Garbage Time All-Stars

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NBC Sports

Garbage Time All-Stars

(Note: All statistics are through Monday, March  11.)

Welcome to Spring League, NBA fans.

This is the part of the regular season that most closely resembles the NBA’s Summer League exhibition series, where many franchises focus more on getting an extended look at young prospects and giving their stars a break.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. With the playoffs all but out of reach, LeBron James was placed in a “load-management” protocol by the Lakers, whose 2019 first-round pick becomes more valuable every minute that James does not play. The Lakers also signed 33-year-old G League journeyman Andre Ingram to a 10-day contract after he became a national sensation last season. No disrespect to Ingram, but the Lakers, like the New Orleans Pelicans, are making the organizational choice to not try to win games.

As such, there’s going to be a whole lot of non-competitive stretches in the final month of the season. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at Garbage Time Heroes that could help you win your fantasy league or choose what to watch every night.

I’ve broken it down into three categories. First, I was curious about which stars have the largest differential in how they score when the scoreboard is tight compared to when the game gets out of hand. For those, I looked at each of the top 25 scorers and analyzed their points per 36 minutes when the score is within five points versus when the lead or deficit is over 15 points (garbage time). The players with the biggest jumps in scoring during garbage time are listed below.

Secondly, I identified a few players who could see big numbers down the stretch as their teams go into full-out tank mode. And lastly, I listed three G League call-ups that could make some noise down the stretch as good teams rest their stars for the playoffs and bad teams rest their stars for the draft lottery.

Let’s get to it.

Opportunistic Stars

Klay Thompson

Of the top 25 scorers, no one saw their scoring numbers jump during garbage time more than Thompson. He scores 29.5 points per 36 minutes when the Warriors are either leading or trailing by more than 15 points compared to 22.7 points per 36 minutes when it’s within five or less. That’s not just a matter of touches. Thompson’s field-goal percentage also drops from 54 percent to 46 percent when the games are more competitive, a decline anchored by a 3-point percentage that sinks from 49 percent to 36 percent in the same situation.

This isn’t an isolated case, either. Though he’s certainly had his playoff moments (sorry, OKC), Thompson has also seen his scoring shrink in the playoffs when the competition is stronger than in the regular season. The sharpshooter has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the previous four regular seasons but has reached that plateau just once in the past four postseasons.

It could be that playoff teams try to take away Thompson first and then deal with the rest of the Warriors. Teams could also be keying in on Thompson a lot more when the game is close and loosen their grip when the game seems out of hand. But either way, Thompson’s scoring rate jumps 6.7 points in garbage time, the highest in this group.

Zach LaVine

LaVine has fought the label of being an overrated “good stats, bad team” guy. While such criticism is unfair for a guy who just turned 24 years old and tore his ACL two years ago, these numbers certainly doesn’t help his case. LaVine has scored 161 points in 199 minutes of garbage time this season, a rate of 29.1 points per 36 minutes. But when the game is close, LaVine’s scoring average plummets to 23.2 points per 36 minutes, a difference of 5.9 points, the second-largest gap on this list.

Most of LaVine’s scoring surge in garbage time can be attributed to his overt aggressiveness. In those less-competitive minutes, he’s shooting 21.2 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared to just 18.4 in tighter situations. He’s actually sharper from 3-point land in close situations (41 percent vs. 30 percent), which further emphasizes that this is more about usage than it is about efficiency. Still, scoring 23.2 points per 36 minutes in competitive circumstances ain’t bad.

Bradley Beal

No star has scored more points in garbage time than Beal (278 points). Most of that is because the Wizards get blown out a ton, but that’s hardly Beal’s fault. Case in point: Since the All-Star break, the Wizards are plus-47 with Beal on the floor and minus-46 with him off the court. Beal’s scoring average in garbage-time situations is 27.3 points per 36 minutes, which is 4.6 points larger than when games are tighter.

That being said, I still think he should be in the All-NBA conversation (I laid out his candidacy in this week’s BIG Number video). Even if Beal has a scoring surge in garbage time, those situations only make up 15 percent of his minutes this season. The guy has played more minutes than anybody in the NBA this season. If he’s ball-hogging a bit in blowouts, so be it.

CJ McCollum

Fun fact: McCollum is a card-carrying member of the 50/40/90 shooting club -- as long as we’re talking about garbage time. (For those who don’t know, the 50/40/90 shooting club is reserved for those who shoot at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the line. This is the elite of the elite). The Portland shooting guard is shooting 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from deep and 91 percent from the charity stripe in these blowout situations. He fits the same profile as Thompson -- an elite shooter who rarely gets to the free-throw line. He’s also someone who, until last postseason, had struggled to put up the same caliber of numbers in the postseason as the regular season.

McCollum is still a super talented scorer in tighter situations (21.4 points per 36 minutes), but he finds himself on this list because both his usage and efficiency rise when the game’s stakes are lowest. This is best illustrated by his whopping 25.4 points per 36 minutes in garbage time. The Blazers would probably benefit by figuring out how to have McCollum more involved in crunchtime simply to lessen the burden on Damian Lillard and make the offense more democratic.

