TrueHoop: Working Bodies

Now teaming up: Catapult and SportVU

May, 9, 2014
May 9
3:13
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Derrick RoseAP Photo/Alex BrandonFor a second straight season Derrick Rose spent more time in street clothes than a Bulls uniform.
Bummed out that injuries torpedoed your favorite team’s playoff hopes this season? Wish we didn’t have to see Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo in street clothes for most of the season?

You’re not alone. The NBA teams are right there with you. The effects of an injury can bleed into just about every corner of a team. Fans are less likely to tune in if Jodie Meeks is playing the 2 instead of Bryant. GMs are on the hook if a big signing pulls up limp. Coaches turn into a walking scapegoat when injuries pile up and teams fall short of expectations. No player wants the sticky "soft" label if they need to miss time to nagging injuries. Everyone in the sport wants a clean bill of health.

For an NBA team, injuries aren't just a buzzkill; they’re a giant hole in the owner's wallet. According to analysis by Rotowire’s Jeff Stotts, the average NBA team wastes about $10 million in salary from games missed because of injury. Some of that shortfall is picked up by insurance, but it also doesn't capture the serious hit to ticket sales, merchandise purchases and other revenue streams.

Bottom line: Injuries are incredibly costly in terms of wins and dollars. This is why injury prevention analytics is becoming the hottest trend in NBA circles.

And now two titans in the industry are teaming up to help teams manage their injury risk and keep their stars on the floor.

This week, STATS Inc. and Catapult Sports have agreed to a partnership that will integrate SportVU 3D-tracking data from games and Catapult GPS-tracking data from practices into one package for teams, which will be officially presented to NBA front-office executives, trainers and strength coaches next week at the 2014 NBA draft combine in Chicago. This fills the gap for teams looking to streamline all their player work data into one digestible dashboard. Consider it one-stop shopping.

“You jump into your car, check the gas tank, check the oil, make sure the GPS is working and off you go,” says Gary McCoy, Catapult’s senior applied sports scientist. “We want to put a dashboard on these guys. We want to know when they’re red-lining and when they’re out of gas. And if we can do that in a compelling manner, which is what SportVU brought to the equation for Catapult. We’ll have a formula beyond compare. We had to get that data compartmentalized and presented to coaches so they can make informed decisions.”

For analysis on the partnership between Catapult and SportVU, read Haberstroh at ESPN Insider.

NBA to players and refs: Watch out for heads

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
3:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The NBA distributed a video starring Vice President of Referee Operations Joe Borgia discussing the league's "points of emphasis" for the 2014 playoffs.

Things get pretty serious at about 13 minutes in, when Borgia says "we noticed this season there was a lot more contact to opponents' heads ... this is a very dangerous situation." Then Borgia rolls a clip of a game broadcast in which Hubie Brown expresses dismay at the number of defenders going for the head and neck.

To my eyes, over the last few years defenders do seem to be using blows to the head as a fairly common tactic to prevent layups, even at the exact moment in history medical science and the league itself are putting new emphasis on preventing such dangerous plays.

Basketball doesn't have football's reputation for head injuries, but it does have a certain rate of concussion and head injuries, many of which, by virtue of the fact that they come on intentional fouls to prevent layups, could presumably be prevented.
Performance-enhancing drugs were a hot topic at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Here, Warriors assistant GM Kirk Lacob (who studied "science, technology and society") at Stanford suggests to Ethan Sherwood Strauss that the NBA should be open-minded about PEDs.

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A counterpoint, also from Sloan, comes from admitted former doper Tyler Hamilton. He nearly died from complications of a banned blood transfusion, and tells Henry Abbott that the stress of his double life made returning his Olympic medal more satisfying than winning it. He is an outspoken opponent of doping.

video

Too many games hurt NBA's regular season

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
11:02
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kobe BryantBarry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe NBA is better than ever! ... Right? The injuries, losses and forced rest are starting to pile up.
The NBA is winning. It's already a "global money machine," according to Forbes, and new TV deals will only make that sweeter.

Not to mention, it's fun! The NBA's young players include an embarrassment of promise -- not just "plenty years left" stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and so many others. This year and every year for the foreseeable future, the playoffs will feature one amazing showdown after another. Hats off to all involved.

So, it's time to rush out and buy a ticket to a game, right?

Well ...

"Listen, I do feel badly for fans," said Jeff Van Gundy, on the phone to The Herd from San Antonio on Wednesday. "I feel awful that we make them watch back-to-back games that often turn out to be, you know, low-energy affairs. I think the league has to eliminate back-to-back games, or at least reduce the number."

So sometimes you'll see a team that's mailing it in.

But what about if you go and see a primo team, a team thick with stars, like the Heat? You'd be safe then, right?

That's a little tricky, too. "Their performance over the last couple of weeks has been totally substandard, when it comes to championship focus and effort," Van Gundy said of the defending champions. He pointed out that this is hardly the first time the Heat have mailed it in. "Now last year they also were in a point of struggle, until they ripped off that 27-game winning streak."

In other words, there are times the Heat are the best team in the land, but it's in fits and starts, not every game. They save their best efforts for certain moments, and the regular season is iffy.

That's also true of many good teams, including last year's other finalists, the Spurs. They frequently sit their best players for part or all of regular-season games, in the name of rest -- something that's emerging as a trend among cutting-edge teams.

And, evidently, with good reason! Yet again this season, stars who play long minutes, going hard all regular season, seem to be getting hurt at a bummer of a rate. Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are all out for extended periods. Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup. Eric Bledsoe, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are needle-moving players who are on the shelf.

It has been a decade since a team won a title with its top players playing heavy minutes, and that's a reality that contending teams wrestle with all regular season. As much as Erik Spoelstra may want to delight fans by playing Wade every night, doing so evidently hurts his team's chances in the postseason. What would you do if you were in his shoes?

And of course, we haven't even yet mentioned the biggest problem with the regular season: A lot of the teams don't even want to be there. Every season many teams have front offices who hope the entire 82 games go by in a flash, having created intentionally putrid rosters designed to lose now, with an eye on draft picks. This season, for a lot of teams, culminates not in title hopes, but in lottery hopes. The tankapalooza is on.

Injuries. Fatigue. Forced rest. Intentional losses. Buy a ticket to a regular-season NBA game, and there's an excellent chance one or more of these factors will keep you from seeing the best basketball in the world.

There's a unifying theme, there, though. A root cause: Too many games.

The promise of buying a ticket to an NBA game is seeing the best athletes in the world at peak performance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose ... the best players in the world are the league's most precious resource. And they are as well prepared and competitive as humans get. But the facts on the ground are that their best efforts are finite, and 82 games appears to be too many times over a year to ask them to turn it all the way on. Whether limited by injury, fatigue, schedule or strange draft rules that reward losing, the simple fact is that 1,230 regular-season games is, evidently, and increasingly obviously, more than we can reasonably expect the NBA's 400 or so athletes to produce their best. All kinds of players and teams are limited in delivering their best level night in and night out.

