Performance technology is firmly entrenched as the next giant frontier for NBA front offices. Recent advances in wearable technology have vastly expanded the amount teams can know about every movement their players make, and the race is on behind the scenes to parse every asset at their disposal. Some front offices may hem and haw about the full benefits of things like analytics, but it’s much tougher to dispute the efficacy of methods that can keep players healthier and more productive from a medical standpoint.
On-court tracking, however, isn’t the only front on which teams can monitor their players. Typically less appreciated by the casual fan is the mental stress of NBA life; it’s easy to forget that these are often teenagers being thrown into a whirlwind experience, and managing the added pressure in conjunction with on-court performance isn’t as easy as some might assume.
That’s where someone like Jake Rauchbach comes in. Jake’s program, MindRight Pro, is designed specifically to identify and remove mental and emotional blockages in athletes to maximize their performance capacity. His concepts, energy psychology and acupuncture philosophy, have been utilized across the professional and college athletic ranks, including by franchises like the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks plus a wide range of collegiate programs spanning several sports.
MindRight Pro, created in 2012, has been primarily implemented at Temple University, where Rauchbach works as a graduate assistant under coach Fran Dunphy. Since its inception, the system has elicited glowing testimonials from a range of players and staff at Temple, including current Houston Rocket Will Cummings, Coach Dunphy and university orthopedic surgeon Dr. Milo Sewards.
No one can better explain the program than Rauchbach himself, though. Basketball Insiders caught up with him to learn more about a system just beginning to gain traction in the collegiate and professional ranks.
Can you give me a very broad explanation of what your program is?
Rauchbach: “What the MindRight Pro program does is combine acupuncture philosophy and energy psychology to identify and remove mental and emotional blocks, and consistently enhance player performance. The reason this program produces results fast is because it gets to the root of why an athlete is blocked. These blocks are held within the unconscious mind, or the energy systems of the body. So by identifying or removing these blocks from that system, players improve quickly and elevate performance across the long term… As far as I know, nobody else is combining energy psychology and acupuncture philosophy to actually elevate performance consistently. They’re not dealing with the unconscious mind to really get to the root of why guys are blocked. By actually getting to this root – by actually getting to the unconscious mind – you are unblocking these guys at a very core and deep level. The St. Louis Rams and the St. Louis Cardinals are using similar technology, but this program is different because it’s comprehensive. Essentially, what MindRight Pro does is provide a customized athlete program based upon player profiles, performance issues and athlete or coaching staff goals for that player.”
Let’s say I’m a player who wants to subscribe to your program. What’s my process?
Rauchbach: “First of all, you have to identify what the issue is – the performance issue. So being at the Temple program long enough, [I] know what a guy’s issue is. Whether it’s leadership, whether he plays well in practice but it doesn’t carry over to games, whatever that issue might be. Once that’s identified, what I do as a coach is go to the player and [say], ‘Look, this is how I can help you. This is what I’ve done with players in your position in the past, on the college and pro level. And this is how we’re going to get there.’ So from there, the most important thing is getting the athlete buy-in. If the athlete buys in 100 percent to what we’re doing, then I can help that athlete. From there I’m going to customize, usually a six-to-eight-week program combining input from the coaching staff, the player, and then my point of view as a performance coach to structure a program to help that athlete achieve the goal we’re trying to achieve for him. So for Will Cummings [at Temple] last year, from the beginning to the end of the program, one of our goals was to allow him to be a strong and vocal leader on the court at all times. It took six weeks to get there, but after that six weeks he was the unquestioned leader of [the] team, both on the court and in the locker room.”
Can you give me an example of things you did to specifically strengthen leadership confidence?
Rauchbach: “The main crux of this work is, you have to sift out the unconscious energetic blocks before the player can make a change – because if the player can make the change already [on their own], they would have consciously done that. These changes are made on an unconscious level. So by implementing the first element, which is off-court sessions to implement these energy psychology techniques, to go in and identify what these blocks are – past experiences of these players held on an unconscious level. And then through various mechanisms, clear this stuff out so that when the player gets on the court, the coaching staff can go in and coach them up on the focuses that we’re working on. So once [the player] is unblocked, it’s like the doors are open so he can move forward in that specific focus that we’re working on. There are [also] pre-game and in-game processes that Will learned last year, so that when things went awry for him, he was able to focus back in – not only for himself personally, but also as the leader of [his] team.”
