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NBA fans know a lot about elite players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. Most can name successful coaches like Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers. But many fans are unfamiliar with the men responsible for developing players into even better athletes, with the ability to deliver jaw-dropping performances night after night—the league’s strength and conditioning coaches.
S&C coaches are the backbone of an NBA team, helping athletes improve their strength and stamina during the off-season and providing pre-hab and rehab routines to help players endure the grind of an 82-game season.
Here, we pull back the curtain on these unheralded coaches and introduce you to the eight best strength and conditioning coaches in the NBA.
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When the team you train wins back-to-back NBA championships, you deserve some love. Bill Foran is the O.G. of basketball strength and conditioning, having been with the Miami Heat since their inception in 1988. Foran already owns three shiny championship rings, and he may have a fourth at the end of this season. Name a marquee player—Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James—and Foran has worked with him.
Foran’s training methods have evolved as the game has changed, and he now focuses his efforts with the Heat on total body balance strength training. ”It’s a lot different than years ago, when we did Sit-Ups and Back Extensions. Now it’s more stabilization and working the core the way it’s utilized in everyday life and in athletics,” he says.
Keeping a team like the Heat hungry and in shape as it tries for a three-peat is no easy task, but if history is any indicator, Foran is more than equipped to handle the challenge.
If you’ve watched a Denver Nuggets game in the last decade, you’ve probably seen Steve Hess. The burly South African can often be seen bounding off the bench during timeouts and dishing out butt slaps and high fives like he’s a key part of the Nuggets’ rotation. Hess has been the Nuggets’ strength and conditioning coach for 15 seasons, working closely with stars like Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala. He’s a high-energy guy, with a training philosophy based on a deep study of his athletes.
”Every single athlete I look at, I watch video on how they play,” Hess says. “I see how we can make them better. We bring in a nutritional component, we bring in a supplemental component, we bring in a flexibility component and bring it all together.”
Hess is also the co-owner of FORZA Fitness & Performance in downtown Denver. His passion for what he does is evident not only in his actions on the court, but in his voice whenever he speaks about his work.
”In my heart I believe I was put on this planet to train basketball players,” Hess says.
Charged with grooming Roy Hibbert, one of the game’s last remaining traditional big men, Shawn Windle helped turn the once stiff, immobile center from Georgetown into the dominant rim protector he’s become on an Indiana Pacers team that currently owns the best record in the Eastern Conference. This past off-season, Windle pushed Hibbert to perform exercises like High Pulls, Clean-and-Jerks, Squats and Deadlifts to improve the big guy’s strength and footwork on the court.
”In the past few years, Roy’s come a long way in terms of his strength development and body composition,” Windle says. “The last couple of years we’ve been able to add a lot of strength and lean body mass.”
Thanks to Windle, creating a stronger and quicker Hibbert and molding the rest of the squad into a menacing physical unit on the court, the Pacers are legitimate NBA title contenders.
Dwight Daub works with two of the highest profile players in the NBA, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and each player has his own specific needs. With 17 years of strength coaching experience in the NBA, Daub has worked with KD since his rookie year to bolster his wispy frame and what Daub calls his “balance capabilities,” allowing the All-Star to dodge and weave his way through the lane without losing his footing, a problem that plagued him as a rookie.
Daub describes his training approach as “[placing] the athlete in environments that create a challenge to their central nervous system.” He’s big on instability training, which has come in handy when addressing Russell Westbrook’s multiple leg injuries this season. As the Thunder attempt to make their second run at the NBA Finals, Daub’s work behind the scenes propels them forward.
John Stockton. Karl Malone. Deron Williams. Utah Jazz strength and conditioning coach Mark McKown has worked with some of the game’s best during his nearly two-decade career in the NBA. McKown joined the Jazz organization in 1997, and he puts a premium on off-season training to prepare for the grueling season ahead.
“NBA guys, a lot of times, fall into the trap of ‘I’ve got this athleticism, that’s what got me here, but I can’t get any better.’ That’s not true,” McKown says. “Not only do I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to help players improve their athleticism, I want them to be in the NBA for as long as they can.”
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Robert Hackett spent 18 years with the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks before coming over to the Milwaukee Bucks this past season. He trained future Hall of Famers Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, and he is credited with nursing Caron Butler back to health after the former Mav ruptured his right patella tendon in 2011.
Hackett emphasizes flexibility and range of movement with his athletes, attributes he says they tend to take for granted because of their immense physical gifts. Legs and hips, especially the hip flexors, are the main areas of his focus.
“I’ve had some amazing athletes over the years; [but] they couldn’t bend over and touch their toes or squat into a low defensive position because they were just used to shooting the basketball,” Hackett says. “They may have been able to jump over the rim, but working on their range of movement and flexibility would’ve made them much better.”
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Bryan Doo has been with the Boston Celtics since 2003, and he has seen his fair share of injuries. From Paul Pierce’s stress fracture in his foot during the 2006-2007 season to Kevin Garnett’s knee injury that caused him to miss the 2009 NBA Playoffs, Doo, the Celtics’ head strength and conditioning coach, has kept busy. This season, he spent plenty of time working with injured point guard Rajon Rondo as he recovered from a torn ACL, getting him back on the court well before the All-Star break.
Entering his seventh season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Jesse Wright has also worked with other sports teams in Philly, including the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and Villanova University’s football team. Big on preventing muscle fatigue and injury, as well as improving his athletes’ flexibility, Wright prescribes exercises like this band circuit routine, which he finds extremely beneficial.