Kawhi Leonard's MJ-like play carrying Raptors

USA Today

Kawhi Leonard's MJ-like play carrying Raptors

Kawhi Leonard found himself in a web of three huge defenders near the foul line in transition on Tuesday night. Ben Simmons, all 6-foot-10 of him, shadowed Leonard. The 6-foot-8 Mike Scott stood in front, with Joel Embiid flanking Scott for 7-foot-2 reinforcement. Check.

Leonard stayed calm, probing for a crease to crack open. Simmons poked the ball away, but Leonard kept his dribble alive and continued knifing his way toward the rim. With Simmons in his rear view, Leonard turned the corner around Scott, but there was Embiid ready to paw Leonard’s layup away. This would be a dead end for most players, but most players are not Kawhi Leonard. In a blink of an eye, Leonard skyrocketed to the rim and dunked one-handed over the leaping Embiid.

Rapper/singer/Raptors mascot Drake, who seconds ago prior was seated in his courtside chair, began bouncing around the sideline like a sugar-crazed child. The Toronto crowd erupted around him as Leonard casually ran back on defense. 

On the next Raptors possession, the Sixers doubled Leonard at half court as if the game depended on it. The Raptors were up 22 points in the closing seconds of the third quarter of Game 5. Leonard’s job was done, so he flipped the ball to Fred VanVleet. Perhaps to save energy for a potential closeout in Game 6.

Leonard finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers in a blowout Game 5 victory as the Raptors went up 3-2 in the series. For most, it’d be a career highlight. For Leonard, however, it was categorically his worst game of the series. Leonard’s scoring average tumbled to 34.6 points per game in the Eastern Conference semifinals, his shooting percentage dropping all the way to 59 percent. 

This was the game where Leonard reminded everyone he’s still human. But do you know the last time a player recorded that many points, that many rebounds, that many assists AND that many steals in a playoff game without turning the ball over even once? It’s been over a decade

That this qualifies as an “off night” speaks to Leonard’s transcendent play these last few weeks. For the postseason, he’s averaging 31.2 points on 57 percent shooting from the floor, 47 percent shooting from downtown (on nearly six attempts per game!) and 86 percent at the free-throw line. No one has a higher player-efficiency rating (31.9) than Leonard. On the other end of the floor, he has taken Simmons completely out of the series.

What happens when a Defensive Player of the Year can also score 30 points per game efficiently? You get comparisons to Michael Jordan. And deservedly so.

* * *

Leonard has a rightful claim to the throne of the game’s best. Let’s run through the reasons. As mentioned above, Leonard leads all players in playoff player-efficiency rating (PER) this postseason. If PER isn’t your thing, consider that the Raptors are plus-140 with Leonard on the floor and minus-40 when he’s on the bench.

His enormous impact stems from his ridiculous shot efficiency. Leonard is averaging 31.2 points this postseason and he’s posted an effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of 3-pointers) of 64.4 percent in 10 games. That’s an absurd number. In the history of the game, 177 players have averaged at least 25 points per game in a postseason, but none with Leonard’s level of efficiency, per Basketball-Reference.com.

It’s fair to point out that 10 games isn’t exactly a large sample size. Fine, let’s just look at the peak 10-game stretches for elite scorers. Some perimeter players have averaged more points and some have posted higher efficiencies. But never both at the same time like Leonard’s 31.2 points and 64.4 percent eFG%. 

LeBron James’ peak in a 10-game playoff span came in 2017 when he reached 63.7 percent eFG% while averaging 32.8 points per game. Kevin Durant’s most efficient stretch culminated at the end of the 2017 NBA Finals when he had posted a 64.6-percent mark and scored 30.6 points per game over that time.

Going back further, Kobe Bryant’s 10-game peak came in 2010 when he topped out at 57.1 percent. Jordan’s was 55.6 back in 1990. They have posted higher scoring averages than Leonard, but both needed a bunch of extra shots (and misses) to get there. Sure, this is the era of hyper-tuned efficiency, but Leonard’s current eFG% of 64.4 percent far out-paces the league average of 50.9 percent.

Stephen Curry has bested Leonard’s current eFG% mark before. That came back in 2017 when he registered a 66.6 percent effective field-goal percentage in his previous 10 games, but he averaged 28.9 points per game over that stretch, not quite up to Leonard’s current benchmark.

But Curry isn’t on Leonard’s level when it comes to defensive prowess, and that’s really where Leonard separates himself.

* * * 

Embiid is fighting the flu. Simmons is battling the Kawhi plague.

While the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have gone to great lengths to protect and preserve their star scorers -- Curry and James Harden, respectively -- on the defensive end, the Raptors have weaponized Leonard to stop Philly’s All-Star point guard. The results have been disastrous for the Sixers, underlined by Leonard stealing the ball from Simmons on the very first two possessions of Game 5 like a kid snatching away a toy on a playground.

