When you watch the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks take the floor on Thursday night, take a moment to soak in how these two teams stick it to Father Time. Tim Duncan is churning out double-doubles three weeks from his 38th birthday. Manu Ginobili, 36, ranks third at his position in PER. The 31-year-old Tony Parker remains one of the league’s top floor generals in the NBA, and Boris Diaw, also 31, is playing his best ball since “Seven Seconds Or Less.” Meanwhile, the Mavericks have some greybeards as well. Dirk Nowitzki, a 35-year-old 7-footer with more than 1,300 games on his NBA odometer, has missed just two outings this season. Jose Calderon, 32, and Vince Carter, 37, have sat out one game apiece. The younger guys have also stayed remarkably healthy.
By and large, their best players, no matter what age, have a clean bill of health.
So how do they do it? Welcome to the burgeoning world of injury prevention analytics.
Introducing Catapult Sports
For every NBA team, staying healthy has always been the game within the game. As Kevin Pelton demonstrated on Tuesday, you don’t win without your health. Staying healthy has always been tricky business for NBA teams. But the Spurs and Mavericks, along with eight other teams, have jumped to the forefront of a data wave by joining forces with Australian athletic tech company Catapult Sports.
With about 350 clients worldwide in professional and collegiate athletics, Catapult is already a giant on a global scale, just not necessarily here on American soil. But thanks to Mark Cuban, that’s about to change. Earlier this month, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank” quietly invested millions of dollars into the tech group. It’s easy to see why Cuban wants in on Catapult. Through its wearable GPS technology, Catapult casts light on the shadowy domain of injury prevention, the next frontier of NBA analytics. Rather than relying solely on eyes and ears to get critical answers on player fatigue and health, Catapult provides a gold mine of information that helps teams identify when injuries are more likely to occur due to exhaustion.
Catapult’s GPS device makes it all happen. About half the size and weight of an iPhone, the gadget is embedded in the back of player jerseys, sitting just between the shoulder blades. It tracks player data such as heart rate, speed, distance traveled, player load and acceleration and deceleration force. Catapult then charts and relays all that good stuff to the teams in real time and compiles it in a way that teams can use to help solve their most vexing riddles.
Is my 20-year-old top draft pick overdoing it at practice? Should my 275-pound center really be doing sprints with the point guards in between games? Is that conditioning drill a total waste of time? How much standing around should we be doing at shootaround? How can I make better use of my practice time? How do we know when a player is ready to return from rehabbing his knee?
Thanks to cutting-edge companies like Catapult, those queries are now being tackled with precision and probabilities. With millions of dollars and precious wins at stake, teams are realizing that analytics aren’t just about improving the box score; they can be about improving the human body. Win that game, and the wins on the court will follow.
“The longest contracts we have are not our players,” Cuban says. “They are our support and health staff.”
Who’s buying in?
Chances are you or someone you know uses a Catapult-like gadget already. Know the Jawbone Up wristband that monitors sleep cycles and analyzes how much energy we burn every day? You may have even downloaded the Nike+ app to log and track your jogs around the neighborhood. Catapult is like that for the athlete.
In the NBA, 10 teams have bought in, including the Mavericks, Spurs, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. Two other teams with Catapult relationships have elected to remain unidentified. (In an interview with Jared Dubin on TrueHoop, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said he’s used Catapult to inform his team’s decision-making). Catapult’s two main goals are to minimize injury and maximize performance. Often, the message teams are finding is that their players need to work smarter, not harder. That means resting players, cutting practice time and making workouts more timely and efficient. It’s not a coincidence that the Spurs have long rested their stars at seemingly every turn and continue to win heaps of games.
Just like any other tool at the workplace, teams use the technology with varying methods and degrees. Some have the players wear their devices everywhere they can -- in the weight room, on the treadmill, on the practice court. Others have dabbled in the new technology and only use it for certain players who are rehabbing an injury. Michael Regan, Catapult’s head of sport science, has worked with teams all over the globe to help them leverage science into success.
“What we want to do is first find a fingerprint for the athlete,” Regan says, “Think of it like a dashboard. Then we build a baseline off of that and monitor their exertion levels to make sure they stay on the playing field as much as possible.”
Creating that baseline is essential in an injury-preventative world.
“We are doing as many things as possible to create baselines for our players,” Cuban says. “One of the problems we all have, not just in sports, is that we wait until we are sick or have a health problem to get data about ourselves. Then our doctors compare us to the general population. But that’s a worthless comparison. I think the smartest thing I do for my health and we try to do at the Mavs, is to take ongoing assessments so we have a baseline for each individual that we can monitor for any abnormalities.”
But as healthy as the Mavs and Spurs are, the healthiest team of all resides in the Eastern Conference.
Preventing, not reacting to injuries
Shaq called him “The Resurrector.” Most NBA folks know him as the “Silver Fox.” The white-haired former training guru for the Los Angeles Lakers, Alex McKechnie, is currently the Toronto Raptors’ assistant coach and head of sports science. To kick off his 13-year tenure in LakerLand, McKechnie rebuilt Shaq in 1998 after the mammoth center shredded his abdominal muscles in a Lakers preseason game. McKechnie revitalized Shaq’s career by focusing on strengthening the 7-foot-1, 315-pound monster’s core and is credited with doing the same to resolve Pau Gasol’s back issues that plagued him for years in Memphis.