Russell Westbrook

Of all the top 25 scorers, no one saw a larger gap in field-goal percentage according to the scoreboard. In close situations, Westbrook has shot 39 percent from the floor, an ugly figure for a go-to scorer. In garbage time, Westbrook’s field-goal percentage soars to 50 percent, a difference of 11 percent.

Continuing this trend, Westbrook’s shooting percentages have tumbled in postseason play over the last few years, as he failed to shoot above 40 percent in each of the last two playoffs -- both first-round exits for the Thunder. Westbrook has come up huge in the playoffs before (2016 Western Conference finals Games 3 and 4 against Golden State is a place to start, as is OKC’s 2012 run to the Finals). The Thunder hope to get more of that Westbrook in this upcoming postseason. Interestingly enough, Westbrook’s 2.7-point jump in garbage time (24.1 vs. 21.4) isn’t a matter of shooting more; he actually has seen his field-goal attempts per 36 minutes fall from 20.4 in close situations to 18.1 in garbage time. He’s just vastly more efficient when the game’s not out of hand.

Tank Pilots

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Luka Doncic is limping to the finish line and could be shut down soon. Dirk Nowitzki’s hinting that he’s giving it another go so there won’t be a last-hurrah scoring binge, a la Kobe Bryant. Throw in the fact that the Mavericks lose their first-round pick to Atlanta if it falls out of the top five on draft lottery night and you have the makings of a Tim Hardaway Jr., scoring binge.

Hardaway Jr.’s minutes have fallen from 32.6 per night in New York to 28.9 per night in Dallas, but if they pull the plug on the season, THJ could fill it up. He sees his scoring rate skyrocket when he’s not playing with Doncic, going from 15.4 points per 36 minutes with the rookie sensation to 23.0 points per 36 minutes with Doncic on the bench, per NBA.com. The icing on the cake? The Mavericks also get blown out by 11.6 points per 36 minutes with Hardaway on the floor without Doncic. Tank pilot, indeed.

Julius Randle

Tim Hardaway’s situation would only get more tanktastic if he was a free agent trying to get paid this summer. This guy, Randle, on the other hand? He’ll nuke his $9 million player option well before July 1 with the way he’s playing. This used to be Anthony Davis’ team. Then it was Jrue Holiday’s team. Now, with Holiday ailing, it’s Randle’s team -- for the next month.

Randle is an undeniable talent on the offensive end, but he gives up just as much defensively. Randle is averaging 23.8 points per game since Davis’ tanking, err, load-management program went into effect on Feb. 12. Since that point, the Pelicans surrender 110.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team when Randle is on the floor, compared to a stingy 102.8 points per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. As long as Randle is playing, there will be buckets.

Joakim Noah

He’s back. Since the trade deadline, Noah is averaging 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in just 22.4 minutes per game. Translated per 36 minutes: 18.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He’s not just filling up the box score with hollow numbers; he’s genuinely made Memphis a better team since it took a flier on him earlier this season.

The Grizzlies have him on a one-year veteran’s minimum contract so it’ll be interesting to see how they feature him down the stretch. With the way it’s going, he might play himself into a pricier contract than the Grizzlies will be willing to pay. Part of me just wants to see Noah firing up 3-pointers for the heck of it. The Grizzlies only keep their 2019 first-round pick if it falls in the top-eight. They’re currently sitting with the seventh-worst record in the NBA. I’m praying for Noah 3-bombs.

G-League Call-ups

Andre Ingram

After a disastrous season in Los Angeles, Ingram is the last hope to end the season on a high note. Brandon Ingram (not related) is out for the season with blood clots. Lonzo Ball is likely finished. Kyle Kuzma is battling a bum ankle. James is on The Brow program. It’s Andre’s time to shine.

The Lakers obviously don’t think he’s going to help them win games, otherwise they’d sign him earlier to help with a genuine playoff push. Nonetheless, it’s a heartwarming story for basketball’s Crash Davis, having made his NBA debut as a 32-year-old rookie last season. Ingram scored just 12.8 points per 36 minutes for the South Bay Lakers this season with a G League career-low 35.7 percent from 3-point land, but the Lakers figure to give him every opportunity to recreate the magic from Staples Center last April. Don’t forget about Dre.

Christian Wood

This guy can fill it up. The 23-year-old averaged 28.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game in the G-League this season and currently ranks No. 1 all-time in career PER for the G League (yes, that’s a thing).

Here’s the issue: He’s buried on the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench. The top-seeded Bucks called Wood up from the G League last Friday, but he hasn’t gotten any burn as they try to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the team contracts the injury bug or rests its bigs down the stretch, keep a close eye on Wood. He could be the next Hassan Whiteside, just waiting for his big-league opportunity.

Jordan McRae

The NBA journeyman is someone to watch if the Washington Wizards are finally eliminated from the playoffs. McRae actually got garbage-time burn during the 2016 Finals with the Cavs and he torched the G League this season on a two-way contract with the Wizards, averaging 30.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent from deep for the Capital City Go-Gos.

McRae wasn’t a great fit for a championship contending Cavs squad, but if he gets some run with the Wizards down the stretch, he could put up big scoring numbers. He’s nursing a sore Achilles at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule out a big April from the 27-year-old NBA champ. He scored 20 points in 26 minutes in a win over the Atlanta Hawks last month. More of that could be in order.

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

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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NBC Sports

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.