Flip Saunders’ first season coaching the Detroit Pistons came a decade ago. Detroit had a robust 64-18 record in the regular season before ultimately losing to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But as remarkable as it is to win 78 percent of your regular-season games, another number from that season is even more remarkable: according to Arnie Kander, the team’s physical therapist at the time, the Pistons didn’t have a single player miss a game — or even a practice — due to injury that year.
That kind of thing tends to stick with a coach — particularly one like Saunders, who watched his Timberwolves struggle with injuries last season. Saunders, who is taking a leave of absence while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was able to lure Kander to Minnesota this offseason, giving him the title of Vice President of Sports Performance and the mission of helping the Wolves’ all-around health.
Kander, who worked with the Pistons for 23 years and was among the first team physical therapists in the NBA, said Thursday he wouldn’t have made the move if not for Saunders — and, ultimately, what he deemed a good fit in Minnesota after four visits to the area.
“It’s nice to have a connection with a coach with those memories,” Kander said.
Injuries were a big part of the reason the Wolves lost 66 games last season. With 19 different players getting at least one start — 11 of them in double-figures — it was hard to establish continuity. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic in particular struggled to stay healthy, a problem that has plagued both of them throughout their careers.
Kander preaches hydration, nutrition and a good routine. But his approach also skews a bit unconventional as he talks about “looking at every possibility” to help players stay healthy.
He once treated Chauncey Billups with a frozen banana peel to help a bruise on his hamstring surface and heal faster. Kander builds his own contraptions designed for specific basketball exercises he wants players to do and makes his own creams and lotions for players to use.
Kander also said he believes there’s no separation between strength training and physical therapy in the NBA because no player is truly 100 percent healthy. To that end, the metal aspect of physical health comes into play.
“We don’t ask a guy about his knee, ankle, foot or hip, but [instead], ‘How is life? How was your dinner last night? What did you think of the game?’” Kander said. “It’s amazing the psychological impact of injury.”
What impact he has with the Wolves remains to be seen, but Kander is already leaning on veterans — including the newly acquired Tayshaun Prince, one of the iron men on that Pistons team a decade ago — to help establish a culture with the team’s young core.
“Our goal is to have everyone on the court and make sure everyone is basketball-ready,” he said.