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NBA PM: How Defensive Player of the Year Favorites Excel

Ben Dowsett selects his Defensive Player of the Year, and showcases the favorites as team-driving engines.

Ben Dowsett

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When we think of basketball players who make their teammates better, it’s most common to consider these concepts offensively. An elite passer makes the game easier for teammates by setting them up for easy shots, a knockdown shooter makes creating those lanes easier by providing spacing and a gravity-inducing roll man can do much of the same in different ways.

The theme isn’t unlike many within the game: It’s much easier to describe and quantify offensively, but the true representation of this sort of player might come on the other end. As it turns out, several of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year are fantastic embodiments.

Before we get to the three-man ballot, a nod to one name who isn’t appearing this year, but might represent this theme just as well as anyone.

Just like LeBron James hasn’t vacated the title of world’s best player despite an MVP campaign that feels increasingly unlikely, Kawhi Leonard hasn’t given up the crown of “best perimeter defender alive” despite the possibility that he won’t three-peat for DPOY. His exclusion from the final triumvirate here is as much a nod to what each of these three have done as it is a knock on Leonard’s season.

The Spurs’ defensive performances with Kawhi on and off the court have been covered ad nauseam all year long, and with reason. They’re just curious. San Antonio doesn’t appear to have many other elite-level defenders on paper, which makes the fact that they’re nearly 10 points per-100-possessions better defensively when Leonard sits on the bench – roughly the difference between a league average unit and one of the stingiest defenses in history – extremely intriguing.

There’s a ton of noise in these numbers generally, leading many to speculate that they should be ignored in Leonard’s case given all we know about him. They’re also the polar opposite of several of the top candidates this year, plus a complete reversal from every other season Kawhi has posted in San Antonio outside his rookie year, leading to the other side of the argument leaning heavily on these team figures as a case against him.

A crazy thought: Maybe it’s some of both, and it’s possible to note the departures from the norm without simply assuming the guy forgot how to play defense at age 25. Awards have a way of polarizing things, and even Kawhi hasn’t been spared.

Through this lens, he falls just short of a spot on the podium. Leonard’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure has dropped right along with his on/off court numbers, and while there’s noise here too, there’s less. Something different is certainly happening.

It could trace back to the way Leonard is being matched up with opposing stars, or the way some teams have effectively begun ignoring him – willingly relegating star players to the corner and effectively running the offense four-on-four just so Kawhi can’t screw things up too much. It definitely relates to the three-point percentages the Spurs allow while he plays, which could be chalked up heavily to variance (38 percent while he plays, 29 percent while he sits – at least some of that is pure randomness).

It could have a lot to do with his increased burden offensively, now one of the largest in the league. Most of these things are helping the team overall, even if they aren’t helping Leonard’s individual defensive value through our tracking methods.

Those are very good potential reasons for some of what we’ve seen. Do they absolve him from a value-added standpoint, though? No, at least not entirely. Even if we presume he’s at fault for absolutely none of the team’s superior performance without him on the court, it’s still the case.

This can all be true without us somehow assuming he’s now a subpar defender; it’s a simple reality of the incomplete defensive metrics we have available, and it’s also part of the beauty of basketball. Rest easy, Spurs fans.

3. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder

If you’ve invested yourself deeply in one of recent memory’s most divisive MVP races, chances are you’ve heard a bit about Russell Westbrook and stat-padding. With rebounds in particular, the thinking goes, the Thunder play a wholly unique style that allows Russ to swoop in for a bunch of uncontested boards, especially after missed free throws, while his big men focus solely on making sure there’s no one there to compete with him on the glass.

How the resulting impact on Westbrook’s rebounding figures warps an MVP debate already supercharged by human obsession with round numbers is a question for another time, but there’s a more practical team element here too. Russ is among the league’s premier transition players, and getting the ball in his hands as quickly as possible after opponent misses lets him maximize his skills here. Teammates like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are sacrificing in part for the good of the team.

