Gunnar Peterson has been training individual NBA players during the offseason for 22 years, but 2017-18 was his first year with an NBA team working in an office alongside a staff and a group of guys throughout the grueling 82-game campaign.
What stood out from behind the curtain?
“You see a lot of dynamics that I don’t think the average fan or basketball aficionado understand,” he reflected a month after the season. “The cumulative impact is grueling. The overall pounding that they take physically, mentally, the stress, the scrutiny, and then also the demands off the court.”
Utilizing the help of his two assistants, Josh Wright and Adi Vase, Peterson oversaw a program for each player that typically consisted of three individual workouts per week during the season. As such, he had a direct view of how much goes into an NBA season, and made a comparison to some of his clients in a different, yet similarly consuming, industry.
“It’s not unlike a top actor on a successful sitcom or a movie star … from the minute they wake up, they’re being pulled in 50 different directions,” he explained. “For them to keep a clear head and to be able to free that up when it comes time to focus on the game is impressive.
“There’s a lot on these guys physically and mentally, and while I’ve with NBA players for over 20 years, being this close, I didn’t understand the intensity all year round. It’s a lot.”
Peterson was impressed with the level of buy in from the players to the Lakers strength and conditioning program, citing a point of the season where they calculated that 98 percent of scheduled workouts had been completed.
“The guys were very consistent,” he said. “(Some colleagues) around the league said was shocking in terms of buy in. And I wouldn’t say that’s my buy in; that’s the new culture that’s in the new building under the new regime. There’s an expectation that’s been set.”
This offseason, Wright and Vase have been traveling to various cities to work out with players that have returned to their hometowns, while Peterson is also in touch with the personal trainers of the players who employ their own guy, such as the trainer of Ivica Zubac in Croatia, or Julius Randle’s trainer, Amoila Cesar.
Randle made big gains with his conditioning and strength after the 2016-17 season and a challenge from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, and that certainly translated on the court, as he had his best season by far while playing all 82 games.
“You have to give Julius credit,” said Peterson. “In the offseason, he worked with Amoila Cesar, and they did terrific work together. I reached out to Cesar and had him come up to my facility a few times. They have a connection, and you can’t discount that.”
I asked Peterson how he handled the process of dealing with personal trainers, and if programs diverged from what the Lakers might want a player doing, or how the team made sure trainers were fully aware of injury backgrounds and protocols and such.
The short answer was that the most important thing is communication, so that the trainers are on the same page with the Lakers staffers, and that everything has been good along those lines. Of course, Peterson himself was always in that role of the personal trainer working out athletes, so he gets it.
Just prior to the offseason, Peterson made a laminated card for each player that laid out the areas of focus for their progression from a strength and conditioning standpoint, and shared some related thoughts with us on Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball:
Peterson: Ankle mobility, flexibility, cardiovascular capacity and core strength. Those would be things we’d focus on, or want Josh to focus on when he’s outside of here, as well as any of the other things that go along with the training program, like overall strength, core strength and so on. We do a fair amount of work on unstable surfaces, going from a stable surface to the unstable surface so that it can translate to a game, like if a player stepped on another player’s foot going for a rebound, where it’s going from stable to uneven and the ankle has to react. We want Josh’s ankle to know what that’s like. The idea is that you set them up under load, in the weight room, for what’s possibly going to happen on the court with no load, they’re going to be fine.
Peterson: We’ll keep working on overall strength. On ankle stability. Any guy with long levers, that ankle is holding up a big structure. Then knee stability, core strength and keep getting the body weight up a little bit. If he performs well and avoids injuries, at the end of the day, we don’t care if he weights 200 or 220 pounds.
But Brandon is way stronger than he looks. You don’t have to be built like Karl Malone to be strong. There are thinner guys who are really strong. Kevin Durant, who I used to work with, has real strength to his body. And Brandon is no stranger to the weight room. He does everything we ask of him and more. He’s a worker. If you look at pictures of him from his rookie year to the end of this year, you’ll see a noticeable difference. Some of that is a young man growing up, and some is his work in the weight room and attention to diet. He’s doing what it takes. Let’s look at him when he should be peaking as an NBA player – whether that’s 25, 26, 27 – and see what he looks like then. It will be greatly different from what he looked like as a rookie. Assuming the size and strength he puts on is done in a controlled and intelligent manner, which it is here, he should have fewer injuries … but some injuries just happen.
Peterson: In terms of what we’ll work on, it’s overall strength, core strength, ankle stability and joints, just like the other young guys. Connective tissue strength, ligament tendon stability. For these guys, with their body length, you think about it like building a building. You’re supporting a structure as it’s going up. The foundation has to be strong, and the welds are solid, or else the higher you go, the more risk you have. And for the rookies especially, they’re tripling the work load and travel load from college.
Zo had some injuries, and during the season, he couldn’t just not lift, so we worked around it. I’m a fan of working around, not working through. If we can keep him working and change something to get him stronger, that’s the idea. So you may shift some of the movements to unilateral. You may shift some of the movements to body supported, or to single joint movement so it’s not going to affect the injured area. You can regress it if it’s a movement that requires weight, you go from body weight first, then progress to bands and eventually barbells, dumbbells, whatever the exercise may require. You just have to be careful. These guys are human beings, but also investments by the team, and you can’t have an ego where ‘We’re getting through my program no matter what’ to the detriment of the team.