Injuries have been a huge problem for the Los Angeles Lakers in recent years. In fact, in each of the last two seasons, the Lakers led the NBA in games lost due to injury. Last season, their players missed a combined 339 games; the season before, they missed 319.
And while those figures were certainly inflated because of several Lakers who suffered season-ending injuries, the team nonetheless had many players banged up throughout each season.
But this season, the Lakers so far have been remarkably healthy.
In fact, through the first 20 games the Lakers lost a league-low five games due to injury, according to data compiled by Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer who has cataloged the careers of more than 1,100 players dating back to the 2005-06 season. Compare that figure to last season, when the Lakers had lost 72 games due to injury through 20 games, according to Stotts’ data.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers (7-27) remain one of the league’s healthiest teams, having lost just 12 games due to injury, which places them third behind the Oklahoma City Thunder (seven) and the San Antonio Spurs (nine), according to Stotts.
Again, that figure represents a dramatic turnaround from last season, when Lakers players had missed 123 games because of injury through 34 games. In fact, at that point, four Lakers had missed more games because of injury than this year’s total thus far – Steve Nash (34), Julius Randle (33), Ryan Kelly (28) and Xavier Henry (16).
Lakers coach Byron Scott recently told ESPN that he knew injuries were way down for his team this season, but he said he didn’t know the figures were that low compared to the rest of the NBA.
In terms of an explanation, Scott credited longtime Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti and head strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, who together have helped create a formula that helps track the health and performance of their players.
That formula, which the team began using last season, uses data culled from multiple devices and methods and ultimately charts players in green (good), yellow (caution) or red (danger) zones, as ESPN reported in late October.
Scott said Vitti and DiFrancesco relay that information to him every three to four days and that the “technology has definitely helped me.” (An ESPN article in October first revealed the Lakers' injury-prevention efforts and the various technologies they use.)
“All they’ve got to do is give me a sheet that shows me where the guys are – who’s where and who’s in that danger area – and, obviously, I’ve got to pay attention to that," Scott said, "because if I don’t and I’m hard-headed, we’ll probably have the type of injuries that we had last year.
“So in terms of those guys just keeping a real good tab on where everybody is,” Scott continued, “that’s kind of helped me during our practices and days off. If I see us and we’ve got six or seven guys close to that red, I know I’ve got to back off.”
While Scott didn’t specify which Lakers players have been in the red zone at any point this season, he did say that he has “absolutely” lightened certain players’ loads at various points thanks to information relayed to him through Vitti and DiFrancesco.
Vitti has a simple explanation for the Lakers’ low-injury totals so far this season.
“It’s all luck,” he told ESPN recently. “The years before those [past] two years, we were really healthy. There were several years in a row that the guys that were in the rotation, the eight or nine guys, played all 82 games.”
Vitti pointed out that there were only two injuries last season that the team could have prevented, and they involved Kelly, who dealt with hamstring issues beginning in training camp, and forward/center Jordan Hill, who suffered a strained hip flexor during the season.
“All those injuries last year, except for Ryan Kelly and Jordan Hill, were all trauma related,” Vitti said. “I can’t stop somebody from stepping on somebody else’s foot.”
While luck plays a role in certain injuries, Vitti said the Lakers are doing their best to control what they can. And speaking of the Lakers’ green-yellow-red system, Vitti said, “It does give [Scott] a better perspective on who to push and who to hold back.”
Vitti also noted that the Lakers were making efforts to gauge players' health and performance in recent years, but now, with the help of some new technology, they can be a bit more objective and precise in their evaluations.
In the end, Vitti appreciated Scott’s praise, but Vitti declined to take any credit.
“It’s nice of [Scott] to say that, but I don’t have any respect for any trainer or any therapist who takes credit for that kind of success, because there’s guys that do,” Vitti said. “The only one that should take credit is the athlete himself.”