Shaq called him "The Resurrector." Most NBA folks know him as the "Silver Fox." The white-haired former training guru for the Los Angeles Lakers, Alex McKechnie, is currently the Toronto Raptors' assistant coach and head of sports science. To kick off his 13-year tenure in LakerLand, McKechnie rebuilt Shaq in 1998 after the mammoth center shredded his abdominal muscles in a Lakers preseason game. McKechnie revitalized Shaq's career by focusing on strengthening the 7-foot-1, 315-pound monster's core and is credited with doing the same to resolve Pau Gasol's back issues that plagued him for years in Memphis.
But during the 2011 lockout, the Lakers let McKechnie go as part of their organizational decision to cut payroll. Months later, McKechnie joined the Raptors to head up their training department. And now in 2013-14, the 42-32 Raptors rank as one of the biggest surprise teams in the league. Looking to explain the Raps' unlikely rise?
Start with this fact: The Raptors have suffered the NBA's fewest missed games due to injury this season. Under McKechnie's watch, the Raptors have lost just 46 games due to health and a total of 826 minutes, according to Insider Kevin Pelton's injury database. That's almost 200 fewer minutes than the next-healthiest team, the Pacers.
The Raptors have enjoyed a successful season with players who by and large have remained healthy.
Not coincidentally, the Lakers rank 29th with five times as many games lost and about eight times as many minutes. Contrast that with McKechnie's final season in Los Angeles, where seven players played 82 games and six of them were over the age of 30 (Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown).
As you might have guessed, McKechnie got on board with Catapult two years ago and has reaped the benefits of its predictive analytics. Rather than react to injuries, McKechnie does everything he can to prevent them from happening. The Catapult stream line of data helps McKechnie detect when a player's body becomes overloaded. The player's posture degenerates, the weaker body parts become vulnerable and he begins to wear down. When players start to overcompensate in fatigue, that's when the soft-tissue injuries -- the hamstring pulls, abdominal tears and back spasms -- tend to occur.
"We do constant recording of information," McKechnie says. "The most interesting part to me is the ability to identify breakdown of movement. I can identify the volume of a player movement left and right for example, the acuteness of the movement and whether they can generate force and power through that movement in a particular direction. In some cases, it's much more dominant in one side than the other."
McKechnie tells a story about a key player's development during this season's training camp. After examining a printout of each player's directional loads on offense, McKechnie noticed that the young player moved to his left 40 percent of the time while only going right 19 percent. After asking around, none of the coaching staff picked it up with their own naked eye. So McKechnie went upstairs in the Raptors' training facility, hooked the player up with a Catapult device and went through a standard workout.
What he found was fascinating. After consulting the charts, he found it wasn't that the player was simply more skilled going left; the Catapult data showed his muscle strength was categorically imbalanced. The player was unable to match the intensity levels moving left as he did going right. Turns out the player had suffered a soft-tissue injury years ago that was never properly healed. The player knew it, but tried to hide it.
The data brought it to light. So McKechnie brought the Catapult findings to his coaching staff and they've worked with the player to not only strengthen his core muscles, but to level out his on-court game. Five months later, the same report showed that the player now moves 33 percent to his right, almost twice as often. The data helped add a new dimension, a fresh weapon to the player's arsenal. "This is especially true when you're coming off an injury," McKechnie. "The ability to see if a player can elevate the volume of the intensity of movement through low, medium and high intensity levels is essential to what we do. In some cases, the player can't get there, can't hide it. So once you identify that, it can change everything."