AP Photo/John Raoux
The season has nearly reached its merciful conclusion. With just eight games remaining, the Orlando Magic are a few short weeks away from focusing all of their attention on the upcoming draft. Free agency will follow, then the relative quiet of the summer and early fall when the Magic will hibernate for the offseason.
With a months-long slumber on the horizon, sleep seems like an appropriate topic to write about. At last month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the science of snoozing made for one of the most riveting panels of the weekend.
I know, I know. Riveting? But sleep, especially as it pertains to the NBA as a whole, and the Magic in particular, is of the utmost importance, and we’re not talking about it enough in a society that lionizes those who sleep 10 hours a week — and even then, only in their offices.
Ask Dr. Charles Czeisler, the Harvard Medical school professor and former consultant to the Blazers and Celtics featured on the “Sleeping Giants” panel. Czeisler cited some rather compelling evidence for the primacy of rest:
Losing even one night of sleep significantly impairs reaction time and the ability to quickly spot visual signals. In a sport where tenths of a second are the difference between a timely defensive rotation and a dunk that ends up on SportsCenter, this stuff really matters. Lack of sleep also diminishes testosterone levels — a week of sleeping four hours a night can reduce a 25-year-old’s testosterone level to that of a 36-year-old — and increases the body’s inflammatory response.
That last line should raise all sorts of red flags for Orlando fans. This is a team that will be young for the foreseeable future, adding talent largely through the draft. It stands to reason that the Magic will target young players in free agency, too, the occasional veteran brought in for “leadership” not withstanding.
Youth is its own commodity in sports. The fresh-faced and fresh-legged bring undeniable athletic advantages in peak performance and energy expenditure. But sleep is the great equalizer. All the innocence of youth in the world can’t overcome the effect that a week of reduced sleep has on the body. If Orlando is to maximize its advantages as the roster improves, the team must focus on keeping the players as thoroughly rested as possible.
It’s a nice thought, at least in theory. But it’s not like NBA teams don’t understand the value of sleep on an intellectual level. They might not be fully aware that at a 30 percent reduction in cognitive capacity from sleep deprivation — a level readily reached during, say, a prolonged road trip while conventions and college tournaments are in town — is functionally equivalent to being drunk, but these are smart people who study the literature. They know that sleep matters.
But they still have to enact policies that fit into the hectic, nonstop schedule of an NBA team. In the aforementioned TrueHoop piece, former Portland GM Tom Penn told Beckley Mason about one approach the Blazers tried:
The conventional wisdom for handling road trips was to get on local time as quickly as possible. On Czeisler’s advice, Nate McMillan’s coaching staff moved everything back three hours to mimic the players’ schedule back in the Pacific time zone. Remembers Penn: “The doctor convinced everyone that the circadian athlete rhythm peaks right in that 4 to 5 p.m. time and that’s when our players would be playing. Four to five o’clock on their bodies, 7 or 8 o’clock local time. It was great.”
For a West Coast team, that’s a simple idea, and readily enacted. But Orlando, flying east to west has no such advantage. The Magic must forge their own unique path toward ensuring their players are rested.
And the players must do their part. In your early and mid-20s, it’s all too easy to stay up for the majority of the night. That effect is amplified by late games that pump players full of adrenaline. Or by film study at the hotel or on the plane after the game, which involves critical thinking that delays the brain’s transition into a resting state. Or by a player’s choice to participate in extracurricular activities.
Some of that is intrinsic to the NBA schedule, a larger issue to which the importance of sleep speaks. But some of it is also controllable. The problem then becomes prioritization. How much film study is too much when sleep is on the line? If you push back the timetable, can that time be made up later, or will it cut into something else? Whose birthday party do you go out to after the game to celebrate, and when do you just go home after the game and play the PS4, which just keeps you up anyway?
Tucked in Central Florida, thousands of miles removed from potential opponents, the Magic face a unique set of challenges with regard to sleep, alongside these generic questions that affect every team. That makes them just like every other team in the league. There’s no general prescription for the plague of restlessness that afflicts the Association. It’s up to each organization, from ownership down to the trainers, to come up with the plan that best fits their team — and to properly implement and execute said scheme. It’s just like anything else in the NBA.
The best laid plans can only get you so far. Best to sleep on it.