Buy One, Get One: The secret point behind Logo 3s

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NBC Sports

Buy One, Get One: The secret point behind Logo 3s

NOTE: This article has been updated from its original version.

Ahead of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, James Borrego sat in with Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs’ coaches meeting. This would be Popovich’s 51st playoff opponent in his coaching career, but Borrego, as the Spurs’ assistant coach, knew the Spurs were prepping to face a team unlike anything Popovich had seen in his three decades on the sidelines.

Houston liked taking 3s, but it loved taking deep 3s. That season, the Rockets took an NBA-high 23.7 3-pointers per game ranging from 25 to 29 feet, according to NBA.com tracking. For context, the NBA’s 3-point line stands roughly 23 feet from the basket.

No team had ever averaged more than 17 such shots in the history of the NBA, but the Rockets were different. Ryan Anderson, James Harden and Eric Gordon weren’t just lining up from beyond the arc, they were lining up well beyond the arc. Despite the extra yards of distance, they still shot a healthy 35 percent on those shots, just about league average on all 3-pointers.

Harden ran out of gas in the series and the Spurs dispatched the Rockets in six games, in part because they limited Houston’s second-chance points. Two years later, Borrego is the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and still thinks about that pre-series meeting against Houston.

More specifically, he remembers the big takeaway: Reprogram how you crash the boards.

“That was one of the keys for us in our playoff series with Houston,” Borrego said. “You can’t just crash to the paint area. You have to come out long. Go to the elbow area and read it from there.”

What the Spurs noticed was that Patrick Beverley and Anderson were sniping offensive rebounds further out from the basket area. The Rockets had discovered a new wrinkle, borne out of Newtonian physics.

“They figured out these long 3s were producing long rebounds,” Borrego said. “So these guys were going to the elbow area and the free-throw-line area to get second-chance opportunities. Then it created another wide-open 3-pointer for them.”

More from Haberstroh: Tom's Toolbox: A glossary of crucial NBA terms

Borrego still harkens back to those meetings today. This season, the average team takes 19 shots from 25 to 29 feet and the 3-point attempts are only getting deeper.

Like never before, teams are taking what I call “Logo 3s” from 30 to 40 feet, usually near the home team’s giant halfcourt logo. There have been 777 such shots already this season, up from 525 in 2016-17 and on pace to shatter last season’s total of 860. We might hit 1,000 such shots by season’s end.

But here’s the fascinating trend that will change the way you watch the upcoming playoffs: Because of the hidden value of more second-chance opportunities, Logo 3s are far more effective than they appear to be by looking at raw field-goal percentage. Due to the laws of physics, teams get second-chance opportunities on Logo 3s at a much higher rate. So much so that Logo 3s are turning into BOGO 3s: Buy one, get one free.

Just like your local grocery store.

* * *

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni laughs off the question. Did the Rockets take more deep 3s, not because they made more, but because of the sneaky second-chance opportunities when they missed?

“Nah, nah, nah,” D’Antoni said, smiling. “A miss doesn’t come into our vocabulary.”

Touché, coach! Although the Rockets have a seemingly cold-blooded numbers guy as their GM in Daryl Morey, this trend wasn’t cooked up in a lab. Instead, it began when D’Antoni watched his players practice 3-point shots. The further out they went, it didn’t seem to matter. They kept making ’em.

“The reason it came about was because Ryan Anderson was shooting and James [Harden] and Eric [Gordon],” D’Antoni said. “And they would sit back there and shoot it. That gives us more room. That just makes sense.”

It was a matter of spacing. Offensive rebound potential, or the idea of a BOGO 3, wasn’t part of the thinking. But maybe it should be. I asked Darryl Blackport, the guru behind the statistical goldmine site pbpstats.com, and Mike Beuoy, of hoops research site Inpredictable.com, to crunch the numbers for me. Are longer 3s rebounded by the offensive team more often than shorter 3s? Was Beverley, an amazing offensive rebounder, onto something?

The short answer was yes. The long answer has some layers to it. Let’s peel them back.

The typical 3-pointer is not a great second-chance opportunity. The average NBA team gets an offensive rebound on 27 percent of their misses, per NBA.com/stats. But that number falls to roughly 20 percent on non-corner 3-pointer misses. (Blackport removed corner 3s from his particular research because we wanted to isolate the effect of distance, and you simply can’t take deep corner 3s without stepping out of bounds or, worse, spilling someone’s $15 beer.) The upshot: You might get an extra point for making a 3-pointer (good!), but the second-chance opportunity declines from 27 percent to 20 percent (bad!). It’s a tradeoff.

