Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Chris Bosh wanted to pick Kevin Garnett’s brain. 

It was the 2010 All-Star Game in Bosh’s hometown of Dallas. The East All-Star locker room was quiet and the superstars were lacing up. Garnett, the 33-year-old All-Star starter and NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, wasn’t in the heat of battle, spitting obscenities at Bosh. For the moment, Garnett and Bosh were anointed allies in the pregame locker room, a most-sacred place in sport.

“At the time, I wasn’t a threat,” Bosh tells me during an hour-long conversation, “so we could talk.”

This was the time and place, Bosh thought. Older veterans had turned down Bosh’s inquiries before -- “I won’t tell you who” -- but in that Dallas locker room, Garnett seemed open to talk, not smack, but life.

So Bosh went for it.

How did you know it was time to leave Minnesota?

Bosh knew the question might make him seem small and vulnerable, like he didn’t have all the answers. This was his fifth All-Star Game and the loud, dreadlocked big man was averaging 24.4 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Didn’t he have it all figured out? Truth is, he didn’t. His mind was a mess. Free agency was coming up and he didn’t know what to do. 

The Raptors had one winning season in Bosh’s seven years. Garnett had won a title in his first year with Boston only 20 months prior and two of Bosh’s peers from the 2003 draft class -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- had already reached the NBA Finals. Bosh felt isolated in Toronto and hungry for more, something bigger. 

“Everytime I come here [to All-Star], I am always looking at two or three guys from the top team in the East, or the top two or three teams in the East,” Bosh recalls. “Around that time, there was always this buzz and excitement, like, ‘Are you guys going to win it? Who’s gonna win it?’ And me … it was just like … I’m just here.”

Didn’t KG feel that in Minny? 

Garnett did not blast him for asking. Instead, he offered some sage advice that, months later, would seal the deal for Bosh to go to Miami.

“You want to play with people who can take pressure off you, that way you don’t have to worry about other things,” Bosh remembers Garnett telling him. “You can just play basketball.”

Bosh didn’t decide to leave Toronto right then and there. But the conversation with Garnett gave him strength in knowing that other stars too had felt this weight, this stress, this anxiety. He wasn’t alone.

Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony with the Miami Heat on Tuesday, March 26, Bosh is sitting in the garage of his Miami home, reminiscing and thinking about how Miami’s Big Three -- he, James and Wade -- helped launch the era of player empowerment, where stars switching teams in free agency is commonplace. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have all engineered exits in recent years, making it known they’d like to take their talents -- and their careers -- elsewhere.

“It’s huge,” Bosh says of the trio’s pioneering role. “A lot of people don’t like it, that’s the funniest part.”

Don’t like what?

“An athlete with brains.”

When we talk about Bosh’s place in NBA history, this is where it should begin: Humanizing the star.

* * *

Everything changed after Bosh and James joined Wade in Miami.

NBA players controlling their own destiny in free agency was and is a worthy endeavor. But when they take matters into their own hands to pursue a championship, the scrutiny you’ll face will be magnified beyond anything you’ve experienced before.

As one third of one of the most famous trios in the history of professional sports, Bosh for the first time found himself in the fishbowl, surrounded by a storm of criticism and high expectations.

On ESPN, he was nicknamed “Bosh Spice” by Skip Bayless, a misogynistic barb that Bosh would later confront Bayless about on “First Take.” The Big Three were often called the Big Two-and-a-half. And when Bosh, in a

moment of candidness, said that Heat players wanted to “chill” on off days while coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to work, it became a national scandal. That particular controversy became the third installment in Bleacher Report’s running series headlined “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And all of that was before Bosh sobbed on national television.

It happened in the moments directly following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. As the Dallas Mavericks celebrated the franchise’s first NBA title on Miami’s homecourt, the Heat retreated to lick their wounds following a turbulent first season together. An exhausted Bosh was held up on the walk to the locker room by teammates Erick Dampier and Wade. Then, overcome by emotion, Bosh collapsed to the red carpet, sunken on his elbows and knees, and cried.

The intensely personal moment was broadcast to the millions watching. Bosh knew it would haunt him, but it was too late.

“I looked up and saw the camera right there,” Bosh remembers. “And I was like, awww, they’re going to kill me.”

Bosh changed again after that Finals defeat, after that moment of despair was shared around the world. The double standard for the pro athlete was laid bare to him. Sports are supposed to mean something to pro athletes, but not enough that it makes you weep. Do everything you can to win a championship, but only if it’s on management’s terms, not your own. Be authentic, but only if it fits neatly within the carved-out narrative.

