Over the past few years the Los Angeles Lakers Lakers have received no shortage of flak regarding the franchise's use (or lack thereof) of performance analytics. ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranked the team near the bottom of the league and described the franchise as "non believers". The team has started to take baby steps towards rectifying this situation and attempting to apply analytics-based performance insights to their playing style. However, the application of analytics within the league does not just concern what has already occurred on the court.
The newest frontier of the NBA's analytics revolution concerns injury prevention. Teams across the league are utilizing cutting edge technology to try and understand where a player is most vulnerable to injury and how to alter their habits to prevent it.
The Lakers franchise has suffered immeasurably from a scourge of injuries to key players, both young and old, over the last few seasons. During the '14-15 season the Lakers topped the league for the second consecutive year with 339 games lost due to injury. This even surpassed the previous season when the team lost 319 games to injuries.
Given a clear need to help the roster limit the amount of injuries sustained, it is useful to take a look at how teams across the NBA are attempting to address the growing desire to prevent injuries.
Perhaps the most commonly used instrument to study player workload by teams is the SportVU system. SportVU utilizes six motion based tracking cameras, placed within all of the NBA's stadiums, to track player movements and outcomes. SportVU allows teams to gather the type of data to judge player performance in pick-and-roll sets or post-ups, for example.
However, the cameras are also capable of capturing footage at 25 frames per second, offering extremely granular data on player acceleration and intensity. Teams are able to understand how intense a player's workload is at any point throughout the game using this technology. Teams can locate drop offs in performance and begin to see whether a player is fatigued or being overused.
Teams across the NBA are utilizing wearable devices that measure player movement and fatigue as well. Catapult Sports is the most widely used vendor in the league, specializing in biomechanical analysis. Catapult has created a small wearable device lined in a compression shirt that can measure the intensity and efficiency at which a player is moving. The wearable device can also measure the direction, speed, and position of an athlete's body at any time.
Zephyr Technology Corp. and Zebra Technologies are two additional vendors servicing various teams throughout the league with biometric data. These wearable devices allow teams to measure the force and impact with which an athlete plays while comparing his biometric levels such as heart rate.
Again, all of this data can point to how hard a player is working and whether a serious bout of fatigue is beginning to set in. This information can be used in conjunction with other sources to make decisions on whether a player needs rest and what type of movement is causing him the most trouble.
P3 Applied Sports Sciences
Perhaps the most cutting edge company in this field is Santa Barbara based P3 Applied Sports Sciences. P3 employs reflective markers and 3-D motion cameras to capture over 5,000 data points within a player's movement.
This mass of data allows trainers to see how efficient a body is moving and where asymmetric force is being borne on a player's joints or muscles. P3 specializes in taking insights formed from the data and prescribing training regimens and dietary changes to avoid the types of serious or chronic injuries a player is most vulnerable to.
Many NBA teams brought P3 to the Draft Combine in Chicago to evaluate the movement patterns of prospects. P3 helped determine which prospects had significant dysfunction or imbalance in their movement that led to a high risk of injury
The Lakers and the revolution
There is clearly a rich bevy of options for teams to access in order to develop an advanced injury prevention program. Many or all of these vendors list teams such as the Spurs, Warriors, and Rockets as clients. In conjunction with feedback directly from players regarding how their body feels, these teams have been successful in using analytics-based information to help prevent injuries. Teams are able to make better decisions regarding when to rest players and how to alter their training practices to minimize risk exposure.
The Lakers on the other hand are not listed as clients of any of these companies nor do their players seem to use any of their devices independently. The Lakers may be developing some sort of performance-based analytics shop in-house, but seem woefully behind the rest of the league on the injury prevention front.
In addition, the Lakers do not appear to be trying to compensate for when a player's body is becoming overloaded as other teams have. Last season the coaching staff inexplicably played an aging Kobe Bryant, who was coming off an Achilles tear, 34.5 minutes per game. For juxtaposition purposes, MVP Stephen Curry was limited to 32.7 minutes per game the entire season.
The Lakers decided to make an organizational purge to cut payroll in 2011. Part of these blanket cuts was training specialist Alex McKechnie, who both Shaq and Pau Gasol credit with elongating their careers. He is now the Toronto Raptors' Director of Sports Science and utilizes Catapult's devices to try and measure when players' bodies are becoming overloaded or imbalanced. McKechnie also utilizes these devices to alter training drills and practices to accurately reflect the types of movement players most frequently perform.
As legendary athletic trainer Gary Vitti steps away from the team at the end of the upcoming season, it is time for the Lakers to make a natural pivot into the modern era. Put simply, the team needs to take every measure it can to keep its roster healthy and on the court.
That has to mean reinvesting in payroll and the type of sophisticated training staff that used to populate the halls in El Segundo. That has to mean employing tools and analytics-based insights to help overloaded players protect themselves from injury. For the wealthiest franchise in the league, earning north of $158 million per year in profit, there can be no excuse for not taking this issue more seriously.
This isn't to say that using analytics is a catchall solution that will prevent any further injuries, but it will help yield better decisions that protect the most vulnerable players on the roster. As much as the Lakers need to adapt to the performance analytics revolution, the past few seasons have proven that joining the injury prevention revolution is as much of a need if not more.