But during the 2011 lockout, the Lakers let McKechnie go as part of their organizational decision to cut payroll. Months later, McKechnie joined the Raptors to head up their training department. And now in 2013-14, the 42-32 Raptors rank as one of the biggest surprise teams in the league. Looking to explain the Raps’ unlikely rise?
Start with this fact: The Raptors have suffered the NBA’s fewest missed games due to injury this season. Under McKechnie’s watch, the Raptors have lost just 46 games due to health and a total of 826 minutes, according to InsiderKevin Pelton’s injury database. That’s almost 200 fewer minutes than the next-healthiest team, the Pacers.
The Raptors have enjoyed a successful season with players who by and large have remained healthy.
Not coincidentally, the Lakers rank 29th with five times as many games lost and about eight times as many minutes. Contrast that with McKechnie’s final season in Los Angeles, where seven players played 82 games and six of them were over the age of 30 (Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown).
As you might have guessed, McKechnie got on board with Catapult two years ago and has reaped the benefits of its predictive analytics. Rather than react to injuries, McKechnie does everything he can to prevent them from happening. The Catapult stream line of data helps McKechnie detect when a player’s body becomes overloaded. The player’s posture degenerates, the weaker body parts become vulnerable and he begins to wear down. When players start to overcompensate in fatigue, that’s when the soft-tissue injuries -- the hamstring pulls, abdominal tears and back spasms -- tend to occur.
“We do constant recording of information,” McKechnie says. “The most interesting part to me is the ability to identify breakdown of movement. I can identify the volume of a player movement left and right for example, the acuteness of the movement and whether they can generate force and power through that movement in a particular direction. In some cases, it’s much more dominant in one side than the other.”
McKechnie tells a story about a key player’s development during this season’s training camp. After examining a printout of each player’s directional loads on offense, McKechnie noticed that the young player moved to his left 40 percent of the time while only going right 19 percent. After asking around, none of the coaching staff picked it up with their own naked eye. So McKechnie went upstairs in the Raptors’ training facility, hooked the player up with a Catapult device and went through a standard workout.
What he found was fascinating. After consulting the charts, he found it wasn’t that the player was simply more skilled going left; the Catapult data showed his muscle strength was categorically imbalanced. The player was unable to match the intensity levels moving left as he did going right. Turns out the player had suffered a soft-tissue injury years ago that was never properly healed. The player knew it, but tried to hide it.
The data brought it to light. So McKechnie brought the Catapult findings to his coaching staff and they’ve worked with the player to not only strengthen his core muscles, but to level out his on-court game. Five months later, the same report showed that the player now moves 33 percent to his right, almost twice as often. The data helped add a new dimension, a fresh weapon to the player’s arsenal. “This is especially true when you’re coming off an injury,” McKechnie. “The ability to see if a player can elevate the volume of the intensity of movement through low, medium and high intensity levels is essential to what we do. In some cases, the player can’t get there, can’t hide it. So once you identify that, it can change everything.”
Catapult the myth-buster
Like Cuban, McKechnie obsesses over creating baselines for each player before they show signs of fatigue or injury. That way, they can target weak spots before they become problems.
“It’s a risk-reward thing,” McKechnie says. “We’re eliminating risk factors. That’s all you can do.”
McKechnie uses Catapult as a myth-buster device. Some long-standing training methods could appear to help a player improve, but may be counterproductive.
“One interesting thing is sometimes the volume of work is seen as somewhat an easy day,” McKechnie says, “when in fact the volume of work is extremely taxing on the player’s body.”
Take, for example, a seemingly harmless basketball exercise: the shooting drill. Just getting some shots up can’t hurt, right? Catapult data suggest otherwise.
“In a normal shooting drill, the intensity of movement is the constant jumping,” McKechnie says. “But it’s not the actual jumping action that concerns us, it’s the deceleration loads in the landing process. That breaks down the muscle groups. After a game, we’d shoot the very next day, but our players couldn’t get out of the low intensity level. Actually, the shooting workout was feeding into dysfunction as opposed to helping the player.”
After observing this phenomenon, McKechnie then worked with the coaching staff to reduce shooting drills and to alleviate the wear and tear on practice days, especially the day following game action. Raptors coach Dwane Casey was all ears. And his belief in McKechnie and his scientific methods hasn’t frayed.
“It all starts with Alex,” Casey says. “He’s one of the best in the league as far as rehab, preventative training and staying ahead of the curve. And not only after guys get hurt, but before they get hurt to maintain their core strength and avoid a lot of things that hamper guys during the season.”
Casey isn’t new to integrating modern medicine and coaching. He worked under Cuban as an assistant coach under Rick Carlisle during the Mavs’ championship season in 2011.