One of the worst strategies you can have, in this ultra-marathon, is to go all-out every minute. That, as we'll be exploring more as the season unfolds, is exactly what fans rightly want on any given night, but it's not a good long-term plan in a game where injury avoidance and rest are paramount to title chances.

So, yes, the NBA is in fantastic shape, because of its global fans who delight in the hard work and brilliance of its players, coaches and executives -- and despite the excessive and compromised regular season.

TrueHoop TV: Damian Lillard on playing time

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:29
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Damian Lillard says he could play better. The reigning rookie of the year says shorter minutes would help.

In the second part of a conversation (here's part one, rapid fire) he also discusses scams ("it's more common than people think"), egos ("it's something you get tired of"), and more.

Wanted: Real leadership on doping

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
12:33
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Paul KonerkoJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMLB players such as Paul Konerko called for tough testing a decade before baseball got serious.
Doping is all over the sports section these days, which must be a little depressing for sports fans hoping that this was behind us.

On the other hand, if you generally hate being lied to, well, here comes the truth! In a way, this is like getting a bad diagnosis. A harsh day, to be sure. But in reality, nothing like as bad as the unnamed day when you actually got the disease. At least now we can get busy on the cure.

Let the healing begin.

Knowing your enemy is an essential first step of the battle. Back when doping happened entirely in secret, the wise men who led sports -- the executives, the commissioners, the unions and the like -- were shadowboxing an enemy built entirely of guesswork. Who was doping? What with? When? Where?

Now we have a lot of real information. The Mitchell report on baseball. The USADA report on Lance Armstrong and his teammates. The unfolding collection of Biogenesis documents. Now we have dozens of firsthand accounts from everyone from Tyler Hamilton to Kirk Radomski, who are saying, essentially, This is how it really works, and I know because I was one of the ones who lived it.

Many also add how glad they are to have come clean and that it's all over.

When you look at what those people have to say, however, the truth of doping is so very different from what we had imagined.

And so many things we thought we knew about PEDs are proving to have been misguided. The early tests, it turns out, were fairly easy to beat. Yes, even heroes cherished for bravely battling cancer can cheat. And PEDs help with all kinds of things, not just getting big.

Myth: Athletes want to cheat.

Here's one more old assumption: Athletes want to cheat, and the wise old men who lead sports are losing sleep trying to catch them.

There may be some of that. But the evidence points just as much in the opposite direction, as in: There are plenty of athletes hoping for more serious testing, and as often as not it's the power brokers at the top of the sport who are the obstacles.

“It's huge,” Derrick Rose told ESPN The Magazine about PEDs in 2011. “I think we need a level playing field, where nobody has that advantage over the next person."

In one of the great mind-benders of all time, Rose would recant that statement a few days later, saying, "I do not recall making the statement, nor do I recall the question being asked. If that was my response to any question, I clearly misunderstood what was asked of me. But, let me be clear, I do not believe there is a performance-enhancing drug problem in the NBA."

Whatever Rose really meant, what’s interesting here is not just the assertion that NBA players use PEDs but also that here's an athlete who undeniably sounds as though he'd like the sport to be clean.

From the stands, many of us fans assume athletes would prefer the freedom to use whatever performance enhancers they’d like. But it's hard to find anyone, even a confessed doper, making that case. Talk to athletes who know firsthand the life in a doped-up sport, and a huge number of them are adamant it’s well worth aggressively pursuing a level playing field.

In The New York Times, Tyler Kepner tells a baseball tale about how, a decade ago, several clean, young White Sox players, including Paul Konerko, considered boycotting toothless early MLB drug tests in the hope of inspiring tougher testing down the road. This -- players insisting on invasive testing -- is the opposite of what we once assumed would happen.

One of those players, Kelly Wunsch, is now retired, and tells Kepner he can hardly watch baseball these days, as his mind gets stuck wondering how much of what he's seeing is the result of cheating. "The better, the stricter and the more all-encompassing the testing can be, the more we can relax, sit back and enjoy these athletes," he said.

Athletes don't want to cheat. Not as an end goal. What they want is to succeed at their jobs, make money and win.

If the sport is well-policed and you can do all those things clean, so much the better, say the grizzled truth-telling veterans of cycling, the sport that has been through the hottest fires of the PEDs inferno.

Cyclist David Millar tells a story from early in his cycling career. He was a promising young cyclist who suddenly found himself struggling to keep up with the pack after a few years as a professional. We would later learn that was the time when most of the big names in cycling started using the banned blood booster EPO. In his book “Racing Through the Dark,” Millar tells this tale from the 1997 Tirreno-Adriatico race:
Just as I was about to give up the ghost, I looked up and saw Robbie McEwen, the Australian sprinter, swing out of the line of riders, waving his arm in the air, angrily shouting obscenities. ... He put his head down and started sprinting back up to speed alongside the line of riders, only to begin ranting again.

“F---ING JUST STOP!” he screamed. “THIS IS NOT F---ING BIKE RACING!”


Millar was entirely sympathetic. Teammates who doped knew to hide it from Millar, who loudly told anyone who’d ask that he’d never doped. He was the brash good boy of the Cofidis team.

Years into his career, however, he grew tired of waiting for the executives to get serious about drug cheaters. Doping was everywhere, and could have, in his view, been fairly easily cleaned up, but nobody would even acknowledge the problem. The words McEwen had been screaming fell on deaf ears, as one doper after another won the Tour de France and every other big race.

In the following years, Millar grew bitter at the upside-down world he lived in, where “classless idiots were considered to be great champions.” Eventually Millar decided to join the dopers who, in his view, nobody was trying much to stop. It's a tale many cyclists have told: They resisted doping for years and assumed they would never try it, then tired of waiting for those in charge to do anything about it and eventually caved to team pressure to ride as fast as possible.

It's the job of sports' leaders to run the sport so that athletes determined to be clean have a shot at staying that way and succeeding.

In search of leadership

In other words, there's plenty of evidence of athletes welcoming much more serious tests when they would have been incredibly helpful in preventing broad doping scandals. Much tougher to find, however, are demonstrations of major sports executives expressing anything like that conscience or vision in public. Without a major scandal to force the issue, has the head of any league ever said anything like: "We have a big problem we need to address"?

And yet, such problems have touched almost every sport -- which means the executives are clueless or concerned with making the sport appear cleaner than it really is.

Baseball now leads the North American pro sports with the quality of its testing, but that didn't come about from groundbreaking leadership nor technological breakthroughs. It took a full decade of near-infinite scandal, after which the powers-that-be have relented to a protocol that could have been implemented years earlier. (What can baseball say to clean players who lost their jobs to dopers while the league failed to do good testing that was readily available?)

Verbruggen's cycling organization had nominal testing but never came close to catching Armstrong -- even though he was taking just about every doping product there is, just about all year. That sport's testing only got serious when, after losing all credibility, outsiders were brought in to run the show. Naturally, the report damning Armstrong isn't from the governing body of international cycling, it's from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

For the NBA, this is interesting. The job of policing PEDs falls to the NBA's head lawyer, Rick Buchanan, to be collectively bargained with the union, which has no real leader at the moment.

