This Is It: Which NBA playoff teams face uncertain futures?

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NBC Sports

This Is It: Which NBA playoff teams face uncertain futures?

It took five postseasons without a title before Masai Ujiri had seen enough. 

With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan anchoring the backcourt, the Toronto Raptors had seemingly tapped out. In five seasons from 2013-14 to 2017-18, the Raptors won more regular-season games than any other Eastern Conference team, but the Raptors saw more first-round exits than trips to the Eastern Conference finals, never reaching the NBA Finals.

And so, last July, Ujiri made his move. The Raptors traded DeRozan -- the leading scorer in franchise history at the peak of his career -- along with Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and cash considerations. The Lowry-DeRozan backcourt was broken up, the Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was let go after seven seasons, and a new era in Toronto had begun.

The results have, so far, been positive. Despite Leonard missing about a quarter of the season, the Raptors currently have better championship odds than they did at this time last year. As such, Ujiri’s home run swing effectively put the rest of the league on notice. If DeRozan isn’t safe, who is? Just like Miami’s Big Three sparked the era of player agency, the Raptors could have broken the seal for other perennial underachievers to follow suit.

Here are “this is it” teams who could be due for a shake-up of the status quo:

Boston Celtics

Who would have thought they’d find themselves on this list back in September? Not many. League executives can’t agree on much, but there’s a general consensus that this Celtics team could look very different come next season, especially if they get bounced early in the playoffs. 

Danny Ainge is not one to prioritize emotional sentiment over cold rationality. Ask Isaiah Thomas. If Ainge feels like the team is better off without Kyrie Irving, they’ll have a Plan B in place to move on from the All-Star, should Irving leave as a free agent this summer.

Irving hasn’t been the most galvanizing leader. Some outsiders believe that his lukewarm approval rating in the locker room might give the Celtics some pause before handing over a long-term max deal. Said one league executive of Irving: “You’re offering that guy back on a humongous deal? That’ll be interesting to see.”

The Celtics are 11-3 this season without Irving in uniform and were one game away from reaching the NBA Finals without him last postseason. It’s tempting to think there’s some Ewing Theory at work here, that the Celtics are actually a superior team without Irving. But that 11-3 record is misleading once you account for the lopsided schedule. The Kyrie-less Celtics are 2-1 against teams currently with winning records and 9-2 against everyone else, including three wins over the hapless Cavs. That’s far less convincing. Watch the 2016 Finals if you need a reminder about Irving’s power in the playoffs.

The interesting thing from the Celtics’ perspective is that Irving is seen as something of a package deal with Anthony Davis. If Irving stays, the Celtics could shoot up to the top of the Davis sweepstakes in New Orleans due to their appealing collection of young talent and draft assets. The Celtics might be more willing to part with their prized youngsters if they can flaunt an Irving-Davis partnership and rule the East. If Irving leaves, though, the Celtics might continue with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the faces of the franchise. 

Few teams have had their long-term assets sour more than the Celtics’ this season. Tatum and Brown haven’t taken the leaps expected of them, respectively. Their 2019 Sacramento first-round pick almost assuredly won’t be in the top-10. The Clippers went on a tear, meaning their 2019 pick owed to the Celtics is less valuable than Boston’s own first-round pick. On the other hand, Memphis’ top-eight protected pick is likely to roll over to next season, making it top-six protected in 2020 and fully unprotected in 2021. That could be a extra tasty pick in 2021 if the age limit is lowered to 18 years old by then.

If the Celtics disappoint this postseason, they could be in for a reshuffling, a la the Raptors. But  if the Celtics reach the Finals, it’s hard to imagine Irving leaving, especially when Davis is on the trade block. Then again, if he really is listening to LeBron James’ wisdom, reaching the Finals in 2014 didn’t exactly seal the deal for James to stay in Miami.

Portland Trail Blazers

This is Raptors West. Since C.J. McCollum became the full-time starter next to Damian Lillard in 2015-16, the Blazers’ backcourt has won the second-most games in the NBA (161), only trailing the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (219) among starting backcourts. The Lowry-DeRozan tandem comes in third at 140, which still ranks high despite not even playing together this season. That’s how rare these consistent backcourts are.

Like the Raptors, the Lillard-McCollum duo has also come up short in the playoffs, going 5-14 in the past three postseasons, including two disheartening first-round sweeps. A Portland supporter might argue that two of those postseason exits came at the hands of perhaps the most unbeatable team in NBA history -- the Golden State Warriors. But the Raptors had an excuse, too: they ran into LeBron James in three straight postseasons. Ujiri still decided to make a change.

If the Blazers disappoint again, is the Lillard-McCollum partnership due for a backcourt breakup a la Toronto? 

Don’t bet on it. If anything, the Jusuf Nurkic injury probably delays any potential shakeup. It might also buy some more time for Terry Stotts, who is reportedly under contract only through next season.

