Biggest winner of the Finals? Rest!

ByTom Haberstroh ESPN logo
Friday, June 19, 2015

CLEVELAND -- Three hours before Game 6 started, Cleveland Cavaliers superfan Tony Jones stood outside Quicken Loans Arena on the corner of Huron Road and Fourth Street. Jones, who made the nine-hour drive from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, stuck his chest out, which read "All-In" on his Cavs T-shirt, and yelled to the bustling crowd shuffling into the arena.

"We hurt!" Jones screamed. "But we got LeBron James! Game 7, here we come! Let's go Cavs!"

Three hours after Game 6 started, a sweat-soaked James slowly walked to his bench one final time in this injury-marred season as the Cleveland faithful roared in appreciation. James sat down, untucked his jersey and buried his face in it at the end of the bench.

The Golden State Warriors were the last ones standing. As bodies broke down all around the NBA this season, it was the Warriors who remained intact.

This wasn't supposed to happen. The Warriors employ so many players who got hit with the injury-prone label at some point in their careers: Stephen Curry, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli.

But in the regular season, the Warriors finished with the fewest minutes lost due to injury in the NBA. And in the postseason, they finished as champions.

Those two facts are not unrelated; the first was a catalyst to an end.

This wasn't all luck. This was all part of the plan: to rest, to recover, to outlast.

It was the night of the 2011 draft lottery, and Bob Myers had just gotten his first job with an NBA team. A high-powered agent for the Wasserman Media Group, Myers had crossed over to the other side and taken a job as the assistant general manager of the hapless Warriors.

It was Myers' first time at the event, but the Warriors were regulars. The team had been lottery-bound in 16 of the previous 17 seasons.

Myers stood in the lottery room when another GM of a lottery team put his arm around him.

"Look around, what do you see?" the GM asked like an old sage.

Myers tried to whip back a witty answer, but he had nothing.

"I don't know," Myers said.

"Injuries," the general manager said. "All these teams had injuries."

After the confetti fell Tuesday night on the Warriors' title, this was the moment that stuck out to a champagne-soaked Myers. Just four years after taking over GM duties from Larry Riley, Myers assembled the healthiest team in the league. According to injury data maintained by ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton, the Warriors lost only 1,252 minutes to injury this season, the lowest total in the NBA.

Curry missed one game with a sore ankle and one for rest. Harrison Barnes played all 82. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Livingston -- none missed more than five games this season. Bogut, who arrived injured in a controversial trade for Monta Ellis in 2012, played over 2,000 minutes this season (playoffs included) for the first time since 2010-11.

Myers credits the training staff led by Johan Wong and director of athletic performance Keke Lyles, and the coaching staff led by Steve Kerr, who rested Curry for 20 fourth quarters when he could have played more to boost his numbers. In turn, the coaches and trainers credit Myers and ownership for building the roster with the right bodies.

"Well, there's luck," Myers said. "We've had bad luck, too. Two years ago, David [Lee] was out against the Spurs and the Nuggets. Last year, we had no center against the Clippers. So you're in it and you're going to have years when you suffer injuries. And you're going to have years where you stay healthy."

This is Myers trying to deflect credit. But it's no coincidence that the Warriors were the healthiest team.

Golden State holds a competitive advantage. Its secret? The Warriors are based in the Bay Area, the same place that Silicon Valley calls home.

Technology and data analysis are pillars of the Warriors' front office, which makes it a point to combine the numbers and hoops. For example: the team's stats guy, Sammy Gelfand, rebounds for the players every day instead of getting holed up in a remote office along with other teams' analytical gurus.

They Warriors are as nerdy as it gets. As clients of wearable technology provider Catapult Sports, they monitor their players' workloads in practice with GPS monitors and analyze the data with acute attention to maximizing performance while minimizing injury risk.

The latest project: Led by the training staff, Gelfand and the team's data programmers, the Warriors have engineered a readiness rating for each player built on a 0-to-100 scale (100 is prime shape and 0 is burnt out).

