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NBA coaches applaud trend of players working out with trainers in offseason

On eve of training camp, teams see more athletes in better shape coming into season

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

“Rise and grind. Let’s gooooo!”

If you’ve seen that one time on social media in recent NBA offseasons, you’ve seen it 1,000 times. The amount of sweat, money and hours spent by players working out – hard – in what generally is considered their time off never has been greater.

Never has been more innovative or individualized, either. And frankly, never has been more appreciated by the league’s head coaches.

“When you have guys who really trust their personal trainers, as coaches you’ve got to try to incorporate that into their entire training,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “It used to be, the season was over in April or May and that was it. Now it’s really a 12-month job.”

The days of coaches looking at a player’s offseason workout regimen, skeptical of the work load and maybe the credentials of whatever personal guru was administering it, appear to be over. Just as teams’ medical staffs have grown accustomed to injured players seeking out second opinions from orthopedists of their choosing, so have they gotten used to cooperating with, and sometimes embracing, their guys’ trainers into a comprehensive, full-calendar fitness program.

Now some of the trainers who work with NBA stars far away from the lights and the cameras may be stars. Rob McClanaghan, Tim Grover, Idan Ravin, Chris Johnson and several others have or have had devoted followings among the league’s biggest names.

A facility in Santa Barbara, Calif., called Peak Performance Project – “P3” for short – is a Mecca for players seeking the latest and greatest in bio-mechanics and training techniques.

Workouts and scrimmages in and around Los Angeles, especially, but also in places such as Atlanta and Houston, are gaining in mystique for the level of talent, competitiveness and sheer effort expended.

Where the rubber meets the road, of course, is in training camp. The offseason is over, most players already are in the cities where their team is based and we’re days away from finding out who’s in great shape, who’s in good shape and who enjoyed their vacations.

Before the annual National Basketball Coaches Association meeting last week in Chicago, asked a sampling of coaches about their players’ use of trainers, the changes in offseason conditioning and how they can sleuth out the (increasingly rare) summer slackers:

Nate McMillan, Pacers: “I start with a conditioning test the first day. You should be able to pass it, but if you haven’t been working, it will show right away. Last year, we had two. They knew it was coming – I sent out a letter in July, ‘How are you doing? What are you doing? This is what we’re going to be doing?’ – and if you’ve been working out, it shouldn’t be hard. … You don’t want to work in camp totally on getting in shape. If you try to go from 0 to 60 in a few days, you’re going to break down. And that could affect you all season. Once you get into the schedule, it’s hard to catch up. … We have a couple of guys who work with their own guys… The thing for me is, I’ve got nine new roster players, so I don’t really know what they’ve got! I know that two of the hot spots where everybody’s working out – Los Angeles and Miami – Victor Oladipo was going to Miami before [Hurricane Irma] but he went to L.A. and he spent some time working out in New York. … Miami became a place to go when [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron [James] started it there, and this summer I was hearing New York because of Carmelo [Anthony]. … We encourage our guys to get back to town. For us this year, it’s not something we can force but it’s very important that they get back to get familiar with each other.”

David Fizdale, Grizzlies: “We’ll do straight running to test their conditioning. We’ll do a set of 10 lengths of the court. Five times. For time. If that doesn’t tell you where a guy’s at… if they pass it, they’re ready. No one wants to be that guy who doesn’t make it, has to run it again, do that whole bit. … We want to make sure we bridge the gap between us and the personal trainer. We want to make sure a guy’s work in the offseason is in line with what we think he needs to improve on and where he should grow. So, our training staff will be in contact with that guy. … We don’t make it adversarial. We know guys are going to pay people to work ‘em out in the offseason. For whatever reason, it’s a badge of honor to get your own personal workout guy. If it was me, I’d save my money and use my coaches. But they’re well within their rights, so what we do is make sure we collaborate with [the trainers].”

Brad Stevens, Celtics: “You usually can tell. But as you get older in this league, you realize what works best for you. Guys who are really serious about it take care of their bodies year-round, eat well and sleep well and lead a pretty low-drama life. They know how to manage the long season by being in appropriate shape when they come into training camp. You just don’t have time [to use camp to get into shape]. When I was at Butler, we had a ton of players who had offers to play overseas, and we always said, ‘You should always be a week away from your best shape.’ … You always communicate with your players and their trainers that way, if there’s something you can learn from them.”

Scott Brooks, Wizards: “Being a former player, I kind of know all the tricks. One of the tricks is: ‘I lifted a lot of weight this summer and bulked up.’ That’s a trick. You didn’t ‘bulk up,’ you just gained weight. And your body fat percentage is higher. When a player starts the conversation with that, you know he’s not in shape. But we touch are players all summer, we text them – that’s the only way you can communicate with some, who never check their voice messages – but you know once guys come in. The guys we’ve had come in the last couple weeks, I see no problem with their conditioning. … People who always say ‘The old school was better,’ taking all of October to get into shape, that’s one place the old school wasn’t better. … Guys are in shape. It’s big business.”