Things change when players step back to the Logo, for 3s taken from 30 to 40 feet. Originally, the data said offensive rebounds were being recovered from those shots at a drastic rate -- 31 percent for Logo 3s and up to 56 percent for 3s taken from 34 to 35 feet.

I know what you’re probably thinking. There’s got to be a quirk here. Like, are end-of-quarter heaves or shot-clock violations being mistakenly recorded as offensive rebounds? 

Then, on Friday, Beuoy and Blackport identified a quirk in the play-by-play data that overstated the BOGO effect. Shot-clock violations and buzzerbeaters have a tricky way of being logged in play-by-play data. Take this example by Trey Burke. Or this one from Marco Belinelli. Both instances were registered as offensive rebounds with 0:01 second on the clock. Obviously, that rebound did not happen in time.

With the new information at hand, the observed BOGO effect did not disappear entirely. The offensive rebound rate on Logo 3s (30-40 feet) shrunk from 31 percent to 23 percent after accounting for the tricky play-by-play notation. Shorter 3s yielded a 20-percent offensive-rebound rate so the BOGO effect was still there but considerably muted (3 percent). 

Does this revolutionize the sport? No, but it is enough to affect team strategy in a league where deep 3s are becoming more utilized.

To wrap your head around why this might be, think about rebounding strategy. Giants tussle for inside position near the basket and box out their opponent so that when the ball falls off the rim, they can snatch it away. But what if the ball doesn’t fall off the rim? What if it jumps off the rim and soars to the free-throw line? Now that box out becomes inverted. If the ball soars overhead, the guy you just boxed out has actually boxed you out.

This could have worthwhile implications on the sport. For those who don’t want to see an NBA consisting of guys chucking up 35-footers, the good news is that there were only a total 95 shots from the 34- to 35-foot range over the past six seasons. It’s a rare occurrence, and the small sample size could be warping the offensive-rebound rates. Perhaps if we see more of these shots, the effect will regress to the mean some. Or maybe longer rebounds mean a tad more fastbreak opportunities the other way (Blackport said there’s generally no evidence to support that theory, at least not in 2-point jumpers versus 3-point jumpers.) Or maybe coaches will change their rebounding strategy and account for the strong ricochet off of misses.

But as time goes on, there may be fewer misses to get.

“Guys are literally practicing way out there,” D’Antoni said. “And getting better at it.”

The Atlanta Hawks call them “swag shots.”

Come across halfcourt, pull-up in the open court in rhythm and let it fly, no matter where you are. With a freak talent like rookie guard Trae Young at the helm, it’s something Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has embraced -- to an extent.

“The swag shot is not to be abused,” Pierce said.

The moniker started with former Hawks guard Tyler Dorsey, who made a habit out of burying opponents in Summer League with an on-the-move deep 3. It wasn’t that different from what Young did to scores of opponents across the NCAA while at Oklahoma.

But that doesn’t mean he, or the young Hawks, have a green light all the time.

“We know Trae [Young] can shoot from deep, but if we come down and just start jacking 3s, there’s a lot of sloppy play that goes along with that,” Pierce said.

That might be true, but the results are undeniable. No one takes more “swag shots” or Logo 3s than Young, who is closing the gap on Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race. According to Basketball Reference tracking, Young is shooting 18-of-47 on shots between 30 and 40 feet (excluding end-of-quarter heaves), a conversion rate of 38 percent.

His normal 3-point shooting percentage is much lower, at 33 percent. Yes, Young has actually been better on long 3s than short 3s.

Young isn’t alone. The extra room from back there may be helpful. On Thursday night, during a potential playoff matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard, a master of the deep trey, will put the BOGO 3 on center stage.

As I featured on The Big Number recently, Lillard is freakishly good at long-distance 3-pointers, shooting 12-of-28 (43 percent) on shots between 30 and 40 feet. Curry, too, is making 43 percent of his 30-footers. (Others aren’t as successful this season. Harden stands at 27 percent, and Gordon is at 20 percent.)

Look deeper into Lillard’s numbers, and you find that of his 16 misses on those shots, the Blazers recovered three of them, generating an offensive-rebound rate of just 19 percent. But those three second-chance opportunities led to three close baskets, which means that of Lillard’s 28 Logo 3 attempts, he scored 42 points through his own makes (36 points) and the Portland makes after his miss (six points).