The idea is to give Kerr a handy all-in-one metric that aggregates various health indicators, including a daily five-question survey given to the players to help assess their soreness. Simple questions like, "How do you feel?" and "What's your mood?" and "How'd you sleep?" Each question has multiple phrases that the players choose from. Each answer corresponds to a number on a five-point scale. The lower the number, the lower the stress levels.

"It's research," Lyles says of the survey. "The wording in the answers are specific so it gives guys a good guide. Each guy is very individual. I may ask you the same questions. We want a low score. The best score you can have is a five. So let's say your average is an 11, that's your norm after months of doing it. It's 5 to 25. One point for each question.

"You come in, now you have two days that are 18 and 19. All right, now that's a trigger. He's normally an 11, let's check in. If it's sleep, we'll look at the questions that are bad. We'll look at the travel."

The Warriors noticed that player stress was linked to lack of sleep. So they rescheduled their flights to the day after, not the night of games, so they could sleep in and get a full night's rest.

With the subjective side taken care of, the team then tackles the objective portion. They look at SportVU player-tracking data (for game workloads), Catapult data (for practice workloads) and Omegawave heart variability data (to test neurological stress). With these four inputs (including the subjective side), the Warriors have a dashboard that indicates whether a player should give it a go, and for how long.

And the players bought in early.

"Really, if you're fatigued or sore, no one wants to feel like crap," Lyles said. "They want to feel better just as much as we want them to feel better. It's not like a head game."

The dashboard was screaming in early March. The indicators told Kerr that the core players were exhausted and redlining to dangerous levels. So he decided to rest Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Bogut against the Denver Nuggets on March 17.

Kerr understood fans' complaints that they wanted to see Curry & Co. in action.

"But I can't base my team's welfare on that," Kerr told reporters after the game in March.

The Warriors hope to aggregate all the fancy data and have the readiness rating completed for the start of next training camp. They continue to tinker with the algorithm so they can help predict injuries.

"I can't guarantee that'll make them better," Lyles says. "But I will say this: Better-conditioned guys get injured less, guys who get injured less tend to play more, guys who play more tend to make more money and have longer careers."

Back in 2009, Stephen Curry caught Darren Burgess by surprise.

At the time, Burgess was the sports scientist for the Australian national soccer team, just before he took over as the head of performance for soccer powerhouse Liverpool FC, before he accepted his current position as the high performance manager for the Port Adelaide Australian rules football team.

Burgess is close with several NBA training staff members, including Phil Coles, who was recently hired by the San Antonio Spurs to be their head of medical services, and Bryan Doo, the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Celtics. In 2009, Burgess was touring the top training staffs in the United States during his offseason, and the famed Phoenix Suns facility was on his list.

The Warriors, coached by Don Nelson, were in Phoenix playing the Suns. After the game, Burgess was taken through the Suns' locker room and training room for a tour, while all the players quickly made the trip to nearby Las Vegas because they all had the next day off.

The players cleared out and Burgess figured he'd get the full uninterrupted tour. But as he turned into the trainer's room, there was Curry on the table, getting treatment.

"What a star already," Burgess remembers thinking. "He had the professionalism back then when it wasn't as cool to pay close attention to your body and it wasn't in vogue. Everyone else was doing their thing in Vegas and Curry was getting treatment."

Should LeBron James have gotten more rest in the Finals?

That's the question posed to Burgess and Athletic Lab's Dr. Michael Young, two of the world's top sports scientists. James averaged over 46 minutes per game, and the Cavs were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for the Finals (Irving was injured late in Game 1).

Both Young and Burgess are amazed by James' efforts and his ability to overcome fatigue. With an exhausting schedule that included three games in five days and cross-country travel, maybe James would benefit from getting a game off, perhaps Game 4 up 2-1, to preserve his body and keep it fresh for Games 5, 6 and a possible 7.

In Burgess' experience, stars are often rested in the Premier League and in Australian rules football leagues; these teams play multiple games each week, as in the NBA. Resting a star, something that Gregg Popovich recently popularized in the NBA, is referred to as "rotating the tires."

Would resting James in Game 4 have made sense from a performance standpoint?

