Old Dogs, New Tricks

Advancements in technology, nutrition, and body maintenance have NBA veteran players vastly extending their careers.


April 12, 2015. Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs puts up 22 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists against the Phoenix Suns for his 32nd double-double of the season. He ended the season ranked 15th in all-time NBA scoring, and on July 3, he formally announced that he was returning for his nineteenth professional season in the NBA.

Paul Pierce has also decided to come back for one more ride in what will be his eighteenth season in the league, this time with the Los Angeles Clippers. His former Boston Celtics teammate, Kevin Garnett, will be re-upping with the Minnesota Timberwolves for his 21st (!) season … and beyond. Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks will be starting his seventeenth NBA campaign, and his current contract extension reserves his services until the end of the 2016-17 season.

After staying relatively healthy during the 2014–15 season — including playoff appearances for Duncan, Pierce, and Nowitzki — each of these Hall of Fame locks deferred retirement for at least another year, even though any of them would be well within their rights to hang ‘em up for good. Really, what’s left to prove?

And while their output has naturally fallen off since their salad days, that they continue to produce meaningfully begs the question: How, exactly, are these guys doing it?

Great genetics aside, personalized workouts and treatments play a part, and nothing is deemed too strange to ward off Father Time. For example, the 37-year-old Pierce has espoused the wonders of a hyperbaric chamber. He was introduced to the machine by Garnett, 39, when they both played for the Celtics.

Duncan, also 39 years old, enjoys a varied regimen that relies heavily on the martial arts. 32-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire, a thirteen-year veteran, is well known for his love of red wine baths. Nowitzki’s oddball training under longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner is the stuff of legend, even to the point that Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder has incorporated some of the drills from the demanding German trainer into his own personal regimen.

It seems like forever ago since guys like Patrick Ewing wore bulky knee pads to minimize stress to joints. In recent years, players have taken things to another level, wearing shooting sleeves and special tights to combat muscle cramps (former commissioner David Stern’s ban on them was rescinded), and padded compression vests and shorts underneath their uniforms (hat tip to Shaquille O’Neal, who started wearing protective padding prior to his first season with the Miami HEAT in 2004).

McDavid, the company that initially altered the NFL padding it manufactured for NBA use, has since been joined by current NBA uniform provider adidas, future provider Nike, and Under Armour, among others, to provide protective gear. Kinesiology tape, worn by James Harden of the Houston Rockets and others, is said to ease shoulder and knee twinges. Special machines measure everything on a player; from heart rates during practice, to the likelihood of injury, to where they should stand on the court to best hit a three-pointer.

Welcome to the new NBA, where science and technology are life partners in the never-ending pursuit of career longevity. adding years to careers. What the future has brought together, let no man put asunder.

Much has been made of the importance of modern sports analytics, where data is collected and parsed to improve a player’s actual game: shot selection, shooting posture and angles, running speed and gait relative to size and position, etc. Less attention is given, however, to the technology and science that directly impacts a player’s body.

The annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is the prom of sports analytics, an event where breakthroughs in sports technology are touted and countless stories about the importance of metrics are swapped. And while the conference may have declined in quality since its inception in 2009 — and its purpose has become decidedly muddied — it still remains a valuable place from which to gather information on the fast-paced and cutting-edge tools now found in most teams’ arsenals.

Which brings us back to kinesiology (the scientific study of human movement), better known as exercise science. While it’s great for players, trainers, and owners to know how to better improve a player’s statistics, it is even more crucial to determine how long their production is likely to last, and at what level. Information like that has a direct impact on a team’s decision on whether to invest in a player.

Gatorade, that ubiquitous sports drink, rightly figured that sports science was going to become a thing when it started the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in 1985. Professional and amateur athletes alike travel there during the offseason to have tests run on various physical performance points, and to try specially formulated supplements as a means to gain a competitive edge for the upcoming season. GSSI has extended its scientific forays beyond actual player performance; it now studies pre-workout, post-workout, recovery, and fatigue periods — capitalizing in the market by offering formulaic supplements to address each.

The advent of biometric testing — assessing a player’s movements via wearable technology — has also become all the rage. SportsVU, a company better known for providing missile defense in Israel, inked a deal with the NBA to provide military-grade cameras at all thirty NBA home arenas to measure the vertical and lateral movements of everyone on the court.

Taking things a step further, SportsVU linked up with Catapult to provide wearable GPS trackers that monitor fatigue during training and playing. The Toronto Raptors, the least-injured team during the 2013–14 season, has integrated the OptimEye (also made by Catapult) that measures not just the quantity, but also the intensity of a player’s physical activity.

Similarly, Omegawave offers a device that can monitor the electrical output of an active player’s body, which is then calculated to determine if an athlete is operating at peak efficiency, which helps guard against overtraining. Some teams even have their players a special patch — simply known as “The Patch” — which monitors heart rates and indicate if the player is asleep, excited, or passed out drunk.

Even the media has acknowledged the popularity of sports science: ESPN has an entire section of its website dedicated to the field, as well as a TV show and series of awards.

But has any of this actually helped extend players’ careers?

It depends on who you ask. Naturally, front offices are ecstatic over the access to the reams of data allowing them to analyze the health and wellness of players to whom they’ve paid millions of dollars. As well they should: The NBA lost $358 million during the 2013–14 season paying injured players.

For the players, however, things are not so simple. While the identification finite injury risks can be career-savers, that same information can earn a player a pink slip.

“Performance analytics have the potential to extend a player’s career, but it can also reveal hidden physical problems and shorten careers. If a player is shown to be at a heavy risk for injury, what owner is going to pay that person big bucks?” — Brian Kamenetzky

Then there is the issue of privacy.

The NBA signed contracts with SportsVu and other companies without direct consultation with the NBA Player’s Association, and there has been no known agreement between the NBPA and the league as to how the data will be used. This is a slippery slope when talking about the intrusion of the league into an athlete’s off-court life under the guise of maximizing on-court performance, and the issue is expected to be a significant topic during the upcoming negotiations of the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“Without the patch’s access to and analysis of off-court player movements, any coaching staff that adjusts practice intensities and travel schedules does so on perilously incomplete information.” — Todd Thompson, Proteus Digital Health

“It’s part of a growing trend of employers trying to take a peek into personal lives. But there are slippery-slope risks. Goals can easily slide from improving performance to preventing you from putting yourself at risk to making sure you don’t do anything to embarrass the team. I’d be very, very cautious.” — Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, director of New York University’s medical ethics division and co-director of its Sports and Society Program

The future sees players having wearable monitors implanted into their bodies like computer chips, which will create biometric data that can generate pop-up alerts when an issue arises. Again, players are wary while owners are excited.

“We want to be one step beyond what anyone else is doing. Amazingly, what banks and trading floors were 20 years ago, sports is now. The stakes are huge, and we can act quickly.” — Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive

“If they ask me to put a chip in my body, I don’t know about that. I don’t want to be a complete lab rat. I already feel like one now. I don’t want to take it to the next level.” — Brandan Wright, Memphis Grizzlies

Regardless of intrusion concerns or player discomfort, there are some players who feel the end justifies the means. Today’s players will enjoy longer careers, Pierce believes, because teams are so tuned into nutrition, conditioning and body maintenance.

In an ever-changing league that is being increasingly driven by technology on all levels, players may be forced to choose between adapting or being left behind.


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