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Hawks embrace new-age form of player maintenance

As analytics have revolutionized on-court play, so too have methods begun to shift in training NBA players

POSTED: Mar 22, 2016 2:38 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Paul Millsap has warmed to the plans Hawks Executive Director of Player Performance Keke Lyles has enacted.

What is the Atlanta Hawks' Executive Director of Player Performance's cheat food?

"Oh, I'm a terrible eater," Keke Lyles said Sunday afternoon. "My nutrition's terrible. I have a terrible sweet tooth. And my staff lets me know, too. They're like, come on, man."

As Lyles looks like a buff tree trunk, this is hard to believe. But belief is at the heart of what Lyles and the Hawks' new athletic training staff do with the team's players. Belief is what has helped Kyle Korver's ankle and Tim Hardaway, Jr.'s wrist, and brought them back physically when each had their doubts.

The NBA's analytics revolution has clearly changed the way players are evaluated and judged. But an equally powerful shift in how teams are fixing and maintaining their players continues to dive deeper than ever behind the scenes.

One of the things I really stressed with Coach ... was we can't assume that we know what's best. ... What we think is best may not necessarily work for one guy, or another guy.

– Atlanta Hawks Executive Director of Player Performance Keke Lyles

iPads and Catapult GPS technology are now a regular part of many teams' player performance regimens, with small armies of personnel doing deeper and deeper dives into the physical capabilities and limitations on players, tailoring the workloads put on them at practice, and having them keep sleep diaries. It's a logical development in a sport where there are only 15 players, each of whose improvement is critical to help a team not only play well in one season, but over several seasons.

Teams now seek convergence between what coaches are teaching players on the practice court to help them improve, and what the athletic training staffs do to help them maintain top physical performance and recover faster from injuries. The flow of information, which is often slowed in an organization for any number of reasons, now must go back and forth, and be accessible by everyone.

It was a must for Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer, who assumed the role of President of Basketball Operations this offseason as well.

The Hawks revamped their entire athletic training staff, not renewing the contracts of longtime Athletic Trainer Wally Blase and Director of Player Performance Pete Radulovic. (Their strength and conditioning coach last season, Jeff Watkinson, left to take an assistant coach position with the Jazz.)

Hawks vs. Clippers

Paul Millsap scores 20 points with 18 boards, Jeff Teague adds 22 as the Hawks win, 107-97.

They hired Lyles, the Warriors' former Director of Performance, and who'd helped Stephen Curry strengthen his legs and core to help overcome his the ankle problems that had plagued him earlier in his career. Lyles brought Mike Roncarati, Golden State's strength and conditioning coach the last two years, and his former Northeastern University classmate. New head athletic trainer Art Horne also came from Northeastern.

"We wanted to have all of the groups, everybody within the organization that had a great synergy and worked well together, and had a passion," Budenholzer said Sunday. "Keke and Art and Mike Roncarati and (Athletic Performance Coach) Chris Chase and (assistant athletic trainer) Scottie Parker have a passion for athletic performance, keeping our guys, pushing the envelope for them being the best they can be. You could feel that when we interviewed them and talked with them."

The biggest question, Budenholzer said, was whether the organization could marry the player development side to the performance and health side.

Lyles' work with Curry was impressive, but Budenholzer was equally impressed with what he'd done in previous stops at Minnesota and Indiana as strength and conditioning coach. "The more you did your homework, there were a lot of players that benefitted from Keke and his work, his understanding," Budenholzer said.

J.J. Barea, Keke Lyles
The Hawks' front office noticed Keke Lyles' past work at other NBA stops.

Lyles is tasked with coming up with an individual plan for every player. Gone are the days when everyone stretches together or lifts together. Each player, each day, is working on something individual, either with the Hawks' excellent assistant coaching staff -- Darvin Ham, Ken Atkinson, Neven Spahija, Ben Sullivan, Taylor Jenkins and Charles Lee -- or with Lyles and his group.

"I think the biggest thing is, (Budenholzer) has a certain vision about the court, and what the players are doing," Lyles said. "And he wanted that to carry over into what guys did as prep. Obviously, our field is not his area of expertise, but he knew the value of it, and how important it is. And so I think he saw the opportunity to bring a group in that was kind of on the same page, and thought the same way, and had very specific goals that we wanted to accomplish in treatment."