Here’s the thing: Their individual sacrifice might not be the most significant on the team. That title could easily go to Andre Roberson.

As this pen recently noted in the link above, there might not be a more impressive part of Westbrook’s campaign than his raw physical accomplishment. Only seeding-induced rest will keep him from starting all 82 games this year, with a league record usage rate and a physical burden that possibly no one has ever accomplished before him. Frankly, Russ matching an arbitrary statistical record first set by a guy who didn’t even finish second in MVP voting that season should carry much less weight than this.

Roberson helps make it all possible, often in ways you’d never notice. He’s been on the court for about 80 percent of Westbrook’s minutes on the year, minutes where Russ hasn’t spent a single intentional possession guarding the opponent’s top ball-handler – Roberson takes the task every time. Opponents get fewer layups and threes when he plays with Westbrook than when Westbrook plays alone, and they shoot a lower percentage from everywhere. Most important during these minutes is what Russ isn’t doing: Defending a high-intensity matchup.

Combine Roberson’s defensive prowess and Westbrook’s insane ability to create shots for himself down the stretch with zero help, and you’ve actually arrived at the Thunder’s clutch time strategy.

It’s quite the opposite of most teams, who typically bank on increased energy levels to carry their defense and often put many of their best scorers on the floor to make sure they can get a bucket when it counts. Thunder coach Billy Donovan usually puts a defensive-minded group around Russ instead, led by Roberson, and focuses them as a defensive shutdown unit while Westbrook does his thing with the ball. OKC is the league’s second best per-possession team in the clutch as a result, and their defense in these minutes is also second. Roberson deserves the lion’s share of credit for keeping this roster in the league’s top 10 defensively.

This is a whole new kind of team catalyst, one we’re very unaccustomed to seeing. Some of the gritty details of Roberson’s defensive game were outlined in this space back in February, and not much has changed. He’s still a sneakily great off-ball defender who constantly finds little ways to make things easier on teammates, and he still suppresses opposing field goal percentages by some of the highest amounts in the league among volume wing defenders.

His versatility has been huge, as has his preparation and study of the little details that make him a great defender. There’s no type of lead ball-handler he can’t deal with at an elite level, and he’ll more than hold his own against the kinds of bigger power forwards he used to bang with every game in high school. Some of the best guys in the league on the block have gone at him this season, and have shot an unholy 36 percent, per Synergy Sports.

Whether Roberson is a “better” perimeter defender than Leonard isn’t the question here; whether he’s impacted his team in bigger ways defensively is, and there’s a real case for it this year.

2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

If listing these guys as 1a and 1b didn’t feel so tacky, that’s how this would look. Hell, if the entire North American sports world wasn’t angrily against the ideas of ties, we’d have entertained that designation as well.

These two swapped places on this list at least a dozen times in the last few weeks, and you can switch them in your mind all you want with no complaints. They’ve had two of the most impactful defensive seasons in recent memory, and have done so in completely different ways. You can list all the of stats, the records and the eye test stuff, and it’s still really hard to find objective factors that separate them by a wide enough margin.

By the raw numbers, Gobert gets the small edge. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure leads the league by a not-insignificant margin. He’s about a full point per-100-possessions more “valuable” than Green defensively by this metric, which accounts for teammate and opponent context among other factors, and roughly twice as impactful as any player outside the top 15. Gobert’s figure here would be the highest in the metric’s short history since their calculation methods changed after their first year in public circulation.

The Stifle Tower (the only acceptable nickname in this space, thank you very much) leads the league in defensive win shares, and while Green holds the edge in defensive box plus/minus, Utah has seen a larger negative defensive effect when Gobert hits the bench than when Green does so for the Warriors.

All those numbers have at least some degree of noise involved, and this debate deserves more.

Both these guys are more than the foundation of their teams’ defense; they’re almost synonymous with them. There isn’t a single other player in the league more vital to his team’s basic defensive identity than these two, and there’s a case to be made there hasn’t been one in several years.