That’s an astonishing 1.50 points per possession.

To put it in perspective, the Golden State Warriors are the best offense of all time, and they score 1.16 points per possession.

* * *

On Saturday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was interviewed by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons. It was a thrilling hour-long conversation that ranged from serious issues like mental health to lighter topics like adding a midseason tournament. The concept of deep 3s came up when Simmons asked Silver about adding a 4-point line for the first three quarters. You could hear the crowd giggle at the thought.

But Silver wasn’t laughing. The commissioner revealed that he actually suggested adding a 4-point line for the All-Star game to “supe it up a little bit,” but his idea was not met warmly by the NBA’s competition committee, which is staffed by players, coaches and GMs. Silver was surprised to learn that even the All-Star Game was too sacred for his idea of a 4-point line, something I advocated in a letter to Silver back in 2014.

“They threw me out of the room,” Silver told Simmons. “The reaction was, ‘How dare you! The integrity of the game is first and foremost. This is not ‘Rock ’N’ Jock.’’ But I think ideas like that are interesting … We should look at things like that.”

The idea is that we should give extra incentive for elite shooters to step back and shoot the long 3, one of the coolest shots in the game. Players showing off their extreme skill is a good thing for the league and growth of the game, so let’s create an artificial bonus for that.

But maybe Silver doesn’t need to add another line to the game. The incentive is already there, secretly tucked into the equation, in the form of that easier-to-get extra possession.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Editor's note: After publishing, additional research found that, due in part to inconsistency in NBA record-keeping, the percentages of offensive rebounds on long-distance 3-pointers were smaller than originally stated. We've updated the article to reflect these changes. 

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Can Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid handle life as a guard?

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Can Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid handle life as a guard?

Karl-Anthony Towns held the ball while Rudy Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, guarded him tightly. The pair of 7-footers weren’t wrestling in the paint like traditional centers would. On this late November night, they were 25 feet away from the basket, and Towns was stuck.

Enter Jeff Teague, the Timberwolves’ nominal point guard. He shuffled over to Towns and instead of asking for the ball, the 6-foot-3 ball-handler set a screen -- that’s right, set a screen -- for the 7-foot center. That misdirection prompted another. Using the pick would have meant Towns had to dribble to his right in the direction of his dominant hand. Instead, Towns juked right-to-left, dribbled hard past the arc with his opposite hand and abruptly shifted into reverse for a stepback 3-pointer, displaying the quick footwork of a ballerina set in fast-forward.

“Karl is the modern-day NBA big,” said Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas on the latest Habershow podcast. “He was one of the major reasons, if not the major reason why I took this job.”

Towns is currently taking more 3-pointers and making a higher percentage of those shots than Stephen Curry did in his 2014-15 MVP season. But it’s not just the shooting that jumps off the page. Watch the NBA on any given night and you’ll witness seven-footers like Towns running pick-and-rolls, shooting 3-pointers and zipping around the floor like they’re six-footers. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose towering dimensions appear to be designed in an NBA laboratory, has pounded out more dribbles this season than Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, per NBA.com player tracking data. LeBron James is the size of Karl Malone and leads the NBA in assists. Luka Doncic, behind James on the assist leaderboard, stands 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, roughly the same as Xavier McDaniel -- only heavier.

Other skilled giants like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis often play outside-in, not inside-out. It’s clear that the guardification of NBA bigs has taken over the sport. What’s not clear is whether their enormous bodies can handle it.

* * *

Athletes around the world are bigger, faster and stronger than previous generations. Last month, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran a sub-2-hour marathon, clocking in four minutes faster than the world record set a decade ago. The average weight of NFL offensive linemen in the 1970s was 249 pounds compared to today’s weigh-in of 315 pounds. In 1999, Tim Isaac became the first man to bench press over 800 pounds (802 to be exact). Today, that record is 1,102 pounds, belonging to a man named Tiny Meeker.

Oddly enough, the NBA hasn’t gotten appreciably bigger or taller, on average. The average NBA player, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is actually an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter than they were in 2010-11. But NBA players have gotten markedly more athletic, allowing giants to move like hummingbirds. 

In the eyes of Dr. Marcus Elliott, the load management conversation has skipped over this critical piece of the puzzle. The founder of P3 Peak Performance labs in Santa Barbara, Calif., Elliot and his sports science team are at the core of a global movement trying to keep professional athletes healthy. What Elliott sees from his vantage point is a fundamental shift in how NBA players are moving.

