact tracing.

It’s one of the many adjustments the Hawks have had to make this season, with the NBA’s schedule upended because of the coronavirus and the many new rules and limitations in place.

“You have to adapt, and you have to try and figure out what’s best with the bulk of the schedule,” coach Lloyd Pierce said.

With nine new players on the roster -- and largely a young roster, at that, the Hawks could use more practice time to build up chemistry and simply iron out any kinks. But, because of the new schedule, they’ve probably had only four full-on, live-contact practices since their season started Dec. 23, Pierce estimated.

In a typical season, games are a little more spaced out. With some exceptions, there’s often more than one day in between games, allowing for full-on practices on at least one of those days, before the next matchup. This season has been compressed, though, with the start of the season delayed until December and the NBA eyeing a finish July 22, before the season would interfere with the Olympics.

That means the Hawks typically play a game, have one day with no game (which is also usually a travel day, if they’re on the road), and then have a game the next day. It’s similar to how games are structured during a playoff series, but instead, it’s the whole season, with a different opponent to prepare for each time, often without practice time to do so. If they have a back-to-back, they need recovery time the following day, and take that day completely off.

When traveling, the Hawks have fallen into a routine of flying into cities a little earlier and going straight to the opponent’s gym, holding a light practice, almost similar to a shootaround, and getting acclimated to the arena. At home, they still can’t practice fully on that in-between day, since they can’t overwork bodies. That means a lot of their work and improvement, as well as playing through mistakes, will be accomplished during actual games.

“Practice won’t be a premium for us, it’ll be a day for us to just fine-tune, recover, get some guys rhythm shots, get some guys some rest,” Pierce said. “But the games are where we get our experience and where we have to use all of our energy, whereas days like (Thursday and Saturday) is where we just touch up and guys feel good about themselves feeling the ball go in the basket, get some lifts in, things of that nature.

“So we’re all adjusting. I’ve never done this in the NBA, fly to a city and go straight to the gym, and so it does give us some getting used to the arena floor because we won’t have a shootaround (the next day), so it is a different norm and we use it as our way to break the ice a little bit, get some rhythm, and then we have a ton of rest heading into tomorrow’s game.”

Limited practicing is much more typical on veteran-heavy teams, Pierce said, so this isn’t out of the ordinary for more experienced groups. But the past few years, with a young and rebuilding team, the Hawks have probably practiced more than most teams, as they try to learn and grow, so it’s very different for them.

This season, the Hawks also aren’t shooting around the morning of games, with the NBA on Jan. 12 releasing a memo instructing teams not to arrive at arenas more than three hours before games. The idea is to allow more time for COVID-19 testing, and simply limit interactions between players and staff, in light of more outbreaks and more games having to be postponed recently.

Those protocols will be in place for at least two weeks from that date, and could be extended by the NBA and the Players Association, but even before that, with all the schedule changes and new rules, it worked best for the Hawks not to shoot around, and instead hold team meetings mid-morning, and then do walk-throughs that evening before games.

“It’s way harder,” fourth-year power forward John Collins said. “No shootaround, no practices. It’s a lot harder to keep that rhythm and keep that momentum that you have going, that you try to build up every day. ... Me playing three years with shootaround, extra practice, extra time to come in early if I need to. Now I can’t even come in early. I have to wait and test and do all these extra things. It just make the process a lot tougher to maintain, for sure.”

To compensate, Collins said, he’s paying extra attention to taking care of his body, whether it’s his diet, more stretching or water and getting extra sleep.

Ultimately, this is something all teams are experiencing, third-year wing Kevin Huerter said. More practices would come in handy when the Hawks have had so many injuries and moving parts through the first month of the season, but it’s something they have to deal with and play through.

“With a team that’s so new, with a team that’s banged up and have had to use so many different combinations of lineups, to not be able to practice and really have games kind of be like the test trials for it, it’s tough, but it’s something that I truly think every team is going through,” Huerter said.

There also are some advantages to the limited practice time for teams whose core players already have more experience together, which is something the Hawks can say, as veteran Solomon Hill pointed out.

The core of Trae Young, Huerter, Collins, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish all played together last season, and Clint Capela was around, too, although he was unable to make his debut until this season because of injury.

However, for players new to the NBA this season, such as rookie Onyeka Okongwu, not being able to do more contact work with teammates leading to games could be a disadvantage. For the whole team, not getting as much practice time means watching film and getting “mental reps” becomes an even higher priority, Hill added.

“It’s very different, being with a young team, being with a team where at the end of the season, we want to play better basketball, we hope and expect to play better basketball than we are now, and practices are very instrumental in that, to be able to get your mistakes out of the way, to be able to compete,” Hill said.

“It’s one thing to have injuries, but it’s another thing to have on-court adjustment time, even shootarounds. … Teams that have been together, their core, have that advantage. And that’s one thing that we can say, is that regardless of the depth and the people that we have available, the majority of our guys that are logging minutes have been with each other.”