Green has been part of a similar debate in this space during each of the last two years (he’d have taken Leonard’s first DPOY title if this pen was the only one voting), and the only thing that’s changed this year is his surroundings. Draymond has even less defensive help than he used to after the departures of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, plus a lengthy injury to Kevin Durant that meant more defensively than many would assume.

It hasn’t mattered much. Green is still humming (yelling?) along as the driving force that makes the league’s most unique defense possible. The switching fad that’s blown up around the NBA the last few years is due more to him than any other single player, and the Warriors can do it in ways virtually no one else can simply because he’s on their team.

Within the course of a few minutes, Draymond can do this to an athletic or crafty ball-handler:

And then do this to a guy who’s five inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier than him in the post:

The list of stuff he does at an elite level is longer than any other defender in the league. He’s the vocal captain of one of the NBA’s smartest defenses; DeAndre Jordan gets a ton of credit in Los Angeles for the way he’s learned opposing play calls and will shut them down in live time, but Green does much of the same for a team that’s way more active on D. Telegraphed actions are suicide against this defense while Draymond is on the floor, and he’s a master at using that extra beat while a team sets up an attack to quickly switch out of a negative matchup.

The Warriors’ tempo is a big factor in their continued success, and Green drives the train here as well. The Dubs dominate the transition game on both sides when he plays. They score nearly double their opponents’ per-possession fast break points during these minutes, a gap that shrinks to almost zero when he sits. Green gets credit on both sides: His ability to push the ball himself following rebounds and turnovers (often of his own creation) juices their attack, and he’s often the first guy back contesting looks the other way.

Curiously, factors that have become something of a calling card for each guy might actually point in the other direction. Gobert has become synonymous with interior defense and rim protection, and with damn good reason, but did you realize the two are giving up identical percentages at the rim?

This is a bit misleading, of course. Gobert challenges a significantly greater number of shots, and that matters a lot. They’re also very different types of shots, on balance.

If you view the numbers only as a plus for Draymond and not a knock on Rudy, though, you’re on the right track. Green might be the most underrated rim protector in the game, and is on the short list for the best in history at his size or shorter. Look at him almost casually get into position to contest against Clint Capela – is there any doubt about what’s about to happen here?

Man, Green probably spent that time in the air thinking about which diss he could yell at Capela after they landed to deliver maximum impact without getting himself T’d up.

On the flip side of that reputational coin, Gobert has had a much more pronounced effect on non-interior elements of defense than his profile would suggest. Green is the prototypical versatile defender, and much of his popular case is the effect he has on every area of the offense – interior, perimeter and everything in between. Most label it a significant edge over Gobert, and in some ways it certainly is.

All this stuff is connected, though. And while numbers here can be noisy, they actually suggest that Gobert’s presence has perhaps meant more to Utah’s non-interior defense than Green’s has to Golden State’s, even if Green is “directly” involved more often.

As we illustrated in this space a few months back, Gobert is a wild card in the NBA’s defensive deck. He allows the Jazz to cover the pick-and-roll, by far the league’s most popular basic play type, in a unique way: With only two guys, and extremely limited help defense. The Warriors’ three-point percentage allowed actually goes up when Draymond plays, as do their per-possession attempts allowed, often a more telling factor. The Jazz, though, see both areas decline marginally with Gobert on the floor.

This could be noise in Green’s case, but it almost certainly isn’t for Gobert. The idea that Rudy doesn’t affect three-point shooting has always been silly – the Jazz allow the second-fewest per-possession three-point attempts in the league and the fewest from the high-value corners, and his impact inside is a huge reason for that.

Have you ever stopped to consider the percentage of threes that result directly from a driver forcing help, scrambling the defense and kicking out to an open shooter? That happens a lot less when you rarely have to bring the help, and that only happens when you have a giant like Gobert who can credibly cover a ball-handler and a roll man at the same time, with zero assistance.