Meanwhile, I've had NBA union officials tell me they can't imagine why they'd want any athlete tested for anything. And NBA officials have intimated for years, publicly and privately, that they're confident they don't have a problem and their testing program is laudable. But with effective drugs readily available from anti-aging clinics, doctors and online across the nation and around the globe, and testing that could easily be defeated, what could their confidence be built of other than hope?

As someone interested in clean and healthy competition, I'm ready to celebrate anyone who boldly sticks his neck out to insist on the best possible tests. I can't wait until, at that, sports' leaders catch up to the athletes.

Getting the green light

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
11:31
AM ET
By Steve McPherson and Andrew Lynch
TrueHoop Network
Aron Baynes
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Spurs like Aron Baynes had some high-tech gadgetry under their jerseys at Vegas Summer League.
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us ..."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

It all started with a little green light.

On the first night of the NBA's summer league in Las Vegas, the San Antonio Spurs played the Charlotte Bobcats. As Spurs center Aron Baynes prepared to inbound the ball from the baseline, a small green light was visible, blinking steadily through the white mesh of his jersey.

First question: Is he a cyborg?

Second, more sensible question: Is that the biometric monitoring the Spurs have used in the D-League?

A stroll behind the bench confirmed every Spur had a small bulge, just between the shoulder blades, blinking green.

Fascinating. Mysterious. And as it turns out, loaded with potential: It's part of a system that has led to a huge reductions in injury, and dramatic improvements in performance, in a professional league half a world away.



After the game, the Spurs communications staff opted to "politely decline" the opportunity to talk about the green light.

We learned from 48 Minutes of Hell’s Andrew McNeill that the Austin Toros -- the Spurs’ D-League affiliate -- were trying out some technology made by Catapult Sports.

"It’s a load meter and it’s a new sports science thing," Toros coach Brad Jones explained to McNeill. "It's like a vest you put on underneath [your clothes] and you wear it in practice and it keeps track of the energy you’re burning."

The key term here is "load," the aggregate energy put into and stress placed upon the body during athletic activity. In basketball terms, this may mean -- according to the Catapult Sports site, which confirms the Spurs as clients -- measuring "the speed of a shooting guard coming off a down-screen, the impact force of a center banging on the low block, or the total distance covered by a point guard over the course of a game, week or season."

Was this what the Spurs were wearing? An article on the company by Forbes’ Alex Konrad noted that "[w]earable sensors are still banned in the U.S. during official game play."

Konrad put us in touch with Catapult's Gary McCoy who, it turned out, was in Las Vegas, ready and willing to sit down to talk about what Catapult Sports does.



An Australian company, Catapult Sports first began working with Australian Rules Football, and McCoy makes some impressive claims about the company’s effectiveness there. “Where we’re at with sports science in Australia," he told Lynch, "is that we’ve reduced injury by almost 30 percent, and we’ve increased outputs by almost 25 percent." These numbers come from the extensive injury research the Australian Football League conducts (see, for example, this 2012 report) and from the company’s own measurements of an increase in fourth-quarter speeds and accelerations. The net effect for these athletes has been to "extend and enrich a player’s career. That window is always closing on you, whether you’re a team or a player.”

The way McCoy talks about the company reflects Catapult Sports’ core mission: to maximize athlete effectiveness by minimizing injury and the deleterious effects of exhaustion. “We’re getting questions from one of the biggest profile [NBA] teams that has an aging athlete,” McCoy said. “And one of the questions coming from their training staff was, ‘Can we look at his physiological matrix and what makes up his exertion level and know that we might have to pull him every six minutes or so to sustain his output in the fourth quarter?’”

How to extend an aging athlete’s career is a vital question as teams work with players like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, but it can be just as important for younger players to start making the most of their bodies now.

The directions players move have a surprising amount to do with injury prevention. McCoy refers to this as asymmetry, and it’s something most basketball fans know: athletes often move better in one direction than the other. When someone says, “Force him left” or, “Don’t let him catch it on the right block,” this is what they’re talking about.

“It’s just like wheel alignment in a car,” McCoy said. “It impacts return to play [from injury]. We had a very prominent NBA player’s ACL rehabilitation we measured last year. Phenomenal athlete. Left ACL was the rupture." Catapult is constrained from discussing its clients, but a survey of injury reports shows Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, Ricky Rubio, Iman Shumpert, Nerlens Noel and Leandro Barbosa to be among those who have torn left ACLs in recent years. Rajon Rondo also suffered a partial tear. "And [the training staff] said 'Based upon strength, we think he’s close to being ready.’ When they actually measured him with a Catapult device, they could see his accelerations to his right were at about a 60 percent deficit off of his left leg compared to what they were to the other side. And you can’t see this stuff with the naked eye.”

Injury rehabilitation has long been a dark art in professional sports, with players assigning whole number percentages to how ready they are based on feeling. Adding a level of precision to the measurement of strength and stress under different conditions isn’t the entire answer, but it’s still a step toward a clearer understanding of each athlete’s unique timetable for recovery. A player might feel 85 percent ready, but with what degree of confidence can that number be trusted?

Catapult can also help indicate when an athlete’s movements simply aren’t that efficient. There are players who expend a lot of energy on the court -- the “hustle guys” -- even if they’re not scoring. But what if they could do their job more efficiently? “I often refer to the Catapult monitor that we place on the athlete as ‘the little orange jockey,’” McCoy wrote in an email. “Take him for a nice ride,” he tells the athletes. “The more that unit is bouncing around -- the less efficient the athlete’s movements are -- the more it’s increasing their individual load.”

McCoy has worked with Toronto Raptors trainer Alex McKechnie and a player like Rudy Gay, whom McCoy cites as one who “appears to glide effortlessly,” gives the monitor a smoother ride. As a result, his total load might be less than another player, but it doesn’t mean he’s working less. He’s just doing his job with greater economy of movement. Of course, the Catapult monitor can’t tell you anything about Gay’s shot selection, but just as analytics confirmed strategies about the value of the 3-pointer or free throws, the system can help bring evidence to what trainers like McKechnie often sense intuitively.
Courtesy of Catapult Sports
Courtesy of Catapult Sports
The top of a Catapult report from Australian Rules Football. Click here for a bigger image.

Maximum fitness is the product of interlinked systems: the neurological and the physiological, the metabolic, musculoskeletal and nervous systems. So Catapult is gathering everything, from simple measurements like heart rate to more intricate ones like acceleration, direction of movement, stops and starts, and the associated force -- more than 100 data points per second. It's more than most teams can put to use -- for now -- and one of the key tricks is figuring out what, out of all that, matters most.



There are hurdles to this kind of monitoring coming to regular season NBA games. For instance, the players and their agents may have good reason to resist. Although McCoy stresses the data should always be applied to compare a player to himself, it’s not hard to envision teams wielding their findings during contract negotiations or when reducing a player’s minutes when it confirms the perception that he’s dogging it on the court. “It’s CARFAX for the athlete,” he said. A consequence of this system being fully implemented would be teams simply knowing a lot more when it comes to signing players or trading them to other teams.

