The team that keeps these Young Bulls running

Sam Smith talks with Chip Schaefer, who is the Bulls' Director of Sports Performance

Zach LaVine's return has been more prosaic than anticipated, which is a good thing as the Bulls Wednesday prepare to play the Philadelphia 76ers. LaVine is averaging 12.8 points in about 20 minutes in five games. He's shooting a pedestrian 40 percent, 35 percent on threes with a few dunks and the Bulls 3-2. Perhaps the most surprising part of this comeback from anterior cruciate ligament surgery and 11 months away from basketball is how little excitement there is. It's more of a seamless transition.

LaVine has groused a bit about his finite playing time, like having to sit out the two overtimes in Monday's loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. But otherwise he's been more inconspicuous than prominent. He hasn't scored 20 points yet, though his per minute average is remarkable. He's had a few dunks, but nothing of the highlight kind. Again, however, it's exceptional that he's dunking without stress or strain. Which suggests something else that is mostly overlooked in this unexpected Bulls season.

Sure, there are a lot of young players, which accounts perhaps for better health. Starting point guard Kris Dunn is out now, though with a concussion from a freakish fall. Nikola Mirotic did miss 23 games, though with certainly an uncommon injury. But this Bulls team has been perhaps healthier than any in the last five or six years, and the returns to play have been extraordinary. Not just LaVine, but even Bobby Portis after eight games missed and Mirotic were instantly in the flow of the game, scoring well and basically not receding. Amidst the surprising development of Dunn and Lauri Markkanen and the improved performance of players like Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine and David Nwaba as well as Mirotic and Portis has been the consistency of heath and welfare.

Of course, luck also plays a big part in injuries.

A big, big part. Though not necessarily in recovery.

I received this question from a fan recently:

"I don't know what staffing changes they've done in the (Advocate) Center since the Derrick days, but it seems that whenever a player comes back from injury/suspension/broken-faces he comes back better than ever. Lavine looked incredible. Did they hire that guy from Germany who used to inject rhino blood into Kobe's knees (or something like that) and he would come back rejuvenated? But seriously, I expected Lavine to be a JR Smith without the crazy, and he's exceeded my offensive expectations. He seems to do whatever he wants. " - Alejandro Yegros.

Most of that is because of LaVine, who has by all accounts been maniacally committed to his recovery and return to play.

But it's also been due, as well, to the return from the 1990s championship seasons of longtime Bulls trainer Robert "Chip" Schaefer, who as Bulls Director of Sports Performance has united and upgraded the organization's medical procedures into a working model that treats the players for prevention as well as health and recovery. Even to the point of having a nutritionist who outlines meals on the road at restaurants the players might prefer, massage therapists and counselors as well as the more familiar figures like trainer Jeff Tanaka and strength coach Matt Johnson. Cameras that record detailed player movements in games to determine if a player is moving in a different way that could lead to a problem or injury, players using devices to monitor sleep habits which helps optimize rest periods and the regular collection and analysis of numerous other biometric data represents just a few of the changes the Bulls have made to improve health care outcomes.

"I sometimes think of myself like the conductor of an orchestra," says Schaefer, a Deerfield native who joined Phil Jackson when he went to the Lakers and spent 13 years with them. "I may not play the instruments as well as some of the individual musicians, though I can step in if I need to, whether it's to tape an ankle, design or supervise a workout or counsel a player on proper nutrition. I put my focus on the coordination of services and the processes that go into it and try to provide support and direction when and where I think it's appropriate. These are amazingly talented people who certainly don't need anyone looking over their shoulders. The Bulls are blessed to have them."

Chip Schaefer of the Chicago Bulls tapes a player's ankle

Though Schaefer is highly qualified as one of the longest serving medical specialists in the NBA who also has worked for the Sacramento Kings, the Kerlan-Jobe clinic and had has a doctorate in health science, it's been his influence for the Bulls to merge and unite the various health spheres with modern and innovative techniques that have developed in the NBA since the 1980s when the trainer also was the traveling secretary and strength coach. Schaefer came to the Bulls from Loyola-Marymount in 1990 as trainer with Al Vermeil strength coach and each generally worked independently. The evolution in sports medicine that has included teams has been the combined efforts of all phases to not only treat injuries but try to prevent them.