Old-school folks like to talk a lot about plays that “don’t show up on the stat sheet.” In today’s day and age, they get the chance less and less often; advanced video and tracking software makes it tougher and tougher to find an important play within an NBA game that can’t be quantified in any way whatsoever.

Gobert has these folks covered, and his talent here lies in a skill that many stat nerds would kill for in the publicly available SportVU data set: Not rim protection, but rim deterrence. Guys are ready to take that ball hard to the rack… and then Gobert enters their line of sight.

Ball-handlers who should know better find themselves aborting drives at the worst times, and Gobert’s savvier teammates know it’s coming.

“He does such a good job protecting the rim that it allows us to do some other things defensively,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Over time, pushing guys in Gobert’s direction has simply become part of the defense, rather than a bailout. “So it is baked in with what we’re doing.”

Oh, that whole switching thing? He can do that, too, at least for those rare possessions where the Jazz need it out of him.

“The thing that I’m aware of as much as anything is Rudy being able to come out on the floor better,” said Snyder. “That’s another type of ‘deterrence.’”

One more time, loudly and for the record: There isn’t a bad choice here. Both guys drive and define their defenses in incredible ways we’ve rarely seen in recent years. One might be more versatile, and the other might have more raw impact – but even those conclusions are based on incomplete pictures.

Green seems far more likely to take home the actual hardware, but both deserve a spot in our memory for their incredible defensive seasons.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Most Underrated Departures

A lot can be made about the under-the-radar players that teams pick up, but not enough is made about the under-the-radar players that teams lose. Matt John elaborates.

Matt John

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When comparing the loss of a star player to the loss of a glue player, there’s no question which one is worse. Losing a star can set back a franchise for years, with so many questions surrounding what they should do next in light of his departure. Losing a glue player doesn’t make as much of a sting, but it can make all the difference in a playoff series.

It’s a shame that Golden State had all the injuries that it did. Because, had the Warriors been at full health, we would have seen one of the most obvious advantages the Raptors had over them – their glue guys. The Raptors had plenty of them at their disposal while the Warriors’ glue guys had slowly disintegrated into a shell of the depth they once had.

Before Durant’s injury, Golden State had enough star power to match up with Toronto’s, but Toronto’s glue players rounded out the edges whereas Golden State’s could not. That made a big difference in how the NBA Finals turned out.

Which brings us to this summer. This may have been the most epic player movement in one offseason. The highlight has been the movement among the players considered among the upper class.

A fair amount of quality teams lost their star players this year. Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Boston lost Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler. None of these teams replaced their departed stars with players who can do everything they can, but their replacements can do enough to keep the team afloat.

It’s a rarity to see playoff teams that lose their star players make such an effort to replace them. What’s not a rarity is that these teams also lost some of their glue players in the process. Since so many big names switched teams this offseason, their decisions have overshadowed the role players who have done the same.

This won’t be the case next summer when the NBA has one of its weakest free agency classes it’s had in years, but not enough has been made about the glue guys who find themselves on different teams this summer. Let’s take a look at who would fit that bill.

JJ Redick – Philadelphia 76ers

The acquisitions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford – on top of paying top dollar to re-sign Tobias Harris – has overshadowed the loss of the man who helped kick “The Process” into a higher gear.

Redick was a brilliant addition for the 76ers. With Simmons slated to play his rookie year and Embiid itching to capitalize on his promising rookie season, Philadelphia knew that it was too good to be a bottom dweller. With the centerpieces coming into place, the team needed immediate help. With all the cap room in the world, it added a surefire contributor with Redick.

JJ’s all-around abilities as a player are not what they once were, but what he is best at showed up so beautifully that it made him worth every penny in Philly. Because Philly used his elite three-point shooting as a focal point of its offense, Redick averaged career-highs in points per game in his two years as a Sixer.

