Training camp starts in late September for the Los Angeles Lakers, and the roster is finally in good health.
This is welcome news and a dramatic change from the recent past.
Kobe Bryant was rehabbing from Achilles surgery last time around and could only watch. Meanwhile, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were only allowed to practice for limited amounts of time due to back and foot issues, respectively. Also, Jordan Farmar was dealing with a sore calf, while Xavier Henry had a wrist injury.
That was a picnic compared to what followed during the regular season—Bryant broke a bone in his knee just six games after his return while Nash ultimately played just 15 games with continuing back and nerve root issues. Those injuries along with a cacophony of other team hurts added up to 319 missed games in total.
Nobody wants to see that again. Mamba in particular has some catching up to do.
It’s not just about Bryant getting his points, of course. A healthy roster during training camp will allow the team to fully assimilate the system implemented by new head coach Byron Scott and get a solid start to a tough opening schedule—10 of the Lakers' first 14 games will be against playoff teams from last season and one will be against the defending world champions—the San Antonio Spurs. Additionally, there will be seven road games and four back-to-backs during this period.
But what are the keys to remaining injury-free, and how can the past inform the present?
Mike Trudell of Lakers.com recently interviewed longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti on a variety of subjects, including what is going on with NBA health in general, what went wrong for Bryant specifically and what can be done to reverse the injury trend.
The Lakers’ trainer mentioned that the league has become point guard-dominated, with a much faster pace:
Players are moving at the precipice of being in control, and one false move away from being out of control. In short, the slowing-down movement when a defender gets in a player’s way creates a specific type of loading action on soft tissue and joints – an eccentric load – where muscles are actually lengthening instead of shortening. In other words, at the moment before the player makes a cut, he is slowing down, creating that eccentric load. We know that is very hard on joints and the tissue that holds joints together.
Although the Lakers’ trainer didn’t say so specifically, one could make a point that the modern NBA pace was at least partially influenced by a certain “eight seconds or less” school of thought espoused by Mike D’Antoni during his time with the Phoenix Suns.
When asked specifically about Bryant tearing his Achilles at the end of the 2012-13 season, Vitti answered the question with other questions:
In Kobe’s case, a lot of people said it was the 47 minutes per game. That’s tough to argue with. Let’s go further. Why did it have to be that game, or the game before, or the game after? Let's use the word attrition. Why was it that period of time? What about the entire season, or the season before?
In that case, what can be done to minimize such attrition to Bryant moving forward? Vitti first mentions improved nutrition before moving on to body mechanics:
He’s also done a lot of functional movement assessment over this past year that he’s been out, identifying how the way he's played over all these years had created some dysfunction. When you’re young, you can get away with that, but it catches up as you get older and he’s paying more attention to corrective exercise prior to performance. Kobe is doing everything right.
One obvious factor that will be different this season is a change in head coaches, and, as a result, there will be a difference in the philosophy of pace and how to manage veteran players. Gasol has moved east to the Chicago Bulls but Bryant remains—the reigning face of the franchise is heading into his 19th season in the league as well as the start of a two-year extension. As for Nash, Vitti says that at least for the moment, the 40 year-old point guard is "100 percent healthy."
Scott will be looking to emphasize basketball fundamentals during training camp and beyond—seeking accountability on the defensive end, a post-centric offense and rebounding at both ends of the court. It will be a return to the tough-minded concepts of an earlier era.
But a slower overall pace and low-post principals will also play to the strengths of Bryant at this late state in his career. And just as importantly, the new system will also help sustain his health.
But it’s not only about an aging superstar. The roster is heavy on frontcourt players who should operate well in a half-court system that will combine elements of the Princeton offense with traditional pick-and-roll.
Again, Vitti elaborated on the importance of fundamentals over speed: "Once you step on the court you're at risk, but the pace of the game makes a difference. If you look at our team as a whole, you have many pace-controlled players that know how to play, as opposed to just running and jumping as high as they can."
But what about a ball-dominant guard like Jeremy Lin, who uses an explosive drive to the basket to his advantage? Or Xavier Henry, whose athleticism helped him to thrive in D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense, or even Steve Nash, who, despite his age, is still most comfortable in a small-ball system?
And then there’s second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson—a combo guard with blow-by speed who can slice and dice his way to the basket, collecting and-1 opportunities along the way.
Nobody’s saying that a controlled pace nullifies the strengths of ball-handling guards with shifty moves. After all, Scott has worked with the likes of Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving during his head coaching career. And he happened to have played alongside a guy by the name of Magic Johnson during the Showtime era.
Scott will use training camp to drill core concepts into a healthy roster of players while also preparing for the grind and attrition of an 82-game season and, hopefully, the playoffs. His working relationship with Vitti goes back 30 years—as a young player and a rookie trainer. Both men have learned a lot over the course of years, including the effect that an evolving NBA landscape has had on athletes’ bodies.
As Vitti said, “Look at injuries around the league. Look at the major players that have gone out. The stopping on a dime, coupled with the torque … our bodies really weren't meant to do this stuff. The slower you do it, the safer it is.”
The past two seasons were an unmitigated train wreck that just kept getting worse. It may be unfair to pile excessive blame on D’Antoni—one of basketball’s true innovators and a coach who steadfastly remained true to his own long-held beliefs.
But a combination of injuries and a style of basketball that was unevenly suited to his team resulted in the end of one man’s run with the Lakers. Ultimately, last season’s 27-55 record speaks for itself.
We’ll soon get to see if the hiring of Scott, along with an adherence to certain physical conditioning concepts, will make a difference in the Lakers’ fortunes. It all starts with training camp and, hopefully, full health.