But there is at least some uncertainty here after longtime owner Paul Allen died in October, putting a possible sale on the horizon. Though unlikely, a tightening of the belt could be in store for a team that paid the luxury tax this season and is right up against the luxury tax line in 2019-20. 

It’s a surprising plane of existence for a small-market team like Portland. The Blazers have ranked among the five-highest payrolls in the league in each season since the 2016 spending spree that saw them ink Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless to deals that totaled over $225 million. But a potential cost-saving teardown probably wouldn’t come this offseason. The Blazers are still competing at a high level and generating playoff revenue, even if it’s only been a couple home games the last two postseasons.

Said one rival league executive: “As they’re built, is it championship-caliber? No. But they’re fighting for a top-four seed every year. In a small market, that, in some ways, is good enough.”

Lillard could be eligible for the four-year, $194 million supermax extension this summer if he lands on the All-NBA team, which is basically a lock. Averaging a torrid 25.9 points, 9.6 assists and 5.1 rebounds since McCollum got injured last month, Lillard ranks second among all guards in total win shares and RPM wins this season. He is the gold standard of durability, having played more games than any guard since he entered the league in 2012-13. He deserves every penny that the collective bargaining agreement allows.

The late Paul Allen would almost certainly be willing to commit that money to the face of the franchise, and it’s likely his successor would, too. A professional like Lillard is hard to come by and he’s said all the right things about being a Portland lifer. Most around the league don’t see him jumping ship from a small market like James in 2010 or Kevin Durant in 2016.

“[Lillard] is more likely a Dirk thing,” said one West executive. “He’s more likely to stay there and hopefully they get one title one day. If you hang on and get one [in Portland] eventually, as opposed to asking out, it’s more valuable than the three (titles) that KD got.”

Lillard and McCollum are under contract through 2020-21. If Allen was still steering the Blazers, there wouldn’t be any chatter about breaking it up. But with question marks lingering around ownership and the trickle-down effects of a potential new regime, there’s a bit of unsteady ground here, enough for power-brokers in the league to keep tabs on. 

Toronto Raptors

Again. Most executives think Kawhi Leonard has one foot in Canada and one in ClipperLand. At least that’s the buzz from the NCAA tournament. One plugged-in executive told me that Leonard’s preference is so strong that barring an unlikely title run for the Raptors, “the Clippers believe they have it in the bag.”

Of course, few around the NBA expected Paul George to re-up with OKC, but that might be the exception, not the rule. The Raptors could be retooling again if the Leonard experiment falls flat. Both Leonard and Marc Gasol could walk away by turning down their 2019-20 player options and go into free agency. If that happens, the Kyle Lowry era could also be over one year after Toronto cut ties with DeRozan.

It won’t be an easy contract to unload. Lowry is due $33.5 million next season and turns 34 years old next March. (Would Memphis take on Lowry’s expiring deal (a Beale Street reunion!) to swap with Conley’s remaining two years at a similar number?) Many around the league expect the Raptors to hit the restart button and build around Pascal Siakam, who has emerged as a star in the making. For those who doubt Siakam’s starpower check this: In the last 10 games that Leonard hasn’t played, the 24-year-old Siakam has averaged 22.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 54.3 percent shooting from the floor and 39.5 percent from downtown. There are no Kawhi proxies in the NBA, but that’s as close as you’re going to get.

Like Boston, the Raptors could look a lot different next season if things don’t go their way. Danny Green, who might be the best role player in the NBA, can be a free agent and will likely generate a hefty pay-raise from his annual $10 million he signed in 2015 with the Spurs. There’s a realistic scenario where the Raptors punt on their six-year title pursuit and build around their youngsters with an eye for the top of the draft. Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are a solid foundation and none of them were lottery picks. What if they get some swings at the top of the draft? That day might come sooner than many think.

The Others

It may not be a make-or-break postseason for Golden State, Philadelphia or Indiana, but each of these teams could look very different next season regardless. If the Warriors win the title, many executives believe that Durant may be more included to leave. It’d tie a bow on a powerful narrative of Durant as the Warriors’ savior.

They lose to Cleveland without him. Durant comes to the rescue and voila, they three-peat. He’s the alpha. The reason they overcame LeBron James. End of story.

If the Warriors are somehow knocked out before claiming their third title in four years, it’s expected that Durant could still leave anyway. Klay Thompson is also a free agent this summer, but there's no buzz that he's going to leave, regardless of what happens this postseason.

As for Philadelphia's long-term prospects, a deep playoff run matters to a degree but don't expect a blow-it-up scenario where they punt on the Joel Embiid-and-Ben Simmons partnership. Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler -- all can be free agents -- will be expensive to retain, if they want to come back. But the Sixers aren't primed to break up Embiid and Simmons like the Raptors did with Lowry and DeRozan. Elsewhere at the top of the East, six of Indiana's rotation players, including Bojan Bogdanovic, who is averaging 22.0 points per game since the All-Star break, will be unrestricted free agents. But the young core of Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis should still be in place.

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.