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Arron Afflalo and the Placebo Effect

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Can a change of perspective fix what ails the Denver Nuggets?

The leaders of the pack
The leaders of the pack
Harry How

In a Harvard Magazine study published in 2013, Associate Professor Ted Kaptchuk ran a clinical trial comparing the efficacy of an unbranded pain relief medication vs. acupuncture for a group of 270 people experiencing severe arm pain. With either treatment, patients were warned about the possible side effects, including redness and swelling, and increased pain levels. Nearly a third of the patients studied (whether on the medication or acupuncture track) experienced those issues and more.

There was only one problem. It was all a bunch of crap.

Well, less crap, and more a part of Kaptchuk's studies around the effects of placebos on a person's ability to heal. The pills study participants received were made from corn starch. The needles, retractable. Never pierced the skin. Participants were literally being left to their own devices. And yet, a large percentage of participants experienced the pain or relief they'd been told they could if they participated.

Study after study relates similar findings. Stories of healing and pain, all associated with the mental "belief" spelling how the treatment would affect the participant. The placebo effect is a very real part of today's medical community, not simply for verifying the efficacy of trial medications (a large part of what a "double blind" study is), but also as an effective form of treatment. If you follow the rabbit hole, you'll find a multitude of stories verifying the capability of humans to translate their thoughts and beliefs into physical action and reaction. In researching this article, I stumbled across tales from the banal to the utterly fantastic. Such as? Such as: an instance of a gent going into cardiac arrest after attempting to overdose on his unmarked study meds, and then having a change of heart. If true, the man was literally going into full arrest in front of two paramedics. When they finally got the study to reveal his medication? You guessed it. Placebo. Urban legend? Maybe. But the red welts and swollen limbs of the Harvard study above? ‘Splain that one to me, naysayers.

How does such a thing work in sports?

Nearly a month ago, the Denver Nuggets brought shooting guard Arron Afflalo back into the fold after a stint with the Orlando Magic. Since his return, AAA has been telling anyone who will listen that the Nuggets, as currently constituted, are a championship-caliber team. Some incredulity ran amongst the sports pundits around this comment, in that the Nuggets next championship will also be their first. But Afflalo will not be swayed from his POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE (read: placebo). Said positive mental attitude is widely recognized in the sports community, from players and coaches to sports psychologists as a key component in improving the performance of both individuals and teams in a sports setting. A wide body of research shows that tools such as visualization and positive feedback, both internal and external, play a huge factor in long-term success in sports endeavors.

Sure, says you, but talent is truly the bottom line, no? If every team could "wish" their way to a championship, there would be a bit of a crowd at the top. Setting aside that level of "wish it, want it, do it" naiveté, the mental aspects of the game are not just an important part of success, they often spell the difference between good and great. As my good and wise friend Russ said on these pages yesterday, "taking the ‘next step' at the NBA level is almost always a mental step." When studying up on the post-win quotes of teams who have attained that championship level, much of what's said centers around the last hurdle being the mental game: focus, tenacity, acuity, perseverance. Though our youthful Nuggets still have a few rough edges to shave off of their game, many seem ready to take that "next step".

With Andy's great article yesterday speaking to the Nuggets depth, it's increasingly clear that Denver has a tremendous amount of talent on this years' squad, and also that each player has aspects of their games to refine: Will Kenneth Faried decide defense is a priority this year? Will Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo develop into the leaders that George Karl was asking them to be in 2012? Will JaVale McGee set aside the antics associated with his game and dedicate himself to maximizing athletic potential rarely seen in the league? Will Danilo Gallinari return to his pre-injury form, mentally and physically? Who shot J.R.? (not Smith, I know you were hoping. Simmer down.) Each of those, and so many more, come down to a decision and dedication from each of the players. A mindset, if you will. But a part of that mindset involves sheer unadulterated belief, such as the sort AAA is displaying for a chuckling world to see. A placebo, if you'll jump that shark with me.

That said, for such thoughts to propagate amonsgt the team, that "placebo" needs to come from a place of leadership and respect - The top of the food chain, both with players and coaches. Fortunately, it would seem that Denver is well-seated in both of those regards. Afflalo and Lawson will be looked to by many to lead this effort, and as now covered, AAA has made no secret of his championship opinions of this team. Ty has matured as a leader every year of his career (albeit more slowly than many would have liked), and seems well-poised to share that responsibility with his backcourt mate.

Further up the bench, Brian Shaw led the team through a difficult season last year, fraught with change and injury, and still managed to keep a team that eventually had little to play for giving their all throughout the campaign. Many fans are still on the fence about Shaw, as he followed the Nuggets record-setting 57-win season, but if there is a poster child for the amazing effects of a positive mental attitude, Brian Shaw is that guy. This is only a small portion, but check out his full interview with HBO's Real Sports for further verification. The man is a rock. Add to that a passion, knowledge and experience as to what a championship team must do to climb Everest, and suddenly we have our hoops Sherpa. Shaw brings five titles to the table, three as a player, two as an assistant coach.

Locally and nationally, the Nuggets are primarily regarded as a team on the playoff bubble in an amazingly deep Western Conference, with team after team looking like theoretical world beaters. Our players and coach are young, and several key cogs to this season's success didn't see the court much, if at all, last season. Cohesion must come. Schemes and a pecking order must be established. It all seems a pretty daunting task in the scheme of 82 long games for any team, let alone one that's recently missed the playoffs and never ascended to the top.

So... where does that leave us? An impossible task. A young, tough and impressionable crew. Heights never before achieved. It could be folly. Isn't that insurmountable challenge the basis of most any great sports story? Will we see the 57-win Nuggets of 2012, or the 36-win Nuggets of 2013? And can Afflalo's Placebo push the Nuggets to even greater heights? It will be fun to find out come October.

What say you, Nuggets Nation? Are we healing up, or are these just sugar pills?