Averaging 17.1 points per game in one season then 18 the next doesn’t usually happen with players entering their mid-thirties. The 76ers basically used JJ the same way the Hawks used Kyle Korver, only at a higher volume. Offensively, he may have never looked better in his entire career.

Because Redick’s shooting fit so snugly next to Simmons and Embiid – the three-man trio was the most used three-man lineup by Philly last year – his three-point shot became a weapon. Now that weapon is gone.

Richardson and Horford are adequate three-point shooters, but their ability to shoot the longball isn’t as intimidating as Redick’s is. Compared to Redick, their three-point shots are not accurate nor quick enough that other teams would frantically do everything to make sure their shot couldn’t see a glimmer of daylight.

The Sixers should be fine this season, but adjusting to Redick is not going to be easy. Especially for Simmons and Embiid, who lest we forget are their two cornerstones.

Aron Baynes – Boston Celtics

There was some temptation to put Al Horford on this list, but those in the know can see clear as day that going from Horford to Enes Kanter is a downgrade for the Celtics. Boston’s going to miss Horford the most out of all the players it lost, but losing Baynes is really going hurt the team’s defense in the post.

There are lots of reasons as to why the Celtics disappointed as badly as they did. There’s no reason to rehash everything because you probably saw it yourself. In regards what Baynes has to do with it, well, an injury-plagued season had him play in only 51 games.

In the 31 games that Baynes was absent, the Celtics went 17-14. When taking into effect that the Celtics won 49 games in total, it’s not totally out of left field to suggest that maybe they could have added a few more wins, and then some, had Baynes avoided the injury bug.

His unavailability definitely played a role in how the Celtics defensive rating went from 103.8 to 108 in 2019. Since the defense allowed 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor – the highest among players who played 800 minutes or more – they missed what he could do when he was out last season, and it’ll be the same reason why they’re going to miss him in his entirety this season.

To make things worse, Baynes and Horford made for one terrific frontcourt duo. In their first season, the two of them together combined for a defensive rating of 95.5. The next season, that defensive rating was 98.5. Baynes doesn’t have the typical criteria for a shot-blocker, but the results speak for themselves. When he’s on the court, he makes life hell in the paint.

Boston had to trade him in order to get the cap space to bring Kemba Walker in. With a star like that, sacrificing Baynes is more than understandable, but his absence should be felt.

The real question is, why exactly did Phoenix go out of its way to get him?

Al-Farouq Aminu/Moe Harkless – Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers lost a lot of players that helped them reach their first Conference Finals since 2000. Enes Kanter. Evan Turner. Seth Curry. Harkless and Aminu stand out the most among them because they’ve been with the team since 2015 – the year Portland lost LaMarcus Aldridge – and have been in the starting lineup for most of that time.

Losing continuity can really hurt. In Portland’s case, there’s more to this than just losing two players that they relied on. They didn’t replace what they can do. Both Harkless and Aminu are wings capable of playing power forward in a small-ball lineup. This summer, the Blazers added Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja and retained Rodney Hood.

Bazemore is a two/three tweener who’s barely played power forward. Hezonja has played some power forward, but he hasn’t really put it together. Hood played a fair amount of power forward in this year’s playoffs, but in the regular season, not so much. Most of the minutes he’s played are at small forward.

There is a gap there that one way or the other, Portland is going to have to fill. Neither Aminu nor Harkless are the best three-point shooters – Harkless’ three-ball somehow went to hell this season – but their defense will sorely be missed. Harkless has a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.69 while Aminu had one of 1.46. While not the best, both finished in the top-20 in their respective positions.

With Jusuf Nurkic out for who knows how long, Portland definitely had to do something to fill that gap. Trading Harkless for Hassan Whiteside – in a contract year – was a move the Blazers had to make even if it’s just a stopgap.

Losing both continuity and versatility can definitely hurt when you’re trying to pounce on a tough, but wide-open Western Conference. If the Blazers want to go further than they did last year, they need to address this before the season starts.