What are some of the influences that you drew from in designing this program?
Rauchbach: “This program is very personal to me. It grew out of an organic process for me to heal as a kid – when I was a kid I experienced chronic disease and a number of physical and emotional issues. The byproduct of this disease was a [number] of emotional and physical performance blocks. I went to all different types of doctors and psychologists, traditional methods and means – it just didn’t help me. So I was really forced to find other ways to help me heal. Because of this, I went to holistic practitioners, Chinese medicine, different types of energy psychology practitioners, these sorts of people, to help me get over the ailments that I was dealing with.
Through the tools I learned, I began to create an organic process when I was a teenager. And then when I got back on the court, I already had a process to help me get over the issues I had dealt with, that any athlete deals with. So for instance, shooting slumps, pregame and in-game anxiety, not being focused, and actually dealing with physical injury. This program actually helps expedite injury recovery.
From there, once I got into coaching, I took the process that I knew how to apply from my own personal performance, and kind of turned it outwards on the players that I was coaching and applied my training… So it’s been a very personal journey for me, not just something I picked up. I’m very passionate about this, and I know 100 percent that it works.”
To play devil’s advocate, how do I know this isn’t a placebo effect? Is there more traditional medical backing to the program?
Rauchbach: “We received medical community validations from Dr. Milo Sewards, the team orthopedic surgeon for Temple University athletics. This helps to validate what I’ve known to work, and what many other practitioners have known to work. Energy psychology methods have proven efficacious in clinical treatment of anxiety, depression, phobias and PTSD. This is such cutting edge technology in sports that there is little research on the effects of [this kind of] performance enhancement across high-level sports. I’m building a case with the guys I’m working with, and testimonials from head coaches I’ve worked with both at Drexel and here at Temple, along with all the athletes I’ve worked with. The testimonials back the methodology of this program, because it’s worked and it’s helped them.
Additionally, we track everything throughout the program – so there’s a positive correlation between reduction in performance blocks and improvement in performance statistically. So we actively use basketball statistics, [along with] Temple basketball analytics we use within our internal program here to show that before, during and after the program, players are getting better based upon a reduction in performance blocks. I’m trying to build a case to illustrate [through] these testimonials of players and coaches, and the statistics – because the numbers don’t lie – that this stuff works and is on the cutting edge of performance technology.”
What about coaching? Do you think there are parts of the program that could be applicable to coaching, perhaps even at the NBA level?
Rauchbach: “No question. I think we all experience different types of performance blocks in whatever area of life we are performing in. This program can help coaches and their coaching staffs. Obviously coaching is a tough business – you deal with the stressors day in and day out of competition, and job security is always a big thing. And coaches also have to perform at a high level during practices and games, just as their players do. What this program does is help them connect with their players more easily, help them stay in the moment, and most importantly be on their games and be at their highest level of performance within their own coaching skill set – which will enable them to better be prepared to be successful with the team.”
You mentioned earlier that much of your success involved your proximity to the Temple program and how well you know these players. How might that theme transfer on a larger scale, like perhaps the NBA, with multiple clients?
Rauchbach: “Being on staff full time produces faster results, because its much easier to build trust and receive the buy-in needed to move forward with facilitating the player performance improvement. That’s the most important thing. The players have to buy in to you, and know that you care and are invested in them. Always being around and viewed as a basketball coach by the players is key and is the most ideal situation to apply this program.
Once they have that buy-in, they can actually do the work and help them improve. That being said, working as a consultant can also be effective – albeit it is more difficult. For me personally, getting a chance to build rapport with those players, getting buy-in from those players on a consultant basis can also prove equally effective. This a different way of looking at performance. This program is unique to me and the processes I’ve developed. So at some point, I do see this program having coaches that I’ve trained going out and helping different teams with their player performance issues, and potentially their coaching performance issues as well.”
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old