"The reaction to a sprained ankle," Schaefer points out, "was to focus on treating it after it occurred, very reactive. Now the focus is more proactive. What are the characteristics that may make you more likely to sprain an ankle? Is it a lack of strength or range of motion? So let's identify those things before and injury occurs, implement a targeted program and hopefully decrease the probability of suffering that injury. These are things that have been working their way into all medicine.

"Not to get political, but a lot of the changes we've seen in health care in general encourages people to be more proactive than reactive in improving their general health," Schaefer noted. "That is sort of the direction medicine is going and we try to do that, too. All of our players go through regular movement screens for example to see if there are any changes and if there are, they are addressed. If in a series of movements we assess periodically, if we see changes at the hip or back or ankle, we address those things before they become worse and can maybe lead to an injury. Those things are evaluated continuously throughout the year."

So those cameras that the NBA has installed throughout arenas aren't just to count those miles run and shot locations for analytical purposes. Schaefer and the Bulls staff use those to monitor and analyze how hard players are running, jumping and moving. They provide baselines with comparisons made regularly.

"It's developing a road map to try to decrease injury probability," Schaefer says. "We assess movement, work load, practice and recovery, nutrition, strength and power numbers. We're always trying to assess fatigue levels and readiness, monitoring pain and soreness. It's an ongoing process of five or six things almost daily with every player."

Chip Schaefer of the Chicago Bulls watches on as Denzel Valentine warms up pregame

The big change for the Bulls since Schaefer's return before last season given his experience as both a trainer and strength and conditioning coach has been to integrate the departments and open communications, encourage independent thought with team medical expertise. Which isn't often as simple as it sounds with medical areas often becoming little fiefdoms of responsibility.

Into this came LaVine, acquired by the Bulls four months after ACL surgery, among the most serious injuries for an athlete. The Bulls were giving up an elite All-Star in Jimmy Butler. LaVine was to be the centerpiece of the trade. Markkanen and Dunn have improved quickly, though less was expected of them. Much rested with the LaVine recovery.

"With Zach when you have a major reconstructive surgery like he did, the success of the outcome starts with the repair itself," noted Schaefer. "Neil ElAttrache is an excellent surgeon and then the first four months or so there is a massive amount of credit to the Timberwolves medical and athletic training staff as well as the Los Angeles based therapist Zach saw. They did a great job laying the foundation in the early phases of the rehab. Then the trade happens.

"A big part when you acquire a player four months post op is great communications with the people mentioned and Jeff Tanaka did a fantastic job coordinating with the respective staffs of the Timberwolves and the L.A therapist to establish the transition," Schaefer said.

"Fortunately. for us., we had what we call healthy data pre-injury," said Schaefer about LaVine's running, jumping and movement measurements. "Zach was in for a predraft workout for the Bulls before the 2014 draft as well as in Sacramento where I had data on him. Zach also was a frequent visitor to P3 in Santa Barbara for offseason training, so they had baseline numbers, too. So we had targets to shoot for in a return to play. In late summer and early fall we worked to reestablish those strength and agility times and power and speed numbers he'd established previously.

"It was obviously unfortunate that Zach suffered that injury and it's our job to put him in the best possible position to not suffer another one," said Schaefer. "Zach is obviously an extraordinary athlete that like anyone has movement characteristics unique to him. As good as he already is we feel that with the appropriate targeted work we can help him move even better and we approach every day with that in mind."

Much of the time after the initial analysis was with Johnson, former assistant Ed Streit and new assistant Geoff Puls, and physical therapist Mike Orr. Schaefer also is quick to note where most of the recognition must be placed.

Zach LaVine works out at the Advocate Center

"The most important person to credit through all this is Zach," Schaefer points out. "You can have a great repair, a great therapy, great strength training. But if the athlete himself isn't putting in the effort and just going through the motions, you won't have the same result. Zach really needs be credited for his unbelievable attitude through the whole process. We had to kick him out of the gym sometimes; he's that guy. And then LaVine joins with others perhaps monitoring sleep patterns, analyzing the nutrients in his food, regular and constant strength work and therapy with statistical analysis.

"We are committed to an evidence-based approach," says Schaefer. "We are constantly reviewing the literature to ensure that we are as informed as we can possibly be. We were fortunate to have so much data available to us on Zach's speed, power and reactiveness before his injury. We collectively created a plan immediately upon acquiring Zach and never wavered from it. He met or exceeded those and with his scores actually improving on several key metrics, which we're obviously pleased with."

It's a welcome sight, though much more than just meets the eye.

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