So the Spurs have more than just their usual Spurs-ian reasons for keeping quiet on this. While four NBA teams are Catapult Sports clients (the Rockets, Knicks and Mavericks being the others), the monitors have generally been used only in practices and scrimmages. The Spurs’ use of the monitors at the Las Vegas Summer League is perhaps the closest the devices have come to actual league competition so far.

This kind of technology -- especially when it’s not well understood -- can be scary, even threatening to the established order of things. It can also dehumanize athletes, on a spreadsheet, a human appears to be an asset to be monitored and controlled from afar. A certain amount of skepticism, a concern for best practices, is well-founded.

But the information, new perspectives and, eventually, results this kind of monitoring can produce can break down resistance. The edge teams constantly look for doesn't always come from the most likely sources. Biometric monitoring isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a logical next step, particularly when it comes to the most human of pursuits: keeping people healthy and functioning at their best. As McCoy said, “What we can measure, we can manage. If you can’t or aren’t measuring it, you can’t manage it. It seems really, really simple.”

Gatsby believed in the green light even though it was something he could never reach, maybe because it was something he could never reach. But that green light on Baynes’ back signals something different: that we can stretch out our arms farther and grasp a better understanding. That tomorrow, we will run faster.

Clean athletes for tough tests

July, 15, 2013
7/15/13
2:58
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
U.S. sprinters face far more sophisticated testing than NBA players.

Not long after track and field implemented a new kind of testing, three sprinters, including top American Tyson Gay, have failed tests for performance enhancing drugs.

If he were an NBA player, however, it's likely Gay never would have failed any tests -- because the NBA testing program is far behind the state of the art.

Perhaps the most interesting reaction to Gay's infraction came from another celebrated U.S. runner, Kara Goucher, who tweeted encouragement to the United States Anti-Doping Agency:



For years, doping has confounded us as sports fans. Nobody likes cheats. But we do like some of the heroic athletes who have failed tests, and siding with the school-marmish anti-doping police can feel weird, too. And don't we have to accept that advances in medical science will mean changes to all sports?

But the more years we spend wrestling with the issue, the clearer it is becoming: Goucher is exactly right. Even as sports evolve and substances come and go from the banned list, the line must be drawn, and clearly. Drug cheating must be policed aggressively and the best testing must be used -- or else it is meaningless.

Failing to do that does a career-altering disservice to the most heroic of all those in the game: athletes determined to compete clean, who are the very athletes the NBA and the NBA Players Association insist they represent. If we are to learn the lessons from sports that got this all wrong, and if we are to acknowledge the powerful temptation of performance-enhancing drugs in 2013, then we know that aggressive testing is for the benefit of those clean athletes, the ones we can all cheer for loudly, without reservation.

Nick Davies, spokesman for track and field's governing body, makes this point in a statement: "The IAAF's commitment to anti-doping in athletics is unwavering because we have an ethical obligation to the majority of athletes who believe in clean sport."

This is where the NBA must play catch up.

An ethical obligation to clean athletes
Imagine trying to make a career out of beating dopers like Lance Armstrong while racing clean. For many years, that's what professional cyclist David Millar attempted, as part of an underground group of young riders who did not cheat, even though to do so would have made their lives much easier. They persisted in the hopes that sooner or later the authorities would vindicate their extra work and tormented lives. Their prayers were answered, they believed, in 1998, when one of the top teams was busted with an almost-comedic quantity of doping products. All kinds of people got in trouble in the "Festina Affair," and the charade that the sport might be clean was finally over.

"For young, clean riders the grand exposÚ was wonderful news," writes Millar in his book "Racing Through the Dark."

"It was a revenge of sorts on the dopers, whose charged-up performances had made our lives hell. In our na´vetÚ, we thought it would change the sport overnight. Surely now that everybody knew what was going on, the powers that be would be forced to act. Unfortunately, this did not happen."

Millar had teammates and coaches who encouraged him to dope. Despite dogged training and phenomenal talent, dopers beat him to prize money and employment contracts more often than not. Yet for years, Millar kept riding clean anyway, out of some kind of conviction that it was the right thing to do.

Stern and other NBA officials would be wise to note, though, that Millar greatest disappointment was that his sport did nothing to support him in that conviction.

"There was nobody to tell us that we were doing the right thing, that we should be strong and believe in ourselves," he writes. "In fact, there was no anti-doping support or leadership whatsoever. [Cycling's governing body, the UCI] and the team bosses considered their jobs done because the riders had signed meaningless charters pledging not to dope. Meanwhile, the dopers carried on doing what they were doing, while the nondopers raced alongside them."

Likely we'll never know what really happened, but the worry was that the UCI was soft in pursuing drug cheats because they didn't really want to catch them. It would have hurt the sport's bottom line for a star like Armstrong to get busted in his prime, when he brought a global spotlight to a struggling sport -- and indeed the good testing came nearly a decade after the Festina Affair and only after Armstrong had retired (although he later made a comeback).

There will always be good reason to question whether any league should police itself, the NBA included. Independent bodies like the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency exist to offer alternatives -- it's no surprise that the sports they police feature far more aggressive testing, innovations and busts. The NBA could in theory turn its testing over to the same USADA that busted Armstrong, that Goucher praises and that caught Tyson Gay.

Millar, meanwhile, grew tired of waiting for cycling's bosses to rescue him and joined the drug cheats. After all those years of racing clean, Millar ended up getting caught like so many others. Now he's reformed, still racing and an outspoken activist on behalf of clean athletes.

But he insists that with good testing creating a level playing field from the start, he and many others would have never doped. What a pity that the sport's governing body let the culture of the sport get so out of hand, to the point that even those who hated the idea of doping were forced to consider it.

And if we're thinking that there might be some NBA players out there who, like Millar, would like to stay clean but wonder if a little cheating might help their careers without putting them at risk of a failed test, well ... how would the league and the union explain to them, and their parents, why they don't use the best available tests?

The biological passport
Armstrong got away with beating all kinds of drug testing programs, but has mighty respect for this one. One of Armstrong's former teammates says he decided to come clean in part because the good testing made his old ways too stressful.

Track and field started the good testing program and quickly found 36 violations it would not have otherwise known about.

It's called the biological passport, and while no system is perfect, the evidence suggests that this one's far better than what the NBA does now, which is riddled with opportunities for drug cheats. It's a system of analyzing athletes' blood and urine year-round to spot odd fluctuations. Baseball has started using it, as has tennis. The other major North American sports are lagging far behind, among major global leagues.

In the NBA, David Stern last addressed biological passports in February, when he said, "With respect to the biological passport, I think the blood test is the precursor to the biological passport. And that's a subject for discussion with the Players' Association."

Stern's pointing out something incredible: Not only does the NBA not test players' blood year-round, but it doesn't test their blood at all. Never has. Word is that the league and union are on the road to changing that with human growth hormone testing of blood in the works. But Stern is pointing out that when it comes to advances the league must walk before it can run.