“That’s one of the things I had to learn, was to just be myself,” Bosh says. “Just going through that process, just really seeing the different levels and different flavors of people’s reactions and their opinions. It gave me confidence just to say, ‘Alright, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m just going to be myself. And that’s great enough.’ It’s about what you do on the court and it’s not about pleasing everybody.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Even now, Bosh says he wishes he had just kept his emotions in check for just for a few more steps until he let it all out in the privacy of the locker room. Instead, his emotion became something of a punchline.

No matter how hard he tried to block out the noise on social media and on TV, Bosh admits, that in his darkest moments he would slink back and listen to it all. In Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh limped off the floor with an abductor muscle strain, sidelining him indefinitely in the middle of their redemption tour. The injury forced him to stay home when the team went on the road to Indiana. 

Bosh watched the series unravel just like the rest of the basketball world.

“We go in and we lose Game 3 in Indiana and I’m just watching,” Bosh says. “I’m supposed to be ready to play in two and a half weeks. I can’t walk. We go down 2-1 on the road. Oh, D-Wade was awful that game. We just had a stinker.”

During Game 3, cameras caught Wade and Spoelstra having to be separated on the sidelines during a heated exchange. Lance Stephenson infamously gave a choke sign to LeBron after the Heat star missed a technical free throw. The Heatles were crashing and Bosh felt helpless. In the throes of his funk, he flipped on ESPN and watched what they said about him and the Heat. It drove him deeper into despair, so much so that he just about wanted to quit. Until his wife, Adrienne, pulled him out of it.

“My mistake was listening to the TV,” Bosh says. “I was listening and it just got in here [pointing to his head] and I pretty much gave up. I pretty much gave up and my wife was like nuh-uh-uhh.”

In the regular season, he and his wife had watched DVDs of NBA Classics that told the story of champions overcoming adversity. Bosh told his wife to pay attention because there would be times of adversity. 

Don’t get too down, Adrienne. 

And of course, the tables turned in the playoffs. Adrienne delivered the pep talk, telling Chris, hey, the lows are part of the journey.
 
“I’m like, ‘Ah I did say that?’,” Bosh recalls telling her. “I guess I’m gonna have to pull myself together.”

Bosh and the Heat turned adversity into an opportunity. Rather than start two traditional bigs against Indiana’s formidable frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert, Spoelstra decided to go small and start Shane Battier at the power forward position. The switch was something Spoelstra had thought about doing in the series anyway, but Bosh’s injury forced his hand. With Battier and James alternating as the power forward, the Heat won the next three games to earn a spot in the East Finals.

The opponent? Garnett and the Boston Celtics. After three weeks of arduous rehab and emotional turmoil, Bosh returned to the lineup in Game 5, coming off the bench for just 14 minutes. The Heat lost, going down 3-2 in the series, as Garnett scored 26 points to Bosh’s nine. And it seemed like as good a time as any to give up.

Instead, with Bosh manning the center spot -- a position he never envisioned he’d play on a winning team -- the Heat went on to win six of the next seven games en route to a 2012 Finals win over Oklahoma City. After losing that Game 5 against Boston, Bosh averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds with a plus-48 in the plus-minus column.

Bosh’s presence changed everything. In Game 7 of the conference finals against Garnett, Bosh made 3-of-4 3-pointers, totaling 19 points and eight rebounds. In the Finals, Bosh sliding over to the five next to Shane Battier and James was a game-changer. Bosh discovered his 3-point shot and a new position. The NBA would never be the same.

* * * 

Bosh’s career went on to reach towering heights. The Heat defended their 2012 championship by winning 27 straight games during the 2012-13 regular season and later took down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the most memorable Finals in NBA history. Bosh was at the center of it all, grabbing perhaps the biggest rebound in franchise history and blocking the Spurs’ final attempt. No one was calling him Bosh Spice anymore.

But a rocky three-peat quest in 2013-14 ended all those good vibes. James left in the summer of 2014 after the Spurs took their revenge. Bosh re-upped with a five-year, $118 million max contract but hit the dark place once again. In 2015, doctors found a blood clot in Bosh’s lungs that ended his season at the All-Star break. A year later, blood clots returned, this time in his calf, ending his season prematurely once again. A year ago, Bosh was still trying desperately to return to an NBA that now appeared tailor-made in his image.

But after hearing so many no’s from doctors and spending days without teams returning phone calls, Bosh decided to hang it up for good in recent months. On his terms.

“You know, you have to deal with that stuff,” Bosh says. “Just a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of dark stuff, just comes in and pops in and then ‘Yo, where’s this coming from?’ You deal with it.”

