The NBA has seen superstars like James Harden and Zion Williamson begin the season out of shape, and it’s hurt their team performances.
Whether it’s a superstar, starter, or role player off the bench, addressing a player who’s out of shape can be an awkward conversation for an executive, coach, or training staff member.
So how do teams handle a player who is out of shape?
HoopsHype spoke with four NBA executives and one NBA agent to learn how front office members handle that situation.
According to the four NBA executives polled, each situation is circumstantial. The common denominator for the executives is to answer this question: Why is the player out of shape? Is it due to an injury, fatigue, a personal issue off the court, laziness, etc.?
“You’ve got to read the player and the situation around them and adjust from there,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype. “Some guys you can have a hard conversation with. Sometimes you can support even further and put it in their contracts and have some bonus structure to help incentivize that, as well. It’s just all about what is the best way to set that guy up for success in your program.”
Some executives believe a player’s weight or body fat percentage determines if he is in shape. For others, the number on the scale isn’t an issue as long as the player can maintain their desired level of play.
“If a guy can do his job at 230, 240, or 250, I don’t care,” another executive told HoopsHype. “I don’t care what weight a guy is playing at as long as he can do his job at the level that he is most capable of doing his job. If a guy is carrying that extra 10 pounds, and his finishing above the rim has tapered off, or if he’s getting beaten transition two times more per game than it was the season before, now it’s an issue.”
If that issue arises, the player is addressed directly.
“You basically just sit him down, whether it’s the head coach or the team president,” a third NBA executive said bluntly. “All of these are circumstantial. There’s no system. You don’t go to the GM manual and say, ‘Okay, I got a fat player, what do I do?’ It’s going to be a function of your relationship with the player.”
Who delivers the message to the player?
According to one agent who spoke to HoopsHype, tensions can happen if a player meets his standard weight (outlined by the training staff), but the team’s general manager makes side comments about the player needing to be in better shape by trimming some weight and lowering his body fat percentage.
The mixed message from the performance staff and the executive can upset a player.
To avoid these types of situations, the task of addressing a player who’s out of shape usually comes from veterans on the team, a coach, or the performance staff.
“We can only do so much from the coaching chair, and we can only do so much from the management chair,” one of the executives explained. “Even though we have the authority to pull certain levers and push certain buttons, we don’t have the credibility of saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I’ve done it.’ Players have. They’ve played with the best. He’s kept himself in shape. ‘Can you help teach these guys how to do that?’”
If the team has a longstanding proven veteran, he’ll be asked to have the conversation. If a veteran is coming into a new team and hasn’t had time to build a relationship with his teammates, management will turn to a coach’s voice.
“The coach always had those conversations,” another NBA executive told HoopsHype. “The coach let it be known that we need you at your playing weight. The player knows what his playing weight is. The team has that data and information as well because you’re constantly weighing the players.”
Should a team have a rookie coach, or if a team wants to mitigate the least amount of potential tension, the training staff could step in.
“I’ve never been the one to have a direct conversation, and we usually have it through our head of performance,” a third executive said. “Sometimes, the GM is in that conversation, but it’s usually the head of performance because that’s his job. We’ve tried to handle it very directly. We’re not doing this for us. We’re doing it for you and your career, which obviously helps us, but this is the deal.”
Contract incentives or bonuses teams can offer
The easiest way to keep a player focused on staying in shape is to attach bonuses in his contract for attending offseason training programs or hitting a certain weight or body percentage goal.
“I think it’s easier to approach a player when there are incentives,” an NBA agent told HoopsHype. “I think that makes it an easier conversation. When you don’t have those incentives, it’s a tougher conversation. To be honest, being a non-athlete makes it even harder. I think they’re regular people who struggle with weight, whether it’s for mental reasons or insecurities. You just tell guys, ‘Look, this is going to affect your career. It’s going to affect what’s going to happen with you now, what’s next, and how you get paid. Let’s get our sh*t together.’”
Then, the agent told HoopsHype an ironic story about how he’d reward his player for hitting the weight clause bonus in his contract.
“He hit the bonus every time,” the agent said. “It helped. I took him to Philippe Chow every time he hit the mark.”
For executives in small markets, they’ll sometimes structure a two-week offseason training program bonus to keep their core players in their market instead and have their coaches work hands-on with players.
“Typically, a guy’s body or his conditioning is a function of his habits,” an executive noted. “In very young players’ contracts, a lot of teams will try to incentivize the development of good habits. That’s why in a lot of rookie contracts, you’ll see bonus amounts for offseason conditioning programs or training programs. All they have to do is complete those training or conditioning programs with the team because it basically gives the team 2-4 weeks of access to the player in the offseason to really help teach that young player some self-discipline skills, some self-training skills, eating skills, and sleeping skills. The players are incentivized to sort of submit to that program.”
“You’ll often surround those guys with veterans for that 2-4 week period of time, so that those events too, can participate in that program, and really show the young players the difference between Lucky Charms and a kale salad.”
Some executives encourage players to hire a nutritionist or chef to help supplement the weight training the players do at the facility by making sure the player’s diet is healthy. Other teams go a step further and provide meals for their players to take home.
“We found out one player was eating all sorts of sh*t, and we had to tell him, ‘You can’t do that anymore.’” one executive recalled. “We tried to get him to only eat at our facility and prescribe fruits. We got him a nutritionist. We didn’t provide him with a chef, but we told him to think about it. At some point, the onus has to be on him. We weren’t going to do all the work.”
In other instances, a player could be out of shape due to poor eating habits from depression or other mental health conditions where teams will try and step in to help.
“We tried to have one player see a therapist at times,” another executive told HoopsHype. “We tried everything. He played well for us and looked like he was turning the corner, like he was going to be okay. Then, we traded him as part of a trade and as part of salary relief, and he didn’t handle that well psychologically.”
Fans tend to think there’s no excuse for players to be out of shape because they get paid too much money. NBA Twitter, in particular, can be a brutal place for an athlete with memes and jokes galore.
“I think people would be surprised how much teams and players try,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype. “They’ll always be like, ‘Why can’t Zion figure this out?’ For the most part, the teams and the players are actually trying. You don’t necessarily hear about all the details. Sometimes, these are just really hard problems. Some people are just genetically so predisposed, it’s hard, or guys get hurt, or they get depressed. It’s harder than we make it out to be.”
The executive recalled one example where his team worked with a role player whose weight fluctuated regularly.
“For one player, he had an eating problem, and clearly, like a deep-rooted psychological issue with it,” the executive explained. “I think, combined with genetics for a lot of these guys, it’s just really hard. You try literally not ever eating anything you want because it’s not easy.”
Another executive called for fans to have more empathy for players who go through the same struggles the average person does who’s trying to lose weight for a New Year’s resolution.
“Think about the same problems all of us have,” the other executive told HoopsHype. “We say, ‘I’m going to lose that five pounds. I’m going to get in shape this year.’ Then, you don’t. It’s not that different, in my opinion. It’s easy for us to say it’s their job. They’re getting paid millions of dollars, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still a real person.”
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