Glue guys are important, but what they bring to the court can be replaceable in some cases. Fans should really keep an eye out on how buyout season goes because, with all the contracts that are set to expire this year, we could see a lot of talent on the open market six months from now.

The teams that lost these players have the privilege of waiting to see how they fare. Even if losing a role player doesn’t sting as much as losing an All-Star does, getting someone who can replace what he does can make all the difference between winning the championship and getting eliminated in the opening round in this day and age.

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Isaiah Thomas Facing Uphill Battle In Returning To Form

Isaiah Thomas has an opportunity for a great comeback season with the Washington Wizards – but did Thomas take too long to address his hip injury with surgery? David Weissman writes.

David Weissman

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Like the long ball, everyone loves a good comeback story.

This offseason, the NBA world had been enamored with the comeback story of DeMarcus Cousins. After two major leg injuries in a 15 month period, the association was waiting to see how the six-time All-Star would bounce back this season. Those speculations ended when Cousins tore his ACL in a pickup game last week, taking him out for the entire 2019-2020 campaign.

With Cousins’ return consuming the NBA world, many overlooked another comeback superstar – Isaiah Thomas. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old guard, he may be facing permanent damage to his hip that will prevent a fairy tale ending.

Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year since with the Washington Wizards. Thomas faces long odds for a comeback story, but he has been the quintessential underdog from the beginning of his career.

Ultimate Underdog

In the 2011 NBA Draft, Thomas was the last player selected, mainly due to skepticism over his 5-foot-9 stature. After being selected by the Sacramento Kings, there were no expectations Thomas would be a contributor his first year. Despite those predictions, he ended the season as a starter.

For three years Thomas maintained the starting role and ended his tenure with the Kings averaging 20 points per game. Instead of re-signing him, the Kings refused to match an offer sheet of 4-years/$28 million and let him go to the Phoenix Suns, a bargain especially getting a free agent with a stat line of 20.3 PPG, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

Thomas was traded to the Celtics in 2015 and had been considered an MVP caliber talent by the end of his first season in Boston. At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics. He led them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 by averaging 28.9 points per game. Thomas showed devotion to the Boston Celtics by playing through a torn hip labral injury he sustained during the regular season. The injury forced him to sit out two-and-a-half games in the conference finals, which led to a Celtics defeat in the series.

Despite his success, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge ignored what Thomas did during his tenure and focused on what Thomas could provide for the future. Ainge viewed Thomas as being an injured, under-sized point guard with aspirations of a maximum contract down the road. The Celtics avoided giving Thomas an extension by trading him away to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Ainge saw Irving as a more talented, stable point guard that the Celtics could build around.

After the Celtics playoff run, Thomas was diagnosed with a right femoral-acetabular impingement, a bruised hip and labral tear. Thomas decided to forgo surgery and do non-surgical treatment, usually preferred by most athletes. This treatment postponed Thomas’ debut with the Cavaliers until Jan. 2, 2019 and he ended up only playing 14 games with the team. Thomas was then traded to the Lakers due to locker room issues and played 17 games before finally opting for hip surgery.

Thomas was primed to earn a max-level contract after his 2017 season. However, after a season full of off-court drama and injury, Thomas only got a one-year veteran minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. Thomas made his debut with the Nuggets this past February after recovering from his hip surgery and only played 12 games last season. Due to a packed Nuggets backcourt, Thomas averaged career lows in minutes played, field goal percentage, three point percentage and points per game.

Coming into 2019-20 season, Thomas has signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard-hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. The question is: Did Thomas take too long to address his hip injury with surgery? And what lasting effect will that have on his career? A torn labral in the hip is not an injury with a high success rate of full recovery for NBA players.

Injury

A labral hip tear occurs when there is damage to the labrum (ring of cartilage) within the hip joint (ball and socket joint) due to irregular movement in the hip. In some cases, if the injury to the labrum is not repaired in time, permanent damage can be done to cartilage causing early on-set arthritis. When Thomas tore the labrum in his hip, it was due to a right femoral-acetabular impingement. A hip impingement is when an abnormal bone in the hip joint causes unusual contact between the ball and socket, sometimes tearing the cartilage.