It’s tough for Bosh not to think about what might have been. As pace-and-space (a term coined by Spoelstra) and the 3-point shot gained in popularity, and importance, more and more big men have followed the blueprint Bosh helped pioneer in Miami. By the end of his time in Miami, Bosh was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, seventh most among big men. Now, 18 big men shoot that many in 2018-19, underscored by Bucks center Brook Lopez attempting more than six 3-pointers a night for the East’s best team.

“That was one of the things I used to really have trouble with last year watching the game,” Bosh says. “I had to bounce back from that. I was in a really dark place, trying to rebound from that, to be honest with you.”

It’s understandable. If Bosh’s blood clots hadn’t forced him out of the league, he could’ve entered this summer as a free agent, alongside the likes of Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler -- the same players he unknowingly helped all those years ago. It’s a fact that has haunted him to this day.

It still hurts, but Bosh isn’t afraid to talk about that now. This is about being himself.

“I’m happy for the guys,” Bosh says. “I’m happy to look back and even if people don’t know, to say, hey, you know what, I had a little bit to do with changing the league.”

Bosh changed the game off the court, too. I ask him, does Durant leave OKC if Bosh and the Big Three don’t choose to team up in 2010?

“No,” Bosh says now. “That put pressure on him.” 

Earlier in March, Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke that basketball “will never fulfill me.” It’s a sentiment that Bosh agrees with. Bosh thought he’d be fulfilled when he became an All-Star. That wasn’t enough. A championship? Not enough. Two championships? Still not fulfilled. 

“There’s more [to life],” Bosh says. “If you’re fulfilled, then pretty much just give up on life and die after that, right? If you’re fulfilled? That’s a great statement that he made. I think it’s telling people as well, this is just my interpretation, but it’s like, ‘Yo, chill’ because everybody puts the onus on that championship. It’s not going to fulfill you. And that’s one of the big secrets about it.”

For Bosh, dark places came after titles, too. You strive to get that high again, like another hit of a drug. But basketball can be cruel. 

“People on the outside looking in might say if you win a championship, it’s all good; it’s not,” Bosh says. “You still have a long life to live. When you win a championship, it just means a bigger X on your back.”

* * * 

Bosh heard commissioner Adam Silver’s comments to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. 

“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Bosh last played in 2016, but he’s stunned by how rare it is that young players consult him about navigating the fishbowl. Social media has connected just about every star, but they’re feeling as disconnected as ever.

“Nobody reaches out,” Bosh says. “Guys don’t want knowledge. Nobody has come to me, and said, ‘Hey, man how’d you do that thing?’ It’s cool. I’m not putting pressure on anybody. But me coming up as a player, one of the most important things was to seek knowledge, even if people turn you away. I got turned away, believe it or not.”

That curiosity and thirst for knowledge drove Bosh to seek Garnett’s counsel at the 2010 All-Star game and setting the wheels of multiple championships and a jersey retirement in motion.

“And I do get it, we do live in an age of anxiety,” Bosh says. “But that’s because everybody cares about what everybody thinks. I do not care. As long as it’s positive, I’m not going to be a jerk, but if you don’t have anything good to say, I’m really not going to listen to it.”

Bosh is the first to admit that blocking out the noise and criticism isn’t easy. He used to scroll Twitter and Instagram to seek validation, to hear people talking about him, to make him feel relevant, to make him feel alive. But he doesn’t go there anymore. In down times, he talks to his wife and family instead, his foundation. Social media and 24-7 media became a toxic place, a landmine for which Bosh learned to avoid.
     
“It took a while to get there,” Bosh says. “It’s exciting at first, but then after a while … it’s like what the Lakers are experiencing this year. I’m sure last year they were lovable because nobody really expected things from them. But then you get the expectations and it changes. These same talk shows you’re getting killed all of a sudden. Now you’re getting hate tweets. People on Instagram are leaving nasty comments.”

“But you can’t worry about that. It’s hard not to, but what’s your alternative? The fact that the commissioner was even talking about happiness was crazy. Adam [Silver], just the fact that he even felt compelled to say something about that, which is true. You see guys competing for championships and they’re not happy. It’s not a happy time to be honest with you. A huge part of it is knowing, first, sucking it up, and then knowing that a championship is not going to complete me as a person as an athlete or as a public figure.”

Now, ahead of his jersey retirement, Bosh is at peace with his career. Bosh is eligible to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, making it likely the best class ever. According to a Basketball-Reference.com algorithm, Bosh’s Hall of Fame probability stands at 99.5 percent. Without his locker room talk that led to career autonomy and two championships, who knows whether Bosh would’ve reached these heights.

And when the Heat raise his jersey into the rafters on Tuesday, Bosh insists there will be no thought of dark places.

“All highs.”

Watch Haberstroh's full sitdown with Bosh here.

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 at 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 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.”

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