It's been a season-long project for Lyles and the coaches. The Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games last season and made the Eastern Conference finals, when they lost 4-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Atlanta started slow this season, as some of those key players were rehabbing injuries, and the Hawks looked for fits at both ends to try and replace DeMarre Carroll, who signed with the Raptors.

Now, everyone other than center Tiago Splitter (likely out for the season following hip surgery) is healthy, and the Hawks are peaking -- they went a season-best nine games over .500 Sunday after a 104-75 rout of Indiana, the Hawks' second win in less than 24 hours. The season-long adjustment to how Lyles and his team sought to improve performance looks like it's paying off at just the right time.

Korver From Range

Kirk Hinrich passes to Kyle Korver who buries the three.

"At first, I was a little suspect about it, because what they do is a little different," All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. "They do it different from other teams, and what you're used to. It took a while to get used to it. But now I feel like what they're doing has definitely helped me out throughout the course of the year."

Lyles and his group had some major projects to address upon their arrival.

Korver had had two offseason surgeries within a few weeks of each other -- on the ankle that was damaged early in the Eastern Conference finals in May when Cleveland's Matthew Dellavedova ran into it, and the loose bodies that had built up all year in Korver's elbow, in late June.

As a result, Korver wasn't able to do the offseason work that he swore by in California, at the P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara, where he's trained during the offseason since 2008. (He's not the only one swearing by it. Almost all of Korver's Hawks teammates, including Al Horford and Paul Millsap, have gotten in offseason work at P3 over the years. Dozens of NBA players have as well, too, including Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes.)

At first, I was a little suspect about it, because what they do is a little different. They do it different from other teams, and what you're used to. It took a while to get used to it.

– Atlanta Hawks star forward Paul Millsap

Korver is very close with Marcus Elliott, P3's founder and director. They're friends. And Elliott has years' worth of data on Korver's physical strengths and weaknesses. Yet many teams would duplicate all of that information by doing their own diagnostic tests and coming up with their own programs. By contrast, the Hawks embrace what Elliott and P3 have already done with Korver and incorporate it into their programs with him.

"One of the things I really stressed with Coach, but also the staff that we brought in, was we can't assume that we know what's best," Lyles said. "Obviously, we have our education, and we have our beliefs and everything. But what we think is best may not necessarily work for one guy, or another guy. We have to be really open-minded about what's out there. I've known Marcus, it's going on six years. I've always been impressed with his mindset, his philosophy. Having that data set (on Korver) is powerful."

Said Budenholzer: "We have a lot of respect for Marcus Elliott and P3, and how advanced they are with technology. The testing and the data. Not only do they have it, but their ability to analyze it, and put it to good use and help players prevent injuries, recover from injuries. At the end of the day, Kyle, he needed a consulting fee for everything we did."

Korver 3-Pointer And Foul

Kyle Korver drains the spot-up 3-pointer and gets fouled for the four point play opportunity.

Korver is turning 35 on Thursday. He doesn't have time to waste.

"You've got to feel the results," he said. "You can do the exercises and the nutrition or whatever you want, but if you're not feeling the results fairly quickly as a basketball player, you're going to find your own way. I think everyone here, a lot of guys here have bought in. I think everyone has found, and I think everyone's routine that everybody has, it's different. The staff has done a great job of understanding that we're all different people, and we have different makeups and body types. They've done a good job of tailoring stuff to fit us. And I think guys have felt a difference."

Korver has to watch what he calls "natural body patterns" in his hips that can cause him trouble if he doesn't monitor them constantly. Lyles and the staff concentrate on good technique for him in the weight room.

"I really need to work in the weight room," Korver said. "I really need to work on power, often, where a lot of guys probably don't feel that. They don't like that as much. We're getting to the point now where they really understand that about me."

The results are showing up on the court. After a slow start, Korver is coming on fast, and looking like his 2015-16 self. The trend line is due north: 38.7 percent on 3-pointers in January, 42.3 percent in February, and 52.8 percent so far in March (including a 4-for-9 showing against Indiana).

I think everyone here, a lot of guys here have bought in. I think everyone has found, and I think everyone's routine that everybody has, it's different. The staff has done a great job of understanding that we're all different people, and we have different makeups and body types.

– Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver

Hardaway was slowed by a wrist injury most of last season with the Knicks, and after the Hawks acquired him in a Draft night trade in June //www.nba.com/2015/news/06/26/hawks-knicks-trade.ap/index.html, he was still slow to respond. The injury kept him from being able to lift and train for a couple of months -- which, of course, affected his conditioning. And once the season begins, getting the work in becomes exponentially difficult.

But Lyles and his staff have made major strides with Hardaway since the start of the season. It wouldn't have happened if the coaching staff was more interested in getting Hardaway -- a big offseason piece -- on the floor rather than getting him healthy.

So Hardaway lived in the weight room -- "it was my second home," he said. He got on the resistance bike, ran three-minute runs every other week, and got to practice early.

"The decision is, well, how much do we want to focus on basketball, versus the performance or getting his body back," Lyles said. "And I think we all realized that, probably more the coaches, the coaches saw that, if we spend some time and let him get back physically, it's going to make him better on the court. And so we kind of made a shift of his performance being the priority. So he was in the gym four or five times a week, he's always doing extra conditioning. He's putting in a massive amount of work that we wouldn't normally in season, but because that was the goal, we could do it. It really paid off. Now, Tim's playing at a high level, and really contributing."

We Have Lift Off

Tim Hardaway Jr. barrels down the lane delivering a ferocious slam over Bojan Bogdanovic.

It was also vital that Hardaway saw the big picture, too.

"He made a commitment to getting real strong, and really well-conditioned, and getting back to being an elite athlete," Budenholzer said. "And he busted his butt with those guys, and they busted their butts with him. And he did everything -- he went to the D-League, and he's playing at a high level. And his body, it's very tangible, what Tim was able to do and what he accomplished."

Hardaway said it was tough to hear from Budenholzer that he wasn't going to play for a while. "But I knew what was at stake," he said. "I know what coach wanted me to do. When the coaches are able to talk to the players one on one, it makes life a lot easier, just to know what they want out of that player. It was great to have coach Bud just talk to me one on one, consistently, and not have me worry about it. He hears the positives I'm doing. And that helped me out tremendously."

Then there was Thabo Seflosha, trying to return to the floor after having his right leg broken by New York City police officers in a scuffle with dubious origins outside a nightclub last April -- which cost Seflosha the last five games of the regular season and all of the playoffs. (Sefolosha, who was acquitted of all charges filed by the police in a trial last October, said last fall he planned to file a civil lawsuit against the police department. New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board determined last November that two of the police officers involved in the arrest had committed misconduct during the arrest.)

Sefolosha needed to get back his range of motion in the leg. The Hawks "used things I had never seen before," he said. "They don't just, if you injured your knee or your ankle, they don't just go in and do a whole lot of treatment on that area. I think it's more about the whole body, the core, the breathing, all this, to make sure that everything is straight. Because when you injure something, you have a tendency to compensate."

The staff has concentrated on improving flexibility in Seflosha's core and hips. And he's wound up playing in 61 of Atlanta's 67 games this season, less than a year after suffering injuries that were considered career-threatening. Of all people, Seflosha was most in need of trusting the new training staff.

"I came in early in the summer and started working with them," he said. "Even during the summer, they sent me a program that I could follow. I was really impressed with them from the very start, everything that they were putting in place, and the way they were working with me."

Everyone didn't need such extensive rehab. For Millsap, who had incorporated yoga into his routine over the years, the staff put more emphasis on lunges and squats in his lifting routine, along with concentrating, again, on strengthening his core.

"For a person like me, I have strong hips, but I'm not that flexible with it," Millsap said. "And they understand that. So they incorporate a plan to help with that ... I take some of their techniques home and work with it for myself. That's how good it is and how much it works."

But Lyles and Roncarati are adamant that they not see the players when the season ends. One of their pieces of advice to players is to get away from them and everyone else associated with the team when the playoffs are over to do nothing "regimented," but to spend two to three weeks doing more normal physical activities like hiking, biking, swimming or wind surfing. They want them to get outside, after spending so many of the previous eight months indoors, and only after that break, should they resume their in-season programs.

Nobody has a monopoly on what works. But the new staff does seem to have the belief of the players, and that's more than half the battle.

