The NBA is changing, in more ways than one. Rough-and-tumble is out. Sweet shooting and soft fouls are in. Sleep is most definitely in, especially now, at the start of the Cavs-Warriors Finals.
The Cavs’ LeBron James sleeps as much as 12 hours a day. His teammate J.R. Smith has seen his game markedly improve since being traded from the Knicks early last year, because, in his words, “there’s no late nights” in Cleveland.
On the opposing bench, the Warriors’ Steph Curry sleeps about eight hours a night, and tries to get a two-to-2.5-hour nap before the pregame shoot around.
“We’ve talked about sleep a little,” says Curry’s personal trainer, Brandon Payne, of Accelerate Basketball in South Carolina. “He’s pretty good about getting things like that done on his own.” Even so, and with all Curry’s success (second straight MVP, second trip to the Finals), in the off-season Payne will probably look to have Curry add wearable technology to his routine, to monitor his sleep quality.
Curry’s teammate Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP, only gets 7.5 hours and no nap, but he also used to be a night owl whose sleep mostly consisted of a four-hour nap during the day. He recently spoke with Arianna Huffington, author of “The Sleep Revolution," about how his change in habits helped his game.
“Getting more sleep directly affected my three-point percentage, which doubled, my free-throw percentage was up 30, 40 percent, my turnovers were way down, I got more steals,” he told her. “Having that rest, and feeling confident as a healthy human being, you’re able to react to those situations and make better decisions.”
That reaction time was evident in Game 6 of this year’s Conference Finals against the Thunder, when two undersung defensive plays by Iguodala saved the game — and the season — for Golden State. But this isn’t merely about his or Curry’s or LeBron’s personal approach toward sleep: The science says they’re right.
A 2011 study found that when basketball players on Stanford’s men’s team got 10 hours a night, they ran faster, shot free throws and threes with nine percent more accuracy and reported feeling less worn out during practices and games.
Even without numbers from a study, getting enough sleep might seem like an obvious part of a professional athlete’s routine. But obvious or not, NBA players didn’t always have the opportunity to get that sleep.
“I would just find ways to sleep for six or seven hours,” says ESPN analyst Antonio Davis, who played from ’93 to ’06. “Then I’d get up for shoot around and come back and try to get a nap.”
Davis describes the nightmare scenario of flying from San Antonio to Charlotte for back-to-back games, arriving at three in the morning and having to be ready to play by seven. In fact, he says, you can look at the schedule and know when a team is in trouble.
“If a team has played four games in six days, and that fourth game is a back-to-back, they’re going to come out sluggish, and they’ll be lucky if they win,” he says.
So what’s changed to allow these players to sleep more?
Well, one thing is the scheduling. The scenario that Davis describes doesn’t really exist anymore. This makes sense for the league: In theory, well-rested players should make for better games.
But the other big change is the general attitude toward sleep.
“I’ve heard coaches say that they push a regular day’s practice back until the afternoon so guys can sleep in a little bit, or they don’t have morning shoot arounds,” says Davis. “I think I would have liked that, but it was not going to happen.”
It’s not only having more available time to sleep that’s helping players get more sleep. Any study, along with common sense, will tell you that maintaining a daily routine is crucial to establishing good sleep habits. The Warriors, for one, have taken that to heart, says Payne. Each day — with the team's shoot arounds, treatments, and media time — is scheduled exactly the same, “like clockwork.”
But what about the good old days, when Jordan was scorching the competition on, reportedly, just a few hours a night?
“Ah, I think there’s a lot of things going into Jordan not getting [sleep],” he says. “That’s a whole ’nother deal.”
Some people, Davis does note, had no trouble whatsoever, scheduling be damned. Tracy McGrady was something of a legend in this area, “probably one of the weirdest” when it came to sleep, so much so that guys would always talk about it.
“He could take a nap at halftime,” Davis says. “He’d close his eyes for ten minutes and it was like a power nap.”
This reminds Davis of his 21-year-old son A.J., who plays for Central Florida and can just drop into a deep sleep on a short car ride. And it’s a great point: In many cases, it’s not that these NBA players are being coddled exactly, or even handled better for the sake of performance; they really need the sleep.
“A lot of these guys are coming in younger [age 19 and 20],” he says. “They’re still growing.”
Today’s NBA is a whole new world, it seems. Better schedules, understanding coaches. It doesn’t have to be thrown in Davis’s face.
“I think I watched the Magic practice once, and they practiced for like 45 minutes,” he says. “I’m like, man, we were out there two and half hours killing each other every day. You guys got it made.”