Mike Malone, Nuggets: “You can tell quickly whether a guy’s been working and in shape. The guys who [aren’t] are on their knees and sucking wind. And cramping up. We’re having camp this year in Boulder. Last year we had it at Creighton in Omaha. Coach McDermott runs a great facility, but the only problem was, we weren’t training at altitude. That’s why we’ve moved it. We’ve had a full gym for the last two weeks in Denver. … We’ve got no conflict with personal trainers. But during business hours, we’re not allowing you to bring your trainers, your workout guys, your guru, whatever you want to call it, into our gym. We have a great staff and I trust those guys [100] percent. But if a player has somebody he trusts and has a great relationship with, and he wants to work with that guy in the offseason or off business hours, I have no problem with it.”

Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves: “There are times guys will travel, so you may send your [coaches] out to where they are. There are times you’ll have a lot of players in town. We’ve had a number of guys in after Labor Day. The big thing is to maybe speed things up this year. Every player has their internal clock of when the season begins.”

People who always say ‘The old school was better,’ taking all of October to get into shape, that’s one place the old school wasn’t better. … Guys are in shape. It’s big business.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks on the difference of training techniques during his playing days

Mike Budenholzer, Hawks: “Some of what guys do and how much work they put in depends on when their season ends – for some it’s in April, for others it’s in June. And a lot depends on where you are in your career, whether you’re going to summer league. … We’ve been pretty lucky in Atlanta. A lot of our guys live in Atlanta, stay in Atlanta and work out in Atlanta. Players development with us has been such a priority, I think our guys appreciate our assistant coaches and the job they do. Turnout has been great with our coaches in our gym. … As far as the trainers, if guys are working, that’s probably more important than anything. It goes without saying we’d prefer to have them in our gym with our coaches, but sometimes that’s not realistic. There are some personal trainers that do a fantastic job. I’ve got a ton of respect for P3 – Kyle [Korver] was a Chamber of Commerce for those guys – other individual trainers.”

Steve Clifford, Hornets: “Each guy’s very individualized. Even the guys that stay in Charlotte. … As they come back, you can tell the guys that have done more in the summer. I think both ways: Some guys’ games are more in rhythm; other guys are in better shape and are stronger. … I had Bob Weiss [an NBA guard from 1966-1977] working for me the last four years. He said that back then, usually the veteran players used camp more to get into shape and the younger guys were the ones who were in better shape. Now the older guys come to camp in better shape than the younger – or really, the rookies. It’s the guys coming out of college who don’t maybe understand the rigors of the season. … Teams take great pains to educate players on everything, from what they eat to how to train to how much rest they need, and I think the real serious players – which you have to be to last in this league – they know how to get ready.”

Dwane Casey, Raptors: “We try to keep an eye on their body fat [in the summer]. And we like to send coaches out to see players personally, touch ‘em. Luckily for us, we have about eight guys who live on the Coast in L.A., so it was easy for me to bounce down [from Seattle] to see them. … A lot of them have their own guys – C.J. Miles has his own guy in San Antonio – and that’s the biggest difference, I think, from the NBA of yesteryear. We have a lot more specific coaches now – strength coaches, conditioning coaches – and the stakes are higher.”

Billy Donovan, Thunder: “We had two separate times when we had a large group of players in July and August. We went out as coaches and visited with them there. For me, as a coach, these guys are professional and they know what they need to do to get better in the offseason. And we try to support them. Honestly, every coach would probably tell you they want their whole team in town all year, but we know that’s not realistic. Getting away and those guys having a chance of environment and scenery allows them to work on things they need to work on. And it’s collaborative — we’ll talk with them about things we want them to improve on, and we’ll hear from them what they want to improve on. These guys are so educated on training, on nutrition, on strength coaches. They understand the most important commodity they have is their bodies. The more they can take care of their bodies, the longer their careers are going to be.”

Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers: “The facilities that they have now and what’s at stake, NBA players do an excellent job of staying in shape over the summer. So, when everybody came back into Portland, they were playing pick-up games – obviously training camp will be at another level – but they’re out there playing and no one’s really struggling right now. … This time of year, I think it’s a gradual process. It’s not like they’re totally busting it. I wouldn’t say many of them are ready to play in an NBA game right now.”

Rick Carlisle, Mavericks: “We all stay in close contact with all of our players over the summer now. So, we know where they’re going, what they’re doing. Hey look, the guys who are behind in conditioning always have the same problems. Nagging injuries in training camp and difficulty sustaining it. But it’s so competitive now – between players, to make the All-Star team, to make all-NBA, to win games – everybody’s doin’ their work early. … There are a lot of really good people out there. But I believe that most teams, once camp starts, are doing their own thing. Those [outside] people, if they’re great, sometimes they get hired. But those guys – personal trainers for NBA players – that’s a competitive business too. They’re competing for clients at a high level. So they’ve got to be good.”

Alvin Gentry, Pelicans: “You don’t want guys to be in tip-top shape, but you want them to be in good enough shape so that a week or so into training camp, they’re ready to go. Why not tip-top shape? You want room for conditioning. You don’t want them to be in maximum shape right now where, by January, they’re burnt out. … You know, what’s become really big business in the offseason are the preventative things, where you’re doing stuff that prevent injuries. There are guys who have master’s degrees in kinesiology and anatomy, and they know the human body as well as anyone. And what you’re finding is, a lot more athletes are not having the little petty injuries. A pulled groin here or there. If you go back and check the league [data], those types of injuries are really down. A lot of it has to do with the trainers who are working in the summer with the guys.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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