"Players, they know," Budenholzer said. "They kind of have the (BS) antenna. They can cut through and they know those that know what they're doing coaching, and those that aren't as good. Well, it's the same thing in the training room. They know those that are sharp and can help them."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

This ain't business; it's personal. From Arnaud Wijbinga:

We always hear players talking about how it's a business when players get traded or waived. But I personally find the Mario Chalmers situation appalling and you can't just call it just business anymore. A torn Achilles is probably one of the worst injuries in any sport to recover from. Now Mario Chalmers has to recover from that by himself without any support an NBA team could give him and the Memphis Grizzlies knew exactly what the implication for Mario's are. His chances of ever playing in the NBA again have significantly dropped because of this. I understand the U.S. doesn't have a strong union culture but do you see his teammates taking action on this? Or the NBPA? And how do you see Mario's chances to get back to the NBA?

That's a fair observation, Arnaud. It does seem a little crass to cut ties with the guy after he gets hurt. But other than former Phoenix Suns GM Jerry Colangelo honoring the verbal agreement he had to give Danny Manning $40 million even after tearing up his knee before he became a free agent in 1995, it's hard to remember any team sticking with a player who suffered such a serious injury as Chalmers did. Portland, for example, had no interest in re-signing Wesley Matthews after his Achilles' injury last year. Now, they didn't cut him outright. But they didn't have any plan to keep him, either. At least now, Chalmers can talk to other teams that might be willing to bring him in and customize a rehab program for him.

My Cousin(s), Once Removed? From Kelly Iko:

Another day, another DeMarcus Cousins suspension. Sooner or later do you think the Kings would be better served cutting ties with him then continue in this unhappy marriage? It seems like every time we blink Boogie is yelling at a coach here or undermining the front office here. I know he has immense talent but that can only get you so far in this league. He needs to shape up and fast. And what head coach do you think could make it work? We think Mike Malone would have worked out but you can never be too sure.

GameTime: DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins speaks postgame after a tough loss to Utah.

I'm sure Sacramento will look seriously at moving Cousins this summer. But unless and until the Kings' owner gets serious about winning, and stops parading his friends through the locker room, and changing front office people at the drop of a hat, nothing is going to change there. And that is much more relevant to the team's future than the occasional Boogie Blast. Vlade Divac is going to have to do some hard thinking about what kind of team he can put around Cousins to get the most out of him. It can be done, but it's not going to be easy, and it's probably not going to involve more than one or two of the guys that are currently on the roster -- and certainly not the current coach.

If you're gonna dream, dream big. From Ayo Salami:

Hi David, I was thinking about a hypothetical situation of a Kevin Durant sign-and-trade for Blake Griffin with the Clippers. Chris Paul/KD/DeAndre Jordan combo on the court seems legit to me as well as Russ/Ibaka/Griffin. I need a breakdown of how this situation will work on the court on both ends and will it be a good fit? And is this feasible financially? Thank you for your time.

Well, it's not the worst idea I've heard, Ayo. Obviously the playoffs will determine what both of these teams do with their respective rosters, but if Durant were to decide he was leaving, and told OKC that, the only sign-and-trade that would make any sense for the Thunder in terms of talent return would obviously be for Griffin, the Oklahoma City native. Obviously it could work on the floor for both teams. The problem is making the math work. If Durant gets the expected raise from his current $20.1 million salary to a max deal starting at around $25 million, that would allow the Thunder and Clippers to do a sign-and-trade deal involving Durant and Griffin, who'll make $20 million next season. (I've been told by team executives that such a deal would not trigger Base Year Compensation rules. BYC, a hoary concept in former collective bargaining agreements, has been eliminated from the current CBA with one exception -- sign-and-trade deals. Basically, a player with a BYC contract is extremely hard to trade. But the projected raise for Durant would not be large enough to trigger the BYC limitations.) But, the team that would take Durant in a sign-and-trade -- in your scenario, the Clips -- cannot be more than $4 million above the luxury tax limit (known as the "apron") after taking him. Although, I do think the Clips would have other options as well.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and the number to Progressive's Canine Division (Sparky's premiums are gonna go through the roof) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(last week's averages in parentheses)

1) Stephen Curry (30.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, .518 FG, .857 FT): Has 30 3-pointers in six games so far this month. Entering play Sunday, the Bucks had 35 total threes in six games so far this month. (They made six more against Brooklyn Sunday night.)