"It's a good question," Burgess says. "I would imagine if you ask LeBron, he'd say no chance at all. And the coach generally would go with the player. But in Liverpool, we would rotate the tires. The decision you have there is the fatigue; you could rest him for one, and get him better for three later games."

But even with all the worries about fatigue, Burgess doesn't think resting James for Game 4 would have been practical.

"I certainly wouldn't want to be the fitness coach who goes up to the coach and says, 'Listen, I have this idea: rest LeBron,'" Burgess said.

Young agrees that it probably wouldn't go over well to rest James. But he saw James nearly fall asleep at practice press conferences. He saw James hobble on and off the court. He saw several of James' late jumpers miss short in the series.

Burgess discussed the possibility of resting James with his colleagues.

"What we ended up coming to is that the damage is already done," Young said. "They should have been resting him throughout those 82 games and the playoffs. But you have to deal with the hand that you're dealt at this point."

James struggled late in the Finals. Entering Game 6, the Warriors had outscored the Cavs by 43 points after the third quarter. In Tuesday's game, the Cavs ran out of gas late just as they did in Games 4 and 5.

"Cleveland wasn't as good as the Warriors to have the luxury of resting guys all the time like the Spurs have done brilliantly over the years," Young said. "That's the kind of stuff that is trickling down from the Premier League, where if you have the luxury of doing it, you better do it."

To the Cavs' credit, James took some days off in the regular season, including a two-week break in January and some second nights of back-to-backs -- the land mines of the NBA season.

Like too many NBA teams this season, though, the Cavs lost plenty of players because their bodies broke down. Irving played 44 minutes in Game 1 and fractured his kneecap in the late stages of the game. Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles earlier in the season.

"I think if you would have given [LeBron] the whole game off, to buy him a couple extra days, that would have made a huge impact," Young said. "You can see the time markers in rugby, where you see fatigue markers 36 to 48 hours after the game ... you see the fatigue. The couple days would help for sure, and you mitigate the travel when you do that."

Young thinks the NBA is a tougher riddle to solve because there are only five players on the court. Every star means that much more. But preserving health becomes even more paramount.

"It's going to be very difficult to change the fatigue culture in the NBA," Young said. "It's a lot easier to change in other sports, where you have more than five guys on the field or the court at any one time. What you're seeing is that a Jordan or a LeBron, they can go and be the top-four in the league just by themselves even surrounded by total duds."

Young is happy to see NBA commissioner Adam Silver making it a priority to cut down on back-to-backs and four-in-fives. Rather than the possibility of resting stars in the playoffs, Young hopes the league pre-empts that conversation.

"I think it's more realistic that the league smartens up and shortens up the season, or looking at the scheduling to make it a little more favorable in terms of travel," Young said.

The Finals MVP came off the bench this season.

Kerr wanted to play fast and knew it might wear down guys like Andre Iguodala in an 82-game season. So he asked Iguodala before the season to anchor the second unit.

And eight months later, Iguodala appeared to be the freshest player on the court, hitting long jumpers when everyone was coming up short and galloping down the court when everyone else was laboring. Iguodala scored at least 20 points in two of the last three games in the Finals. In the previous two months before that, zero.

And all the while guarding James, the best player on the planet.

Now Iguodala has a Finals MVP trophy to show for it.

"It's really fitting that the award went to Andre because he sacrificed his starting role from the first game of the season," Kerr said of Iguodala. "An All-Star, an Olympian saying, 'OK, I'll come off the bench.' It set the tone for everything we were able to accomplish."

In the end, though, the Warriors' MVP wasn't Curry or Iguodala. It was the organizational commitment to health -- both of body and mind.

When Cavs fans cheered on their team, the injuries were the first words uttered, like a caveat. Then they spoke of James. Because of player health, the Cavs had the roster depth of a puddle. In the 23 minutes that James didn't play in this series, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 0-for-21.

The Warriors' depth was the reason they outlasted their peers. When everyone else's stars suffered injuries this season, the Warriors were the last ones standing as a full squad.

As the NBA saying goes, the best ability is availability.

"You have to capitalize on health," Myers said. "Because in this league, you just don't know."

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