My interpretation: Don't hold your breath for the best drug testing in the world.

Meanwhile, the NBA would seem to have a big opportunity right now, were they of a mind to force the issue. The Lance Armstrong case has shifted the public's views about doping -- fans are more attuned than ever to the need for anti-drug programs.

The traditional obstacle to progress has been the strength of the players union, which is leery of violating player privacy. But the union, still trying to reform itself in the wake of the Billy Hunter scandal, has been without a leader for the better part of a year and could scarcely be weaker.

Stern has a track record of exploding every obstacle. Is there anyone better known for getting his way? We're talking about a league that recently talked players into handing over billions compared to what they would have made under the old collective bargaining agreement.

State-of-the-art testing seems like a no-brainer. It's racking up victories in other sports, is celebrated by honest athletes and, long-term, would inoculate the NBA against the kinds of broad PEDs scandals that have consumed sports like baseball and cycling.

Clean athletes are waiting for someone to make it happen; the excuses for delaying are making less sense by the day.

TrueHoop TV: Rough shape

June, 20, 2013
6/20/13
4:50
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Ethan Sherwood Strauss predicts a Heat win in Game 7, Graydon Gordian says Spurs.

But there's a lot we don't know, like the true state of the players' health.

Shane Battier on hard fouling tactics

May, 24, 2013
5/24/13
1:29
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Shane Battier kneeing Roy Hibbert
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Shane Battier does what it takes to win. Sometimes what it takes is ugly.

Hard intentional fouls have been a focus of TrueHoop's Working Bodies series all season.

Our position: They make the game more dangerous and ugly than it has any reason to be, and the league should do something about it.

Which would be simple. These fouls happen, by and large, because NBA rules reward them. Hard fouling a player about to get an easy bucket (coaches call it "no layups") generally reduces the points a team gives up on that possession while also, importantly, discouraging future drives. An emerging body of advanced statistics show what coaches have long known: Drives are the mainstay of efficient offense.

Reducing drives is a core defensive principle, and it wins games. Intimidation is a known way to reduce them.

Increasing the penalty for these fouls is all it would take to inspire coaches to tell their players to handle players shooting layups like they already tell them to handle players shooting 3s. Play D, contest the shot, but don't foul.

Sadly, it's not aggressive or mean-spirited teams who most commonly deploy the intentional hard fouls, but the ones who best understand the risks and rewards from the rulebook.

That's not a problem players, coaches or referees can solve. That's a problem for the league office.

On every team there are some players who commit those kinds of intentional fouls. On the Heat, Shane Battier is the master of all the little things that lead to wins. That very much includes the kinds of hard fouls that a lot of people call "dirty." (On TrueHoop TV with Israel Gutierrez and Tom Haberstroh the morning after Game 1, he was everyone's pick as the game's dirtiest player.)

Battier is in the media crosshairs today for a handful of such plays in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In Game 1 he not only sent a memorable flying knee to Roy Hibbert, but he also elbowed Tyler Hansbrough and got himself tangled up with Pacers any number of times, sometimes succeeding in getting fouls called on Pacers.

Today, amid allegations that Battier crossed a line, the Heat forward elected not to talk to the media about anything at all.

But Battier did discuss such topics with me back in March, in the days following a notable bruiser of a foul against the Pacers' Lance Stephenson, in the middle of the Heat's win streak. Battier threw the high-flying Stephenson dangerously to the ground with one hand, while using the other to whack the Pacer in the head.

I asked him about it a few days later when the Heat were in Philadelphia. Our conversation:

HA: What were you thinking on that play?

SB: Lance went to the hole and stuck the ball right in front of my face, basically.

He's a 62 percent free throw shooter.

HA: [Laughing] That's what you were thinking?

SB: Yeah! Honestly. Honestly.

HA: I believe you.

SB: You know who the guys are that you'd rather see at the line than shoot a layup. And you make him earn it.

HA: So you've seen Tom Haberstroh has reported some SportVu stats that LeBron drives are worth nearly two points per possession. So you wonder, why doesn't he drive all the time?

Fouls like that, I'm thinking, are why.

SB: Yes. Yes. We would like him fresh in April, May, hopefully June.

HA: If I'm David Stern, I want dunks. I want people watching that on TV, on smartphones all over China. Someone wrapping him up, or throwing him to the floor ... it's not good TV. It helps your team, but ...

SB: Then what's our goal? What's our goal? Television, or basketball?

HA: What's bad about dunks? What's un-basketball about that?

SB: Oh I'm all for it. As a defender ...

HA: If it helps your team to foul somebody, clearly the punishment isn't ...

SB: As punitive. No question. Now we're talking semantics. Now we're asking referees to grade intent.

HA: No. No, I want rule changes.

SB: What do you mean?

HA: So, if you're Frank Vogel, you're saying basically, well, we're not as good as that team but we can level the playing field by fouling the hell out of them.

Fouling is against the rules. Weird to help your chances by breaking the rules. Kind of like if I speed home right now and they pull me over and give me fifty bucks for breaking the law. It's a little weird.

SB: It's just part of the gamesmanship of the game.

Our job as basketball players is to exploit the rules, within reason, to our advantage. That's our job.

HA: Sure, sure. That's your job. I want you to do David Stern's job.

SB: Exactly!

We'll let the commissioner and his good people worry about selling broadcast rights and whatnot.

Our job is to exploit the rules, within the rules, and get a competitive advantage which is the same in any sport across the board. Win the game. That's the only thing.

HA: Very politic.

SB: [Laughs.]

 

Roy Hibbert is in LeBron James' head

May, 24, 2013
5/24/13
9:56
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
LeBron James, Roy Hibbert
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
The rarest of sights: LeBron James attacking Roy Hibbert at the rim.

After hitting the overtime buzzer-beating layup in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron James insisted he barely noticed whether Pacers center Roy Hibbert was on the court.
  • "I don't know if I was surprised or not. I really wasn't worried about if Hibbert was in the game at all."
  • Later he added: "I was in attack [mode] when Hibbert was in the game, I was in attack when Hibbert wasn't in the game."

I don't believe a word of it.

Let me tell you about Roy Hibbert and LeBron James. On the basketball court, they are blatantly obsessed with each other.

When LeBron has the ball, Hibbert often ignores his own man to better focus on James. And that's not new. When other Pacer bigs sense a James drive coming and step into the lane to protect the rim, Hibbert has been known to physically shove a teammate or two out of the way in order to patrol that zone.

The tallest player in the Eastern Conference (at 7-foot-2) does that because he knows James hates to try to score over him.

James is an entirely different player with Hibbert in the game, to the unfathomable extent that James adds a weird-looking new shot to his arsenal -- the teardrop -- almost exclusively for use over the massive Hibbert. It's such a rare move that James' first attempt in Wednesday's game -- a miss -- was greeted by commentator Steve Kerr's observation, "That's not part of his game."

Which is true -- against most opponents.