Once torn, the labrum tissue in the hip does not heal on its own and surgery can remove or repair torn labral tissue. Currently, there are no procedures that will replace cartilage in the hip to prevent early on-set arthritis. The damage to the cartilage is permanent and will continue to cause severe pain. If injury to the hip is not that severe, athletes prefer to treat the issue with physical therapy by maximizing the strength and mobility of the hip to minimize the stress placed on the injured area.

Thomas played through his labral tear through the 2016-2017 season and postponed surgery 32 games after he tried to rehab the injury. The biggest issue for Thomas is whether the problem has been neglected so long that the impingement causes permanent cartilage damage and leads to arthritis. It is unknown how much damage has been done to his cartilage, but this would be the biggest obstacle to making a full comeback. Based on the lingering issues with his hip, it would not be surprising if he is facing early on-set arthritis.

Possible Outcomes

The success rate for the average person has not translated to the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few who came back from this injury and succeeded. Aldridge was a freshman at the University of Texas when he tore his hip labrum and successfully came back from the injury after undergoing only nine months of rehab. Six years later, Aldridge suffered another tear to his hip labrum, but decided to undergo surgery. He came back six-and-a-half months later and has had an All-Star career without any other hip injury.

On the other hand, 6-foot Johnny Flynn – a similar sized point guard to Thomas – had surgery in July 2010 after his rookie season. The former number six overall pick played his final NBA game in 2012.

Martell Webster, a 10-year veteran, underwent surgery in November 2015 to repair a partial tear in his right hip labrum. 21 months later, Webster was signed to the Charlotte Hornets training camp, but got cut five days later.

Lastly, Wilson Chandler missed significant time from multiple labrum tears and subsequent surgeries from 2010 to 2016, but he has been healthy and decently productive since the beginning of the 2016-2017 season.

Isaiah Thomas took over the basketball world in 2016 and dominated at a level very few people thought was possible for his size. The Wizards hope Thomas can recover and return to MVP form, again proving all the critics wrong. Unfortunately for Thomas, small guards like himself do not have the best track record of coming back from a torn labral, and his future really depends on how much damage has been done to the cartilage in his hip.

Playing through the torn labrum from 2016 to 2018 without surgery may have cut Thomas’ career short. With continued lingering hip issues, there is a significant possibility that he is facing early on-set arthritis, a condition that could ultimately keep him from returning to MVP form.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Top Ways To Translate Practice Into Statistical Improvement

Jake Rauchbach nails down 5 foundational ways for players to translate in-practice repetition into in-game statistical performance improvement.

Jake Rauchbach

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There are players at all levels of basketball, including the NBA, that struggle to connect the dots on how to translate their practice repetitions into actual statistical performance improvement during the game.

In past columns, we have discussed how unconscious performance blocks can derail a player’s improvement. A refresher for some of the most commonly held subconscious barriers to performance can be found here and here.

Unconscious barriers to success can affect a player’s ability to consistently perform at optimum levels. That being said, we have all seen players that seem to be able to seamlessly migrate practice repetition over to in-game performance improvement, while other equivalently-talented players seemingly struggle to do so.

So, what are the underlying reasons for this dichotomy in player development? What’s the differentiating factor for translating practice repetition into in-game performance improvement?  The answer is mental focus.

Mental Focus is Key

The consistency with which a player remains mentally locked-in is crucial. A player’s ability to interface with his present moment awareness during his timeline for preparation – practice, individual workouts, film study and the game – directly influences how much translatable on-court performance improvement will be had by the player come game time.

One of the main things that coaches tell players is: “Come ready to play!” Interpreted more literally, this means come focused. However, many players do not have a repeatable process for getting the most out of their preparation process.

