The Lakers have been one of the most injury ravaged teams of the last three seasons. Depending on who you ask, this is either the result of snakebitten bad luck or gross incompetence by the organization and their training staff. This is the internet, after all, and the hot takes run wild. The truth however, as it most always does, probably lies in between.
During the lockout of 2011, the Lakers executed a purge of sorts. When Phil Jackson departed at the end of the season and the owners locked the players out via an end to the collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers let go of multiple staffers. Assistant GM Ronnie Lester was one. Marko Yrjovuori and Marco Nunez were two more. And then there was Alex McKechnie.
The latter served as the team’s Athletic Performance Coordinator for 8 seasons. After his contract was not renewed, he joined the Toronto Raptors. McKechnie was credited by Phil Jackson, Shaq, Pau Gasol, and several other key members of some of the Lakers’ most successful teams as a vital part of what they achieved. So, in some ways, you can point to his departure as a line of demarcation for when the team’s injuries started to pile up.
The other side of this, of course, is that the Lakers got old. They’d been playing deep into the playoffs every season with players who absorbed unsustainable minute loads — especially players like Kobe and Pau. To try and regain lost glory, they acquired players like Steve Nash (also old) and Dwight Howard. Nash had long been an injury risk player and Howard was coming off back surgery the summer he was traded for. Both ended up spending many more minutes nursing injuries during their Lakers’ tenures than anyone would have liked.
All of this is the context for what the Lakers have been going through on the injury front. Was the training staff not doing enough? Was the rash of injuries to high mileage players and guys recovering from serious ailments which led to games missed just the natural result of being who these players are/were? Again, there are no easy answers, despite what those who feel passionately about this subject might want you to believe.
Why does this matter today? Well, Baxter Holmes of ESPN has a fantastic article out today on what the Lakers are, and have been, doing on the injury treatment and prevention front. The entire article is informative, insightful, and worth your time. Click the link and read it.
There several intriguing parts worth sharing here, though. For example, Holmes opens with an explanation of a fancy new scanning closet (for lack of a better word on my part) the Lakers have invested in:
Inside, it’s pitch black and spacious enough for most NBA players to test their wingspans in all directions. A mechanical whir, much like one from an office copy machine, starts as four lasers on metal tracks — one located in each corner — rise from the floor into position. A (painless) head-to-toe scan begins as the lasers move steadily down the tracks, shooting out beams of red light to form a single line that moves over every inch of the object in the center, X-ray style. The whole process lasts 12 seconds.
Outside, a teal 3D rendering takes form in real time on a desktop flat-screen. DiFrancesco spins the image with the click of a mouse. “That’s you,” he says. And it’s accurate to within one millimeter.
Information from the scanner helps the Lakers detect any postural distortion patterns — in other words, if a player’s asymmetry of posture is off in any way, a signal that something might be wrong.
The Lakers acquired the scanner earlier this summer from the German company Human Solutions, which specializes in fashion, specifically high-end tailoring. They’re the only NBA team that has it, according to Vitti, and though there are still kinks to be worked out, they believe that it could be a useful tool to not only keep players healthy, but help them perform at their best.
Their ultimate goal: injury prevention, the NBA’s next frontier.
“That’s what I keep hearing,” Lakers coach Byron Scott says.
It’s a hot topic as teams stockpile the latest technology all geared toward that end.
And then there is more wearable technology the team is using:
This offseason the Lakers began using a pulse oximetry device by Masimo that uses infrared light to gauge inflammation levels, hydration levels, the oxygen in their blood and more. Players insert an index finger into the device once in the mornings, and then again during and between interval bouts of work, for about two minutes before a reading appears. Vitti says the technology is typically used by anesthesiologists.
The Lakers also use an online psychomotor vigilance test to measure reaction time.
DiFranceso asks the players a series of questions on a scale — about how their body feels, how they slept and how hard they feel they pushed themselves that day.
And then there’s the SportVU cameras, which capture the movements of the basketball, all 10 players on the court and the three referees 25 frames per second throughout a game. Among other things, SportVU cameras provide data about players’ speed and distance covered.
The Lakers combine all the information they’re being fed from various tools into a formula that helps charts players’ health and performance in green, yellow and red zones, a format that they began testing last season. (Green is good, yellow is caution, red is bad.)
Scott says he began receiving reports on his players and the zones they were in last season.
The entire story is really framed as a feature on Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ long time trainer who will serve his final season in that role this year before transitioning to a consultant role for two additional years. Vitti speaks on many topics, including how hard the last few years have been, the injury which made him consider retiring early (Randle’s broken leg), and how he’s tried to do as much as he can to keep the Lakers ahead of the curve while not necessarily trying always be “first” and groundbreaking by experimenting with technology which may not have a real value add.
The entire story is worth your time, but it’s this balancing act — much like the one the entire debate about why the Lakers have dealt with so many injuries to begin with — which I find interesting.
More interesting, though, is that the Lakers are even pulling back the curtain at all and exposing parts of their operation. Similar to opening up about their formerly secretive analytics department, the organization seems to be clearly taking a more proactive approach to advertise they are not as behind the times as they are perceived to be. Whether that is actually true or not is open to interpretation — I am not an expert on analytics nor medicine/injury treatment/injury prevention — so I can’t speak on whether any of what they’re doing in these areas is making a real difference or not.
But, I can say, it’s good to know they are trying. The hope is that the results will follow. Though, after Jordan Clarkson was injured in Thursday’s preseason finale and may not play in next Wednesday’s season opener, I have a feeling the hot takes will still be more than prevalent. Fair or not.