ESPN's Tom Haberstroh quoted James as saying he "just dusts it off when he needs it." Based on careful video review from the NBA's advanced stats site, James only "needs it" against Hibbert. James throws it down over a who's who of NBA big men, and essentially all the other Pacers, from David West to Paul George. When he encounters the biggest Pacer, though, he stops short, and flips up one of the toughest shots in the game.

James has made nine floaters over Hibbert over the last year (dating back to the 2012 playoffs). It's tough to find evidence he has attempted more than a couple against the rest of the league combined.

More importantly, Hibbert and the Pacers clearly make James think twice about attacking the rim. As background: James makes dunks and layups over and around an entire NBA's worth of big men. He's not only among the league's most frequent paint shooters, but he's also among the most efficient. According to SportVu, a typical NBA possession is worth about a point. Some of the NBA's most effective plays ramp up the efficiency to 1.2 points, for instance by having a typical point guard break down a typical defense and get close to the rim.

James, however. Hoo-boy. James' drives are worth a mighty 1.68 points each, on average. That's almost certainly the best scoring weapon in hoops.

And yet, despite repeated statements to the contrary, the MVP shelves that super-effective attack when Hibbert is patrolling the paint.

Over the past year combined -- the 2012 playoffs, 2012-13 regular season, and Game 1 of this series -- James has taken 210 shots against the Pacers and made 106. I just watched them all. A grand total of four of the makes -- three in last year's playoffs and the one in the photo above from Game 1 -- came from James taking on Hibbert directly at the rim. There are James scores near Hibbert, for instance by sneaking in behind him, or one oddball hook shot moving away from the hoop. But only four when James identified Hibbert on duty and proceeded to attempt a layup or dunk.

Meanwhile, James spends a lot of time driving close to Hibbert and then dishing (no small part of Chris Andersen's big Game 1) or pulling up from midrange, where LeBron is much-improved, but nothing like as effective. There was also one entire game -- the Heat's win over Indiana in the middle of their 27-game win streak -- when James drove just twice all game against a set defense of any kind.

This reticence has an effect. This season LeBron scored fewer points per game in the paint against Indiana than against any other team, according to the NBA's advanced stats website. Not surprisingly, with those high-percentage attempts down, James' shooting percentages are well below average against the Pacers compared to other teams.

Why does Hibbert so bother James? It's a big question, and size is only part of the answer.

There are some clues on the video. Worth noting: On the rare occasions when James has attempted it, he has scored over and around Hibbert without much trouble. But in addition to coping with the center's size, he must also cope with the Pacers' teamwide defensive tactics. One is that Hibbert and other Pacers have demonstrated a willingness to take charges, something James carefully avoids.

Another is that the Pacers are a "no layups" team if ever there was one. Going all-out to score over Hibbert leaves James distracted, airborne and in traffic, and therefore prone to any number of hard fouls, the likes of which have been constant in Heat versus Pacers games.

Game 1 was one of the most tightly called playoff games in modern league history, but even that one featured Ian Mahinmi's throwing James hard to the court on a rare occasion (Hibbert was on the bench) when James found himself with room at the rim. That fall infuriated the Heat star, who proceeded to drive relentlessly and effectively the next several possessions, marking his only period of half-court rim-attacking in the game. And it ended shortly after Hibbert returned.

James gets fouled hard as much as anyone -- it's a preferred leaguewide tactic to neutralize those effective drives. There's evidence that all kinds of NBA players avoid driving when they can, presumably because of the associated injury risk. That James often avoids those plays is normal, human and game-changing.

This shadowboxing between James and Hibbert has been playing out for at least a year, and matters. It's at the heart of a blossoming Pacers-Heat rivalry, and it could easily determine who'll win the East.

Injury prevention technology at the combine

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
3:40
PM ET
By Brad Stenger
ESPN.com
Archive
Jesse Wright, strength coach for the 76ers, recently got himself a technology budget, something he'd never had before with the Sixers, a gift from his new GM Sam Hinkie.

He's stressed about it though.

"You've got a blank slate!" I said to him, failing to reassure.

"I can't get everything," he told me, "but I need to get the right things."

What are the right things for an NBA team that wants healthy, fit players and is willing to spend on technology?

Wright and I were taking in the NBA vendors show, an unpublicized sideshow at the draft combine, held each year in a Chicago hotel ballroom.

What are the disruptive digital technologies that offer a clear injury prevention payoff? Some candidates:

Next generation compression

The NormaTec system is the pair of black sleeves you sometimes see athletes wearing over their legs when television cameras look into the locker room before games. They compress the large muscles in the legs to improve blood flow and speed recovery.

The systems have been around since 2007 and are an established, widely used technology to help athletes speed recovery. Every single player on the Miami Heat has a $5,000 deluxe-version NormaTec Pro of their own. LeBron James owns three, including a custom, personally-fitted hips and legs version.

Custom fits aren't normally required. The sleeves are made from thick industrial nylon and zip closed around the leg. Air fills the sleeve; the tightness is controlled by embedded pressure sensors.

One leg of a NormaTec sleeve is split into five section compartments, overlapping zones that fill with air from the control box. The bottom compartment fills first, and on up the leg. The pressure builds and the compression benefit kicks in. When the sleeve is fully pressurized air flows into and through the sleeves in computer-controlled pulses that further stimulate recovery.

Evidence for NormaTec's effectiveness is more anecdotal than empirical. Gilad Jacobs, the CEO of the Newton, Massachusetts, company says that's not because the systems haven't been tested. They have been, by the likes of the U.S. Olympic Committee which took dozens of NormaTecs to the London Olympics -- but the U.S.O.C. is not publishing what they have learned in sports science journals, according to Jacobs.

Identifying fatigue that can lead to injury

The core of the Catapult system is a wearable sensor package that tracks and radios precise body position data on a working athlete to a base computer. The system gets its precision from the many sensors in the package:
  • a GPS sensor (that works far better outdoors than indoors)
  • an accelerometer that measures the force associated with an athlete's movement
  • a gyro sensor that measures rotational displacement and a magnetometer
  • a compass, that measures directional vectors and validates rotational movements.

The package, a little larger than an apple core, weighs a few ounces and hides in the pocket of a snug-fitting under-jersey.

Data from the Catapult system relevant to injuries comes in two forms. Over time, once a baseline value has been established, the data can indicate when a player is fatigued and show patterns which differentiate between fatigue associated with improving fitness and fatigue associated with overuse. Athletes recovering from injury can see clearly if they apply equivalent and balanced forces when playing, running, jumping and cutting, or if they are favoring the non-injured shoulder/arm/hip/leg/foot.

Catapult was developed by sports scientists at the Australian Institute of Sport and has been used widely for the last six years by Australian Rules Football teams. (Catapult U.S. headquarters are in Atlanta.) League-wide the teams share data and study the results, according Catapult's Gary McCoy, leading to not just significantly fewer injuries but also more plays per game.

