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Why NBA Players Need More Than Rest to Handle the Rigors of a Season

September 8, 2017

The NBA is a league of trends. Ten years ago, during the 2006-2007 season, the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in 3-point attempts with 1,966. This season, those same Warriors again led the NBA in long-distance bombs—with 3,306. The value of the 3-ball has shot up over the last decade, and it's reflected both in the numbers and how NBA teams play.


There's another trend to pay attention to in 2017, but it's happening on the sidelines. Players are resting more than they ever have. According to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, there were just 46 instances of a player getting a "DNP-Rest" next to his name in the box score during the 2013-2014 season, denoting a player being held out of a game without appearing on the injury list. That number jumped to 86 the following season, and during the 2015-2016 campaign it exploded to 146. We don't have the exact number of games players missed due to rest this season, but we know it is somewhere north of 200.


Whereas more 3-pointers being shot over the course of a game has improved the NBA's offensive production and given rise to the incredibly entertaining Stephen Curry, the resting trend has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.


It came to head this season when, on back-to-back weekends, two nationally televised games on ABC's Saturday night primetime slot were played without some of both teams' biggest names. First, the Golden State Warriors rested Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodola and Draymond Green, while their opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, held out Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The result was something along the lines of a JV game. The following Saturday, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in Los Angeles to take on the Clippers and decided to sit LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Their B-team put up 78 points and lost by 30, earning Cavs GM David Griffin an angry phone call from NBA commissioner Adam Silver.


Silver wasn't the only one bothered by his league's sudden embrace of rest. Players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook questioned why anyone would want to take a game off, and in true get-off-my-lawn fashion, former players came out in droves to criticize today's athletes for being soft.


There have been plenty of voices contributing to the DNP-Rest debate, but curiously missing have been those of the people whose job is to monitor the thing that's central to the conversation: an athlete's body. We talked to a few NBA trainers to get their take on the controversy, and their insights were fascinating.


"The media and the average fan have no idea what these players put their bodies through on a day-to-day basis," said Drew Hanlen, a prominent NBA trainer who works with some of the game's best young players like Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal and Andrew Wiggins. "From the grueling workout schedule, to the travel schedule, to the limited and unnatural sleeping patterns, all of those things add up and put a lot of harm and damage on their body. So rest is essential, and it's something that you can't substitute."


The NBA's regular season is particularly grueling, specifically because of the back-to-backs on every team's schedule. Though the league is in the midst of an attempt to cut down on them, they remain on teams'  schedules and are a constant detriment to player health. Back-to-back road games increase a player's risk of injury 3.5 times more than if they were at home, according to a Utah School of Medicine study. Making matters worse, two out of every three back-to-backs occur on the road, according to Haberstroh.


It isn't just the NBA's brutal schedule that increases a player's chance of injury, in turn increasing the benefit of rest. It's also a player's mindset. There remains a stigma around taking a game off, even if more times than not the decision comes from the front office rather than the player doing the resting. "Michael Jordan would never take a game off," is a common refrain found in the comments section of any article dealing with player rest. It's 2017, and yet this groupthink still exists: If you rest and you're not injured, you're soft. And that idea in itself is incredibly problematic.


"I don't think there's anyone that loves their sport like basketball players love their sport," said Luke Storey, director of performance at Peak Performance Project, or P3 as its commonly known. "Every minute of every day they want to be on the court hooping. It's gotten them to where they are in their career, by being relentless on the court. But it's one of the slight negative sides to the sport, in my opinion."


That obsession is an issue. Combine it with a player's lack of knowledge about how constant playing can negatively effect his body and you've got an athlete primed for injury.


"A lot of what's being said in the press is 'OK, we need to rest players so they can cope with this 82-game season,'" Storey said. "But we need to also make sure these athletes are prepped and ready, physically, to be able to cope with and tolerate the load that's going to be applied to them."

In other words, not only does the NBA need to figure out how to make its schedule better suited to the players' health, but those players need to receive proper training to be able to deal with the physical demands of an NBA season, something Storey believes is being criminally neglected. From offseason work on a player's aerobic and anaerobic capacity and movement patterns to in-season strength work to ensure they aren't breaking down, a player's tolerance to load is just as important as resting when they need a game off, according to Storey.


"If we're not changing an athlete's tolerance to load, then we're missing out on half the picture," he said.


Hanlen is acutely aware of this. He began training Beal, now a star guard with the Washington Wizards, when he was a senior in high school. Beal wanted to train every day, so Hanlen obliged. The two would train together for three to four hours a day every single day, going as hard as they could. Not only was Beal's body not prepared for it, but Hanlen admits he was pushing too hard, too.


"I didn't know anything about managing load. I didn't learn that stuff until three, four, five years into my training career," Hanlen said. "I put blame on myself for overworking [Beal], which is why he missed so many games in his first four NBA seasons due to injury. They were all overuse injuries. They were all stress reactions and stress fractures, and I personally take blame because I didn't understand managing load when I was younger."


In fairness, Beal's game has markedly improved under Hanlen's tutelage. He's now healthy and one of the best two-guards in the NBA. Still, Hanlen sees the same type of passion to go hard 24/7 from many of the NBA prospects he now trains ahead of the NBA Combine, and it's something he is working to change.


"The number 1 thing that I have to change with most of the prospects is the ability to understand working hard is required, but also working smart is required," Hanlen said. "We need you at your best when your team needs you at your best. For these draft guys, we're not going to get you in great shape in one day. If we try to, we're going to end up getting you hurt. I need you in your prime, in-shape readiness when we go to Chicago for the NBA Combine."


While Hanlen and Storey continue to work on players' mindsets both on the court and in the weight room, the increased rest players are receiving is already paying dividends. The 2016-2017 season saw 50 percent of NBA teams reduce their injury totals from last season, according to the website, and the total games lost to injury across the NBA was the lowest its been since the 2004-2005 season.


And if more evidence were needed that it isn't just player rest that benefits the NBA, but proper training, look no further than Kyle Korver. In 2007, Korver was experiencing so much pain in his knees that he was contemplating retirement. He came to P3 looking for help, and Storey got to work.


"The main thing [we did] was to instill in his mind that he was always lifting, always working and always training," Storey said. "He also makes sure that throughout the season, he gets in his work. He's still in the weight room lifting, sometimes on game day, whenever he can to make sure he's getting a minimum of work done in a week. He knows that his tolerance to load is going to diminish [if he doesn't]."


Korver has returned to P3 every offseason since then, and the only major injury he's suffered since came when Matthew Dellavedova slid into his knee diving for a loose ball in the 2015 NBA Playoffs.


The rest debate will rage on, but for Hanlen and Storey the message is clear. Finding a way to make the NBA schedule more tolerable and training players to better handle whatever load they need to will be game changers.


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