For good reasons, NBA players have long been thought of as some of the most well-conditioned athletes in sports. Now they’re getting in even better shape to extend the height of their production and their careers for as long as possible.
And thanks primarily to Kobe Bryant’s influence, you’ll be seeing even less of them.
If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s only because that last statement is meant purely in a physical sense.
After noticing how weight loss greatly benefitted Bryant as he approached and passed the age of 30, NBA stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have followed suit by slimming down this summer.
For them, getting trimmer is about maximizing production during the period of what typically becomes the twilight of an NBA player’s prime, just before an expected deterioration of play.
In their book “Stumbling On Wins,” co-authors Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt detailed that NBA players normally peak in their mid-20s, remain very effective until the age of 30, and begin to sharply decline two years later.
Well aware of that history, Bryant worked hard to become even more athletic than he already was while playing at a heavier weight.
Although Bryant was long established as one of the game’s all-time greats, with three straight league titles (in 2000-02) on his resume, he didn’t win an NBA Finals MVP Award until the consecutive years he earned such honors in 2008-09, at the ages of 29 and 30. The first of those two years came right after the summer of 2007, when Bryant shed 19 pounds and subsequently went on to win the only regular season MVP Award of his career, in 2008.
Thus, it’s no coincidence that James (who will be 30 on the penultimate day of 2014), Anthony (who reached 30 in May) and Wade (who turned 32 in January) all got serious this summer about carrying less weight.
While Anthony has been more of a finesse player than James and Wade, he has still taken his share of pounding in the lane. Meanwhile, Wade’s game, for many years, had always been to absorb contact in the paint with reckless abandon, and James often enjoyed playing a physical brand of attacking ball at upwards of 270 pounds.
But as Anthony and Wade have moved into their 30s, and with James to join them soon, a change in philosophy has set in. No longer does it make sense for them to bulk up and invite as much bodily harm as before.
Wade simply can’t take the pounding anymore, James won’t need to as much, now that he has Kevin Love as a teammate at power forward, and neither will Anthony in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense to be run by rookie head coach Derek Fisher.
Instead, becoming lighter like Bryant did (even though Bryant eventually missed all but six games last season, at age 35, following an Achilles tendon tear) generally places a lot less stress and causes less wear and tear on the body, especially as players enter their 30s.
All of a sudden, being thin is definitely in.
But it’s also worked before. Few ever performed better at such a light weight as one of basketball’s best shooters of all-time, Reggie Miller, who at a slight 6-foot-7, 185 pounds, enjoyed a terrific Hall of Fame career.
His thin frame played a significant role in allowing him to score above (18.9 points per game) his career average of 18.2 points at the age of 31, and to still put up a solid 14.8 points in his final season, at 39 years old, in 2004-05.
Miller believes that James, whose severe cramping issues forces him to leave Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals with the contest still in doubt, wouldn’t have been a problem for the league’s best player had he been competing at a lower weight.
“[It’ll] prolong their careers,” Miller, now an NBA analyst for TNT, told TMZ Sports recently, while speaking about players like James and Anthony.
He added, “When you carry on too much weight, it kind of shortens the longevity of a basketball player. Especially later on, as you get up in years, it’s less wear and tear on your body. So actually it’s pretty smart. You saw what happened to LeBron during the Finals, the cramping. I guarantee you he won’t have those issues now that he’s lost that weight.”
Whatever James, Wade and Anthony may lose in being more powerful, they’ll gain more so in quickness and endurance from being leaner.
That’s something that arguably the greatest power forward ever, 38-year-old Tim Duncan (fresh off his fifth NBA title, at the age of 38 last season), and 39-year-old Ray Allen — the owner of the record for most made three-pointers in NBA history, after passing Miller for that spot in 2011 — each proved after losing weight and extending their respective careers in highly productive ways throughout their 30s.
In the same way that Bryant, Duncan and Allen have positively imparted the benefits of playing at a lighter weight to James, Wade and Anthony, that last trio have been role models (and you might even say fitness models) for even younger NBA players.
At 7’0″, 26-year-old Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez has followed the same meticulous diet employed by James and Anthony — who previously experimented with fasting, even during an NBA season — of reducing or eliminating carbohydrates, soda, candy and processed foods in favor of more healthy choices, including lean protein, and making calories count instead of wasting them. The result of that change is that Lopez (who missed most of last season with a broken foot after playing in just five games two years earlier) went from a career-high 290 pounds last year to just under 275 pounds, at what he considers his “normal playing weight.”
As Lopez was doing that, last year’s top overall draft pick, 21-year-old Anthony Bennett, followed a disappointing rookie season by looking better with both his play and his physique during the Summer League in July.
Jared Sullinger, 22, was up to 280 pounds at the end of last year, but is trying to get down to 260 pounds before the start of next season.
At 27, Andray Blatche, has already made that same transition, and 20 pounds lighter, he was a significant contributor for Brooklyn after the Washington Wizards benched him for being out of shape.
Former University of Michigan star, 22-year-old Mitch McGary, lost 20 pounds after going on a high-protein, low-fat diet. After that, he was selected as the 21st overall pick in the 2014 draft and impressed during the Summer League for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And point guard Patty Mills was in Gregg Popovich’s doghouse for being out of shape until he cut his body fat by more than half (from 12 to 5.8 percent) and played a key role in helping Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs roll past James and the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Whereas it’s good to see the young guys taking their fitness seriously, the sudden trend of going lighter is still mainly a function of older players in their primes trying to remain as productive as possible for as long as possible.
After playing in 54,208 minutes in 1,465 games (counting postseasons), over 18 seasons, Bryant joked to Sports Illustrated that he is “70 in basketball years.”
Yet after logging all of that time on the court, and even coming off of surgery, Bryant can still be very effective next season — not only because he’s immensely talented and competitive, but playing at a lower weight has helped him to continue to be one of the league’s best players (even if he’s no longer quite the megastar he once was).
The proof of that won’t be contained solely within what Bryant may accomplish from this point.
It’s already seen in what others are doing in taking a page from Bryant themselves, in realizing that less is more, as they attempt to stretch their own good play for as long as they can.