2) Kawhi Leonard (23.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .473 FG, .895 FT): Now comes Pippen Approved!

The Starters: MVP Runner-Up?

Who will come second to Stephen Curry? Kawhi? Russell? Durant? Chris Paul? LeBron?

3) Kevin Durant (28.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .508 FG, .929 FT): Says of latest rumor that he will leave if the Thunder doesn't make The Finals this year: "never said that, never thought that." FWIW.

4) Russell Westbrook (23.3 ppg, 7 rpg, 11.7 apg, .440 FG, .880 FT): Becomes just the fourth player in league history to go 20-10-20 in a triple-double performance (25 points, 11 rebounds, 20 assists against the Clippers Wednesday), and the first since Magic Johnson in 1988.

5) LeBron James (26 pp, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 apg, .521 FG, .793 FT): Passed John Havlicek (26,395 career points) to go into 13th place on the league's all-time scoring list last Monday.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Godspeed in your retirement, Joey Crawford. You made the NBA a fun league to cover, and the games were always more interesting when you were reffing them.

GameTime: Joey Crawford Retires

The GameTime crew looks back on the legendary career of NBA referee Joey Crawford following his retirement announcement.

2) Don't know how it's going to turn out in the East, but right now, Boston and Atlanta and Miami and Charlotte are each looking like they could pose real challenges to Cleveland and Toronto in potential semifinal series -- if they can get out of their potential first-round series with one another.

3) I am a man. I am guilty of this more than I care to admit. When there are more women writing about and broadcasting games -- men's games, or women's games -- this will stop. Until then, I can only try to do better.

4) Terrific read by ESPN's Tom Haberstroh on the pains (no pun intended) the 76ers have taken during the past two years to build their new medical and player development staff, and the impact of that on 2013 first-rounder Joel Embiid and his rehab from his injuries.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) It was stunning to hear last week that Peter Holt was stepping down as chair of the Spurs, no matter that the transition to his wife, Julianna, will probably be seamless. Holt has been such an integral part of what has been the most successful triumvirate in sports for two decades, along with GM/President of Sports Franchises R.C. Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich. There are, to be sure, dozens of others who've played major roles in the success of the franchise, starting with Tim Duncan. But Peter Holt has been the textbook owner -- involved but not meddling, fiscally prudent but willing to come out of pocket when necessary. Of course, his franchise, by giving Julianna Holt final say, again sets a standard; Julianna Holt will be the second woman in the league with owner powers, along with the Lakers' Jeanie Buss.

2) Russell Westbrook said it best after OKC's loss in San Antonio Saturday: "we should be" concerned about the Thunder's 4-8 record since the All-Star break. It's not the losses; it's how they're losing -- late, to quality teams, time after time.

Thunder vs. Spurs

Kawhi Leonard scores 26 points and LaMarcus Aldridge adds 24 as the Spurs beat the Thunder, 93-85.

3) That is not what you do after being called up from the NBA D-League, Branden Dawson.

4) It's a shame that Ben Simmons and LSU couldn't do enough to get into the NCAA Tournament, but that's what the regular season and conference tournaments are for -- to weed out those who haven't earned their way in. It's not going to impact his Draft status at all.

5) RIP, Clyde Lovellette, one of the last links to the NBA's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers.

BY THE NUMBERS

367 -- Days since the Spurs' last regular season loss at home -- March 12, 2015 -- by Cleveland, when Kyrie Irving scored 57 points at AT&T Center to help defeat San Antonio in overtime. The Spurs have won 41 in a row at home since, including Saturday's come-from-behind win over the Thunder.

19 -- Years, per the NBA, since a Charlotte Hornets player has scored 30 or more points in four straight games, a feat accomplished last week by Kemba Walker. Walker is the first Charlotte player since Glen Rice (1997) to reach that mark.

3 -- Years since the Mavericks lost five straight games, their current slide going into Monday's game at red-hot Charlotte. The last time Dallas lost this many in a row, the Mavs lost six in a row to end December, 2012, and finished 41-41. It was the only season since the 1999-2000 season that Dallas failed to make the playoffs.

MORE MORNING TIP: Top 15 Rankings | Q&A with Vince Carter

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.