After averaging 17.2 points and 4.8 free-throw attempts per game last series, Simmons’ scoring average has dropped to 9.4 points per game and he has just four free throw attempts in this series -- total. Simmons normally scores 23.2 points per 100 possessions, but against Leonard in the semifinals, that has fallen to just 13.6 points, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons has 10 assists and eight turnovers with Leonard on him. When guarded by anyone else this postseason, he has 51 assists and 19 turnovers.

If you’re slandering Simmons for vanishing against the Raptors, you’re missing the point. Leonard has extinguished just about everything Philadelphia has thrown at him -- Simmons or otherwise.

The matchup data tells the tale. In 48 possessions against Leonard, Tobias Harris has scored just seven points on 2-of-11 shooting. In 47 possessions, Jimmy Butler has just 10 points on Leonard, well below Butler’s norm. Embiid hasn’t scored a single point on the 12 possessions he’s been guarded by Leonard, going 0-for-2 from the field. Amazingly, Leonard has guarded 11 players in this series for at least one possession and 10 of them have seen their scoring rate drop. Only James Ennis’ scoring rate doesn’t have a minus attached to it. No computer is immune to a glitch every once in a while.

In an odd way, Leonard’s offensive onslaught has drowned out his elite defensive bonafides. A model of efficiency as a scorer, he is one of just seven perimeter players to ever win a Defensive Player of the Year, including Jordan, Gary Payton and Metta World Peace. Leonard and Sidney Moncrief are the only perimeter players to win the top defensive award multiple times.

Leonard has performed like this at the highest levels of the game, winning the 2014 Finals MVP award. The only two perimeter players have ever won a Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year?

Leonard and Jordan.

* * * 

Let’s just get this out of the way. Leonard isn’t a popular pick for the best player on the planet because he might just be too … well, boring. Everyone knows about Leonard’s Go-Go-Gadget arms and his hands that are as big as Shaq’s, but he has no signature move. He doesn’t jut out his chin when he scores. He doesn’t roar after dunks or stick out his tongue on drives. He doesn’t pound his chest and point to the sky after made 3s. If he swirled an invisible pot in celebration, we’d think he’d gone mad.

Leonard is all business. What most people don’t know is that he’s spent years honing his biomechanics to optimize lateral movement and precision. He appreciates the nerdier areas of the game.

His long-time strength coach, Randy Shelton, works with Leonard to this day, has called him The Human Avatar because of his freakish ability to cover immense ground so efficiently. He is a summer regular at P3 Peak Performance in Santa Barbara, CA., where he gets assessed on an annual basis. 

Shelton once told me, "Kawhi loves the analytics side, loves to look at everything, wants to know. That's the beauty about it."

Leonard is just more methodical in his approach. This isn’t to impune the flair shown by other elite perimeter scorers of our time. After all, that’s what makes the NBA the NBA. It’s what sells millions of Nikes and drives thousands of likes on House of Highlights. Leonard wears New Balance, and doesn’t even have a blue-checked Instagram account or a tweet since July 2015.

What’s holding Leonard back from being considered the best right now? Maybe it rubs people the wrong way that Leonard sat out in back-to-backs this season, but it’s hard to argue against that strategy now. Maybe folks would like to see a regular-season MVP next to his name first before anointing him, but plenty of people, including ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz and some other idiot felt he deserved the 2017 hardware over Russell Westbrook.

Perhaps people aren’t convinced this is real, that this is a fluky run, but those people would be wrong. Back in 2017, Leonard was terrorizing the league before Zaza Pachulia’s sneaky foot ended his season prematurely in the Western Conference finals (landing zone!). Going against Durant in Game 1 of that series, Leonard tallied 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists before leaving the game early in the third quarter. He was an outright killer. Before Leonard limped off the floor, the score was 78-55 Spurs. With Leonard injured, the Warriors rallied back to win Game 1 and swept the series. 

In total that postseason, Leonard averaged 27.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting from the floor, 45.5 percent from downtown and 93.1 percent from the free-throw line. He posted a 31.5 player-efficiency rating in 12 postseason games, which was the highest PER for those playoffs, too. Again, if you’re not a fan of PER, win shares per 48 minutes agree with the conclusion that no one was better statistically in 2017. In fact, Leonard lays claim to two of the top eight postseasons ever by both measures (minimum 10 games played). 

The other names on those lists: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jordan. Only Jordan and Leonard were also known as the best defender in the league at one time. 

Historically great scorer, historically great defender. Yes, Leonard, for what he is doing right now, deserves to be in the same breath as the greatest ever to play. 

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?

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?

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.