The system tells coaches how far and how fast athletes have moved throughout a practice. (Universally as far as I can tell, leagues disallow the systems during games.) The system also distills a player's work to a single number that reflects cumulative effort -- PlayerLoad. PlayerLoad is compatible with other measures of athlete effort that come from heart-rate monitors, from SportVu game-tracking or from simply asking players how they're feeling at a given time. It all goes into the big database that Catapult enables. "We create a dashboard for coaches to see their athletes and how they're working," said McCoy.

It's a versatile tool that teams look to for changing culture. McCoy also told me how one unidentified NBA team that uses Catapult (Celtics, Mavericks, Rockets, Knicks, Spurs are customers listed on the company website) decided to post PlayerLoad numbers on the wall after practice. The team was concerned about the loafing going on during practice and felt well-informed peer pressure could help.

Jumping to test fatigue

Force plate technology wasn't on display at the vendor show but it was presented by Phil Wagner from Palo Alto-based Sparta Performance Science at the Midwest Sports Performance Conference held at the University of Kansas last weekend. Kansas has the force plates installed and uses the Sparta software to monitor athletes.

Sparta is also known for training Jeremy Lin prior to his rise to fame with the Knicks.

Wagner has athletes do a vertical jump on the force plate which produces a three phase “movement signature.” The pre-jump “load” phase, the key transition “explode” phase and the energy-sustaining “drive” phase appear as peaks and dips in the resulting data graph. Sparta delivers the data graphs from jump tests to Kansas players and coaches through a private Web interface.

Evidence suggests these movement signatures can be injury predictive. Given all of the running and jumping basketball players do, when ground force production (what's measured in the jump test) is inefficient the joints and tendons at the root of those inefficiencies pay a price and break down.

When measured at regular intervals during the season the jump test will also show fatigue. Players who say they feel 100 percent but produce significantly less force than they do at their peak clearly lack explosiveness, a surefire indicator that fatigue has set in.

Peak Performance Project (P3), a sports training company in Santa Barbara, has a similar technology, but uses right- and left-lateral jumps to measure force production. P3 has had an ongoing affiliation with the Utah Jazz since 2007. Both P3 and Sparta Science are currently talking to other NBA teams interested in adopting their systems.

Brad Stenger is a New York City-based journalist and researcher.

What happens to the NBA's Iron Men?

May, 13, 2013
5/13/13
4:49
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Play a ton of minutes in the regular season, like Stephen Curry, and injuries are common.

A while back I found that players who play a ton of minutes don't win NBA titles anymore.

It used to happen all the time. Michael Jordan did it constantly. But it has been almost a decade since any player has pulled that off, even though a who's who of MVPs and the like have attempted it.

What interests me is: What happens? Those players who still play huge minutes ... what's happening to them?

I just took a peak at the top 20 players in total minutes played this season.

Now, think about this -- these are the NBA's Iron Men. Not just the ones who some coach theorized could pull off massive minutes. These are the ones who really did. This season.

If coaches are managing minutes correctly, you could expect this group to be among the NBA's least likely to get injured as the season moved into the playoffs. These are, presumably, theoretically, the men who can take it.

Were they?

As a group, they have indeed had it very rough.

I found these 20 players fall into four categories:

Catastrophic injury: Kobe Bryant, David Lee, Luol Deng, Russell Westbrook

This is amazing and scary. A full fifth of the 20 NBA players with the heaviest minutes load this year are either certain not to contribute any more this season, or are unlikely to.

Kobe Bryant, fourth on the NBA's list of minutes played this season, stars in this group with a ruptured Achilles. But he's part of an All-Star cast. Russell Westbrook's knee injury will keep him out for the rest of the playoffs and has dealt the Thunder's title chances a serious blow. He was 17th this season in total minutes played -- but was much higher on the list before some late-season rest.

All-Star Warrior David Lee has been getting back on the court in short stints, but by and large his hip injury has been a defining storyline in these playoffs. He was 12th in minutes played this year.

What would the Bulls, going toe-to-toe against the Heat with a short bench, give to have their typical minutes leader Luol Deng back? But he is out possibly for the rest of the playoffs with complications from a spinal tap, related to an infection. Many would assume that would have nothing to do with heavy minutes. That could be so. But don't forget that exhausted bodies can malfunction in many different ways.

Honorable mention: Derrick Rose is still out after being 24th in minutes per game last season. Over the 38 games before his season-ending injury, Rajon Rondo played 37.4 minutes per game, good for 13th in the NBA this year.

Banged up: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Deron Williams

Stephen Curry's playoff injury saga -- he has been a near scratch for many games -- comes on ankles that played the seventh most minutes in the league this season. And he's playing against the Spurs, the team that has always been so strategic in managing minutes in the regular season, to keep the injury-prone (Manu Ginobili) and aging (Tim Duncan) at their best. Should the Warriors have protected him a bit more to have him firing on all cylinders now? Worth considering for next year?

James Harden was underwhelming in the postseason -- he could barely eat while battling strep throat -- after playing the NBA's sixth-most regular season minutes. Deron Williams battled injuries all season, but still played the 19th most minutes. His Nets lost to the lower-seeded Bulls at home in a Game 7.

Didn't make the playoffs.

Say goodbye to Damian Lillard, who topped the minutes list, as well as DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, O.J. Mayo, Evan Turner, Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum.

Dealing with it: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Klay Thompson, LeBron James

Halfway through the second round, a grand total of four of the NBA's top 20 players in minutes played are alive in the playoffs anywhere near firing on all cylinders, health-wise.

That's the same percentage that have had catastrophic injuries.

Hats off as well to Bucks Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who made the playoffs intact after finishing in the NBA's top 20 in minutes played.

If Durant looked a little tired missing two free throws late in a Game 3 loss, it might have something to do with having played more regular-season minutes than every NBA player not called Damian Lillard. Indeed, unless the Thunder right the ship and win a chip, this will mark the 10th straight season nobody has both played 3,000 minutes and won a title. Durant is the only candidate remaining.

Youngsters George and Thompson were eighth and ninth in the league in minutes played (but at a hair below 3,000 minutes) and are performing well.

James -- in a season when his coach paid careful attention to managing his minutes -- still finished 16th in total minutes. And he's an interesting test case.

David Thorpe's theory is that the reason the NBA has changed to favor managing minutes is that defense has become a lot more work. Now it's five players moving constantly, while it used to be a lot of isolation basketball, with many players standing around watching as one guy pounded the ball into the post. Watch James at both ends and you'll see what Thorpe is talking about. There's not much standing around these days.

The Heat believe exhaustion due to long minutes is why James' performance tailed off badly in the 2011 Finals, which is something they have been trying to address ever since.

James has played 191 fewer regular-season minutes that he did two years ago. Did Spoelstra get him enough rest this time around? We'll find out in the next few weeks.

That's a lot of injuries

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
6:33
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive


A who's who of NBA players are on the shelf. A team made of Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, David Lee, Danilo Gallinari, Amare Stoudemire, and Lou Williams would contend. Instead all those players and more are out for all or most of the playoffs.