“The game has just gotten so much faster and more athletic,” Elliott says. “You can’t do apples to apples to the NBA 20 years ago.”

Elliott isn’t basing his opinion on anecdotal evidence. Over the past decade, the P3 staff has assessed the biomechanics of hundreds of NBA players -- 58 percent of the players on opening-night rosters, P3 says -- and one trend keeps popping up. 

“All of the athletes are improving their athleticism, but the rate that our bigs are improving is much faster than the guards and perimeter players,” Elliott says.

As part of the biomechanical assessments that P3 delivers to its NBA clientele, P3 leads off with an “Athleticism” score that measures an athlete’s ability to move vertically and laterally. Recently, P3 crunched the numbers and analyzed how these scores have changed over time for two groups: “bigs” and guards/wings. Before 2016, the average “big” received an Athleticism score of 62. Since 2016, however, the average big’s Athleticism score jumped to 69, an increase of seven points. Over the same window, guards and wings have improved their Athleticism score by just three points, less than half that of their towering teammates.

“A decade ago, if we had a 7-foot guy come in that had decent skills, that’s an NBA player,” says Elliott. “Now, if we have a 7-foot guy who comes in and he’s not athletic, we don’t know if we have an NBA player.”

Elliott remembers when Andre Drummond came into P3’s lab several years ago and shocked the staff with his other-worldly metrics. They analyzed his movements in every direction and his scores were remarkably consistent with NBA athletes who weighed 100 pounds lighter than him. He was, in essence, a big who moved like a guard.

“Drummond was a unicorn, but there are a lot more of these unicorns now,” Elliott says. “They’re not really unicorns anymore.”

Before Drummond, it was Derrick Favors, who at one point ranked near the top of P3’s leaderboards in just about every category.

“Pretty athletic big that we got in 10 years ago,” Elliott says of Favors. “These guys stood out. Now, it’s status quo. We expect them to be athletic and move laterally and be overall big movers. They were the exception 10 years ago.”

Now, it’s the rule.

* * *

What is driving the athletic surge in tall players? Elliott points to two factors: the increasingly global nature of the NBA and sheer economics that have incentivized players to pay closer attention to training.

As the NBA sets up academies in India and Africa, the selection pool of NBA athletes is ever-expanding. The league’s international bridges were evident when Antetokounmpo and Doncic trained together this offseason at P3’s sports science lab. Antetokounmpo, or “The Greek Freak,” is the son of Nigerian immigrants and a native of Athens. Doncic, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-7 point guard from Slovenia and the son of a professional basketball player who was born in a small town on the Solvenian-Italian border with a knack for churning out pro soccer players. If not for the international explosion of the sport, it’s entirely possible this season’s two MVP frontrunners could have put the ball to their foot rather than in their hand.

With international exposure of the league growing and TV deals in China, Europe and North America leading to a salary cap boom, NBA players are richer than ever. The average NBA player makes $7.7 million compared to $2.9 million in 2000, while the top NBA salary is Stephen Curry’s $40.2 million compared against Shaquille O’Neal’s $17.1 million in 1999-00. The increased wages make the NBA an even more desirable goal for the best athletes in the world, while also giving the ones that do make it more resources to sharpen their athleticism. The record income then trickles to secondary trainers, nutritionists and chefs, whose primary jobs are to keep players in top shape. 

“The overall selection pool has gotten so much bigger and the incentive to have a career is so much bigger,” Elliott says.

That career is also more demanding on the body. After hovering around 90 possessions per game for much of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, league-wide pace this season exceeded 100 possessions per game for the first time since 1988-89. The rise of the 3-pointer and emphasis on pick-and-roll defense has required bigs to be more perimeter-oriented. 

“When we started assessing NBA players back in 2009, if you asked most NBA bigs, what they wanted to improve, 10 out of 10 would say their vertical jump,” Elliott says. “The majority of bigs we get in now say they want their lateral movement to improve.”

That mobility comes at a cost. To Elliott, the constant chatter about load management and minutes restrictions overlooks a key point: what’s happening in those minutes. Players are objectively covering more ground in today’s NBA than in years past. Last season, players collectively ran 3,139 more miles than they did in 2013-14 despite the season length and game regulation time being held constant.

But Elliott thinks that only scratches the surface.

“That’s a pretty big change,” Elliott says, “but I really think where you’re going to really see the load of these guys is these ballistic accelerations, both negative and positive,” Elliott says. “How fast they stop, how fast they change direction, how fast they go. It’s these super high intensity stop-and-go’s that are really destructive.”

