As they relaxed following a demanding training camp practice in San Diego, the Denver Nuggets saw something unexpected in their players’ lounge.
“When I think of a players’ lounge, I think of snacks, drinks and video games,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “This was a players lounge that had all the latest in terms of player health — mental and physical.”
Felipe Eichenberger, the Nuggets’ director of performance and head strength and conditioning coach, placed what he called a “bunch of recovery machines” in the players’ lounge for a strategic reason. Despite Nuggets center Nikola Jokic winning the Kia MVP award for the second consecutive season, Denver lost in the first round of the 2022 playoffs to the Golden State Warriors amid injuries to guard Jamal Murray (left ACL) and forward Michael Porter Jr. (back).
The Nuggets (4-3) visit the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-3) on Thursday (8 ET, NBA TV) after experiencing early-season inconsistency. But Eichenberger argued that health will largely determine the Nuggets’ success.
“Historically in the Finals, it’s not always the best team that wins,” Eichenberger told NBA.com. “It’s often the team with the fewest injuries. That’s the main goal.”
Eichenberger spoke to NBA.com about how he will manage Murray and Porter Jr., Jokic’s chances for a third MVP, working with Malone and more.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How are Jamal and Michael doing so far with coming off their injuries?
They’re both work horses. Jamal worked his butt off all of last season and the offseason. You have to stop him from working. Otherwise, he is going to go three or four times a day. Jamal trained for a whole year during last season. In the summer, he’d go super hard for two-week intervals and then take a couple of days off. We knew that as soon as we hit the ground running, Jamal would be one of the guys with high minutes. It’s the same thing with Mike. He trained both at home and at the facility. We have people we kept in contact with that train him at his home. It was a really good summer and it’s been a good start so far.
What jumped out you on how they handled the different challenges with their injuries?
They both love basketball. They’re really hard competitors. Jamal would get so frustrated because he wants to play. Mike was the same way, but he knew he had to get strong and just be available. He wanted to play and wanted to win. Jamal wanted to play so people could see what he could do. It wasn’t very fun seeing them injured. But it was cool how they handled being out and working hard.
What’s the plan with managing their workload this season with possibly limiting minutes and sitting them on back-to-backs?
If I tell you we have a hardcap in minutes, I would be lying. We take it day-by-day and week-by-week. We’ll see how they feel, and then go from there. We’ve been talking about [restrictions]. There are some stuff in place just to be safe. We have proven we are a playoff team. Is it worth playing now and then possibly miss a playoff game? No. It’s just about being careful when we can save them some minutes and from impact to make sure they’re fresh. It’s not just about the guys who were injured. Nikola played the whole summer. How can we make sure when it’s go time in the playoffs that we’re in a good position and everybody is healthy?
What work did Jokic do with you that contributed to his MVP seasons?
It’s been the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. When Nikola puts something in his head, he goes all the way. We talked about him losing some weight to ensure his longevity. He would play 32 minutes. He had the ball all the time. That was tiring enough. But after the game, he would still work out hard and do sprints. His shirt was soaked after workouts, and he dropped the weight. It’s amazing seeing him progress with understanding the game and being in shape.
How did you get him to buy into that training?
We’ve done a lot of things with his diet. We hired a chef, and his dietitian helped us out. He’s a kind of guy that I’m really close with, and he doesn’t want to disappoint me. If I say, ‘Here’s the plan,’ he will follow the plan. It’s about having accountability. He’s the most consistent guy with his pre-game warmups and showing up to workouts on time. You can see the results on the court.
You were an early believer in Jokic’s MVP chances. How did that register with him?
It was funny. I had one of the most heated conversations with him [in 2019]. I told him, “you’re going to be MVP.’ He said, ‘No; I’m not.’ I said, ‘Yes, you are.’ We went on and on, and he got pretty mad. He stressed, ‘That’s not who I am’ and ‘I want to make other players better.’ He said, ‘MVPs have to be selfish and think about their numbers, but I don’t think about that at all.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what you say; you’re going to be MVP one day.’ We kept going back-and-forth. But with all of his hard work, it happened.
You were among the people with the Nuggets that visited Jokic in Serbia for his second MVP award. What were the highlights?
That was one of the coolest things I’ve done. He was surprised and emotional. He didn’t expect everybody to be there. He comes from a town that is not very big. It was great seeing how happy everybody was. You could feel it was a good energy. I couldn’t pick one moment, but it was cool to be around everyone.
What do you think Jokic’s chances are to win a third consecutive MVP?
I often tell him, ‘You’re going to win 10 in a row.’ I also say, ‘We’re going to win a championship ever year.’ But I think he’s looked good so far. As long as he stays healthy, he’s in the right place. He’s been playing at such a high level for the last three years. It builds up. He just needs to stay in a good spot mentally and not get fatigued. But the sky is the limit for him.
When Nikola puts something in his head, he goes all the way. … It’s amazing seeing him progress with understanding the game and being in shape.”
— Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, on Nikola Jokic
Nuggets coach Michael Malone called you the “best” and praised you for how you work with the players. What’s the collaboration like with him with managing players’ workload?
He might be lying. I don’t know (laughs). It’s pretty good. He trusts me to the max. He lets me do whatever I need to do. I take accountability on what guys need. I only go to him when I need something bigger than I can achieve. With that relationship, he trusts me. We communicate about other stuff with practices and things like that. But with the players, [Malone] says, ‘Do your thing; I know the guys are going to be in shape. Just come to me when you need something big.’
Malone said during the team’s preseason trip in San Diego that you had various equipment set up pertaining to physical and mental health. What were those things?
We had a bunch of recovery machines. We had hyperbaric chambers with blue lights. We had a full room filled with large machines that can fit up to six people. It will help players recover faster. We have hard practices. But our guys are getting older, so they need more care.
What other things are you guys doing to maximize the team’s chances to stay healthy this season?
It’s about managing things we can manage. Maybe not having shootarounds for the vets because that’s less time for their legs to recover and less time for them to sleep. We have better quality foods. We’ve changed all the oils. Our dietitian has done a good job with improving the players’ hydration. That will all help with the big picture. The main thing is consistency. If guys are available, we’ll be a pretty good team.
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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