“’Cubes,’ I know he was huge into that preventative training, making sure he took care of his assets,” Casey says, “And Alex is kind of ahead of the curve. He does a great job. He’s maintained it, knock on wood. Believe me, luck is a big part of the NBA.”
The threat of injuries can turn even the most rational, level-headed executives into rabbit-foot-clutching zombies of superstition. McKechnie isn’t naive to the inherent luck involved in the NBA season and recognizes his fortunes could reverse course. But he’s taking measures to dial down the likelihood.
“You can never predict injury, but you can certainly predict breakdown and hopefully prevent it by identifying the risk factors.” McKechnie says. “But you can’t necessarily control the trauma. I can’t control someone turning his ankle, banging knees or taking a hard elbow. But it’s on us to prevent soft tissue injuries. That’s under our control to a certain degree.”
Catapult systems have not only helped prevent injuries in Toronto (Wednesday’s banged-up win notwithstanding), but it has also shaped its conditioning programs to mirror the multidirectional nature of the sport.
“Normal training of an athlete is running up and down the floor,” McKechnie says. “They do lines and whatever else for conditioning and cardio, but it’s not reflective at all of what these players do in games on the court.”
McKechnie points out that the number of times a player will flat-out sprint for five seconds in a normal game is almost zero. For most players, it only takes three and a half seconds to go from baseline to baseline, and for the most part, they’re not going from baseline to baseline. But that’s what coaches have drilled for decades.
“The whole point of utilizing this information,” McKechnie says, “is to reflect actual in-game environments. This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. Players play a lot of minutes and next time through at practice, they don’t necessarily do the same volume as the last guy. It’s not because ‘Hey, that guy is lazy and not working as hard.’ It has nothing to do with that.”
For outside observers, the notion that inactivity might be the optimal training method is the toughest concept to grasp. Some of the most applicable findings from Catapult studies is that teams are often unknowingly grinding their players to the bone. Taking days off can be seen as a healthy thing, despite our macho culture that glorifies players who push their bodies beyond their limits.
“Perception is not always reality,” McKechnie says. “You have to realize that it doesn’t necessarily make you better that you’re running harder and faster. You might actually be breaking down ahead of game situations.”
This is all to say that Catapult data help teams take the guesswork out of training, but the information won’t ever replace the actual training. Flippant gut feelings can be confirmed or refuted by hard data, but it won’t design a sophisticated training program for each player. That still takes human oversight.
“My principles haven’t changed,” McKechnie says, “How can I strategically maximize what I’m doing here? My philosophies haven’t changed, but the execution has changed as we move forward. GMs can’t live without a BlackBerry today, but they did 20 years ago. You better utilize the technology, because if you don’t, you’ll get left behind.”
Changing perceptions, methods
No revolution happens overnight, and the wave of health-care analytics won’t eradicate NBA injuries. But knowledge is power, and studying the degenerative effects of overworking the NBA athlete may inspire long-term awareness of the body’s limitations.
One NBA general manager hopes that injury prevention analytics will have lasting effects not just in the NBA, but in younger levels of the sport.
“You know one thing I want to do?” the GM says, “I want to keep high school and college coaches from running their own young athletes into the ground. That’s the main thing I want to do. I want to keep Bobby Knight from screwing up the cartilage in [former Indiana Hoosier and NBA player] Calbert Cheaney’s knee.”
Aligning the incentives of an NCAA coach and an NBA prospect will never be an easy task.
You know one thing I want to do? I want to keep high school and college coaches from running their own young athletes into the ground. That’s the main thing I want to do. I want to keep Bobby Knight from screwing up the cartilage in Calbert Cheaney’s knee.
“ -- unnamed NBA general manager
“We’re talking a bunch of men with short-term benefits that do things that aren’t in the long-term best interests of the player,” the GM said. “Whether the kid gets hurt in the game tonight or he gets hurt this weekend or he’s going to be hurt over the next several years, the coach shortened his career all because of what, after practice today we’re going to run 10 down-and-backs with a kid who weighs 300 pounds? Nothing from modern medicine says that’s a good idea.”
Unlike other leagues in Australia and Europe, NBA league rules prohibit any electronic devices on players during in-game action. Because of that obstacle, some NBA teams have been slow to come around to Catapult. But as Cuban and other teams have found, in-game data aren’t everything; practices, game-day shootarounds and scrimmages provide plenty of data for teams to munch on. But without in-game data, the insights are harder to come by.
“They’re just not enough practices in the grind of an NBA season,” says one skeptical Eastern Conference executive. Other teams focus on the long-term upside and are hopeful GPS devices will be on game jerseys as soon as next season, depending on cooperation from the league and the players’ union. A handful of D-League teams, like the Spurs’ affiliate in Austin, Texas, already use Catapult devices during games, which is allowed under D-League rules.
This is only the beginning. But in a copycat league like the NBA, injury prevention analytics could spread quickly. If the successful teams -- the Mavs, Spurs and Raptors -- go all-in on health analytics, it’s only a matter of time when the rest of the league, and perhaps the sport, follows suit.
“My five championship rings don’t hurt,” McKechnie says. “But the players listen because we get results.