* * *

As a leader in the space, Elliott has grown tired of the complaints about load management. He jokes that it’s become a dirty phrase now. 

The NBA’s most influential media voice, Charles Barkley, hates it. Michael Jordan reportedly told his Hornets players they’re paid to play 82 games. When asked if rookie R.J. Barrett was being overworked, New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale said “we gotta get off this load management crap” and referenced Latrell Sprewell averaging 42 minutes per game one season (Sprewell averaged 43.1 in 1993-94).

To Elliott, the focus on minutes misses the point. 

“There’s this constant back and forth about ‘when we played …’ ‘when we played,’” Elliot says. “I don’t think that people have given enough attention to how different the game is compared to when they played 20 years ago. These athletes are so much more ballistic and across the board more athletic. These are amazing systems driving super, super hard.”

The pace-and-space era of the NBA is putting increased demands on the bigger athletes. To Elliott, taller players face more injury risk simply because their bodies haven’t been optimized for movement patterns. A 7-footer can get by at younger levels simply by being tall, rather than being an efficient mover. But once they get in the NBA, those movement patterns can catch up to them.

“I still think that NBA athletes are a ways away from being optimized,” Elliott says. “We don’t get many athletes that have as much slack in their system as NBA athletes do. That’s one of the reasons that the game is going to get that much more powerful and more ballistic. NBA players have more slack in their physical development in almost all the professional athletes that we assess.”

Elliott says that track athletes that come through P3 are at 99 percent of where they could be athletically, leaving only 1 percent of space to improve, or “slack” as he calls it. Each percentage point can be the difference between college and Olympian grade. “They don’t make it out of high school at 90 percent.”

NBA players, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as mechanically optimized, settling in at typically 80 percent in his view. “It’s still a skill-dominant sport,” Elliot says.

The slack can be costly. Elliott recently presented new research at Harvard Medical School that studied the biomechanics of 481 NBA subjects and used granular kinetic data to predict whether a player would have a significant knee injury (ACL, MCL and meniscus) that would require surgery in the next year. The P3 machine-learning algorithm was able to predict 70 percent of those major knee injuries simply by looking at how a player moves.

“The load being placed on them is so close to what they’ll be able to manage,” Elliott says, “If they have a screw loose, something probably breaks.”

Elliot wouldn’t reveal the names of his NBA subjects in the study. But it’s safe to say that high-profile knee injuries in recent years to DeMarcus Cousins (torn ACL), Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) and Zion Williamson (torn meniscus) were likely due, in part, to some underlying breakdown in the kinetic chain -- whether it was how aligned joints were when the player landed or the balance of force between right-to-left and left-to-right. Simply put, injuries are not 100 percent a product of bad luck.

“Doesn’t matter what size your engine is, if your brakes and suspension are crap, you’re toast,” says P3’s director of biomechanics, Eric Leidersdorf, who has the build of a high school soccer player. “You can have an engine like mine or an engine like Zion Williamson’s, it won’t matter at that point.”

For years, Elliott has wanted to get LeBron James in his P3 facility, just to witness the kinematic system that’s allowed James to perform at this level for so long. Now officially listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, James is the ultimate guard in a big’s body. In his age-35 season, James is averaging a career-high 11 assists per game while averaging 25.6 points and 7.4 rebounds. His durability is the stuff of legend, never missing more than 10 games in any stretch of his career until last season when he suffered a groin injury on Christmas. (James was playing on by far the fastest team of his career, pace-wise). 

But more important than genetics, James famously invests seven figures per year on body optimization strategies and personally employs a staff that includes a professional biomechanist, multiple chefs and masseuses. He regularly uses cryotherapy, hyberbaric chambers and NormaTec recovery sleeves to stay healthy.

It’s a lesson that Elliott hopes will inspire other premiere athletes to take extra care of their bodies, especially the bigs that have progressed largely because of their size.

“The speed of the game and the load on these players, something has to give,” Elliott says. “It’s a game that’s so hard on these players’ systems, playing 82 games at this speed that it’s played now, it’s so hard on these guys’ systems. When mechanics are messed up, they’re not going to survive.”

Elliott doesn’t see the NBA slowing down anytime soon. When asked what kind of impact those ramped-up velocities will have on the largest of human bodies, Elliott isn’t so sure.

 “I don’t know long-term,” Elliot says, “what it’s going to do.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.