There Are Levels to This

It is important to note that there are levels of application for High-Performance Mindfulness techniques. Just like progressions in an on-court skill-development series, a similar process is employed when teaching players how to sharpen focus to statistically improve performance.

There are foundational tools and skill-sets that players can pick up and begin to employ straight away.

There are also leading-edge Energy Psychology – Integrated Player Development processes. Specific to each player, these zero in on statistically improving specific parts of a player’s game that the player, coach or general manager pre-determines.

This is the next level of High-Performance Mindfulness. We will break these down at a later date. For this column, we’ll outline some foundational HPM tools that players can begin to employ immediately to begin sharpening their focus and influencing in-game improvement upwards.

Foundational Techniques to Improve Mental Focus

Meditation

Meditation has been scientifically shown to help improve focus and attention, creative thinking and regulation of emotions, all of which are critical elements regarding successfully processing through split-second reads during the game. Meditation has also been shown to decrease depression and anxiety.

There are many types of meditation practices. However, what I have seen work best for high-level basketball players is employing a 15-minute meditation session twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.

20 years ago, there were very few athletes who would touch a yoga practice. Look for meditation to become the new yoga, helping athletes sharpen focus and master internal peace of mind. The effects of this technique, when fed into an overall focus for on-court performance, is immense.

Affirmations

Affirmations are an unbelievable way for players to clear and reprogram their deep subconscious minds of the toxic performance blockages stemming from experience. I have found “I AM” statements to be most powerful when working with players who employ these techniques on the court during the game.

The reason for this is that it reaffirms a new mental program while simultaneously counteracting emotional baggage, which has the effect of sharpening mental focus. When mental focus improves, so too does overall performance.

Visualization

Visualization retrains a player’s mind to expand the boundaries for what is deemed possible. One of the more profound experiences is observing players who manifest virtually the same play on the court that they have mentally Rep’d during visualization. We are talking about the over-the-top plays that they haven’t pulled off in months, maybe sometimes years.

Common examples of plays that high-major college and professional basketball players often visualize and then directly thereafter manifest on-court are:

  1. The Pick-Six: Denying the passing lane – Creating a Stealing – Going opportunity for an uncontested finish on the other end. This play is common for players who begin to focus on improving ball pressure through visualization techniques.
  2. The Big-Time Block: Defensively rotating over and pinning the ball against the glass. This is a big-time energy play that happens frequently when leveraging visualization to optimize defensive efficiency.
  3. The Dunk-On: Dunking on or over someone maybe one the most energizing plays in basketball. When visualization is employed to rep this specific play, often the player capable of such finishes performs it in real-time on the court.

Generally, this is an eye-opening experience for the player. There is a level of connection made by the player between the mental rep and the on-court execution of said play that helps to reinforce the High-Performance Mindfulness training.

These types of plays give the player a discernible cause-and-effect experience from implementing the mental rep, to manifesting the specific play on the court. Experiences like these help players connect the dots on how mental training positively correlates to improvement on the court.

Breathe-Work

The implementation of Breath-Work deepens awareness and has been employed by different cultures around the globe for years. Foundational breathing techniques are also the building blocks for many of Martial Arts such as Qigong, Tai Chi and Karate.

These types of techniques have been shown to help players hone focus by becoming more present, getting the athletes out of their head and into their present moment of awareness. Improving focus this way can have the overall effect of helping move the dial when it comes to on-court performance improvement.

Practicing Detached Observation

Observation is a key component in every technique mentioned herein. It is important to mention that as a standalone technique.

Once players are better able to recognize that they are not their thoughts, they are generally able to make the shift in detaching from the performance-blocking thoughts and emotions that have historically been holding them back.

This creates peace of mind and facilitates greater present moment poise and focus.

Improving in-game performance comes down to consistent mental focus over the preparation timeline. Employing the foundational techniques mentioned above will begin the process, helping players prioritize focus as a way to optimize performance efficiencies during the game.

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