Asking what caused all those injuries takes you on a bit of wild goose chase. There have always been injuries in all sports; I doubt we'll ever know if these are connected in some way or just a random and unlucky collection of events.

But there is a better question with more of an answer: Are there things we can do to reduce the likelihood of injuries in the future? That's what Working Bodies is all about. And that's where the research is not crystal clear, but has been getting incredibly busy.

Violent moments

Russell Westbrook was injured on a play where Patrick Beverley went all out to help his team win -- even if it was both a long shot to work, and obviously creating one of the highest risk moments of Westbrook's night.

In the aftermath many have talked about Beverley's intent -- as if it's a important to know if he wanted to injure Westbrook or not. I say let's skip that debate. We'll never know his intent, and who cares anyway. Let's talk risk. Risk we know. All by himself Beverley created a moment that in retrospect is costing Westbrook, the Thunder and NBA fans a bunch of performances that were dear to all of them.

If I roll a bowling ball down the corridor of my office building, I may well hurt somebody. I might do it only with the most fun of intentions. But if you manage the building ... who cares? What matters is I don't do it again. What matters is I value my co-workers safety a little more.

The NBA would like Beverley to place a little higher value on Westbrook's safety. Forget what's dirty or not, or unknowable things like who's thinking evil thoughts. What's likely to cause injuries? Let's reduce that. Let's get players thinking, just a little more, about making sure they don't end each other's seasons. That's where plays like Beverley's, as well as blows to the head, and any plays that risk players hitting their heads on the court -- all things we now know are more dangerous than we ever thought -- ought to be the kinds of things the rules and the referees aggressively discourage.

Players going all-out to help their teams win will always have their supporters. It's a macho world. You won't get NBA legends lining up to support the NBA on this kind of change. That's fine. But if you're in David Stern's office, it's a problem that a player could make a dangerous decision like that, reckless enough to possibly end the season of the most resilient player in NBA history, and not even be called for a common foul, let alone a flagrant or an ejection.

These violent high-risk moments could be much more scarce. Many are intentional, which means they're not inevitable or part of the game, and would be easy to stop if people wanted to. Much of the time playing with little care about injuring others helps your team. If you ran the league, wouldn't you have to fix that?

A marathon

There's another lingering question for the league to consider: Are player spending too much time exhausted, and does that put them at excessive risk to get injured?

A little detour into running: If you train to run 400 meters -- that's one lap of the track -- training will include some 100-meter sprints and some mile-or-longer runs. Training works like that, more or less. You attack from all angles. Train for a five kilometer (3.1 mile) race and you can bet you'll do some sprints, as well as some runs are much longer than 3.1 miles.

But then there's the marathon. It's 26.2 miles. And if you train for a marathon, almost no matter what training regimen you use, you'll never be asked to run more than 20 miles.

 

Pretty weird, huh? You want to do five miles fast as you can, you'll sometimes run ten. You want to do ten miles fast as you can, and training involves regular runs of 12 or 15.

Race 26.2, though, and even at elite levels, chances are race day will take you further than any other day of the year. Almost all the experts agree on this.

And the reasoning is simple: Get a lot of people running 25 miles, and you'll get a lot of people injured. It just happens that way. There's some kind of real limit around 20 miles. Push past that, and maybe some outliers can handle it, but for the broad population it's just courting trouble.

Marathoners have known about this for decades and have long been skipping the monster training runs.

Meanwhile, it's looking like the 82-game NBA regular season might work like one monster training run.

Exhaustion does weird stuff

From a 2010 Brad Stenger article published by the Medill School of Journalism:
Gregory Dupont from the University of Lille's Laboratory of Human Movement Studies in France monitored injuries during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 UEFA Champions League seasons. He found the injury rate was six times higher when players played two matches per week versus one match per week. He published the study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine last April.

During the regular season NBA teams play 2-4 games per week and travel longer distances than a typical European soccer team.

Researchers have been putting little heart rate and motion sensors on soccer players in Europe. What they've been finding is something not unlike what marathon training regimens have long known: Get somebody exhausted, and their likelihood of injury skyrockets, even for the kinds of injuries you might think have nothing to do with fatigue.

When you're fresh, your soft tissue has a certain elasticity. Your muscles and tendons can cope with a normal amount of upset, like say, another player bashing into you while you're trying to call a timeout. Also, your own ability to be balanced and coordinated -- now we're talking nervous system stuff -- is good when you're in your comfort zone. On top of all that, when you're training a comfortable amount, it's a cinch to maintain good form.

Get yourself good and worn out, though, and a lot of those systems that keep you safe go away. I started training for marathons a few years ago, and the first time I ran 18 miles, I felt great most of the time, but with about two miles left things changed. I started to feel mighty brittle, like if somebody were to push me ever-so-gently from the side I would simply topple over. Not to mention I was bleary-eyed, imbalanced, with ragged form, and making poor decisions. Where you used to have these living, breathing, expanding, contracting things called muscles it feels like you now have old rope.

It's more than a little scary, in that state, to encounter the tiniest obstacles. A bumpy sidewalk, a twig in the street, a car that doesn't give you much room ... any and all can put you in peril. You have little ability to adjust to life's little challenges.

Research suggests you're an off-the-charts injury risk at that moment. And it feels like it.

In soccer they've been finding that same stuff. Exhausted players evidently lack normal range of motion, balance and coordination. An impact, fall or collision that might not injure a rested person might injure someone who has been going hard every day for months. In soccer, experts working with this theory have, amazingly, predicted injuries before they happen. Basically, they can look at who's running ragged out there, who's deep in the red zone of exhaustion. And then they have often been correct -- even though the injury ends up coming on a fluky-seeming play.

Word is spreading

Increasingly, NBA teams are tuning into the perils of exhaustion. One of those soccer experts who brags about predicting injuries is Italian Jean-Pierre Meerseman, who spoke at the Global Sports Management Summit in May in San Francisco. Many NBA bigwigs were in the audience, and they report he blew their minds with tales of knowing who'd be injured before the injury happened.

One NBA front office guy who tracks the work of Meerseman and others says he's increasingly coming to the view that the best approach for stars is to spend as much time as possible with their feet up. He's thinking the winning approach, given the rigorous schedule, might be to forego everything else, as in every practice all season, as well as every minute of play that wasn't essential.

A company called Apollo MIS, which recently merged with STATS, does some of that European-soccer style exhaustion tracking, and has some NBA clients. One of their most enthusiastic is the Spurs ... the very team which leads the league every year in intentionally sitting stars. A game when the schedule has been harsh on them? Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker sit. Ditto for any fourth quarter when the game isn't close. Even as some claim they've found the fountain of youth for Duncan and the like, they've even gotten in trouble with the league for it.

But the way the data is shaping up, it seems likely the league is going to face some tough choices: Change the schedule in a profound way to allow for meaningful rest and real in-season training. Or stare down the barrel of a growing body of evidence suggesting one of the things causing NBA injuries are decisions made by the NBA.

TrueHoop TV: Royce Young on Westbrook

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
2:47
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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