For a professional athlete, like an NBA player, an injury is awful. Injuries that require rest mean you stay home, immobilize it, and miss out on being with the team (which sounds like the last 12 months). If it requires rehab? You spend unseen hours, with the training staff, working on getting your body to function in a normal way. All the while, you sit and watch guys doing the job you get paid to do. If they do it worse than you? Your team, and ultimately you, lose. And if they do well? The “did they even need so-and-so?!” talk from the likes of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless start the next day… Whether you’re Kevin Durant or Wally Pipp.
And this season, we’ve seen a lot of devastating injuries to some of the league’s best players, young and old. Before the season even started, Klay Thompson had his return cut short with a torn Achilles tendon. Kevin Durant has been battling a hamstring all season long, and now his running mate James Harden is too. Their competition out West? Anthony Davis has missed more than half of the LA Lakers games with Achilles and calf injuries to varying degrees. His absence appeared to be vaulting LeBron James into MVP contention before James suffered an ankle injury over three weeks ago. He has yet to return.
So who does win the MVP? The Philadelphia 76ers have held the lead in the Eastern Conference for most of the season, but Joel Embiid has missed nearly 20 games himself. Does Steph Curry’s herculean efforts in Golden State improve his case even though he’s missed nearly 10 games with a tailbone injury?
It’s not just the MVP caliber players either. CJ McCollum? Foot fracture. Mitchell Robinson? Same. Eric Gordon? Groin strain. Kristaps Porzingis? Knee. John Collins? Shoulder sprain. Bogdan Bogdanovic? Knee.
And it’s Not Stopping
At the NBA trade deadline, two key moves were made by the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets. Miami made a big move to bring in Victor Oladipo on an expiring contract. Denver made it clear they intended to return to the Western Conference Finals by trading youth for Aaron Gordon. Both moves now, directly and indirectly, will be dwarfed by the results of a few MRIs. One of which is particularly heart-breaking.
Victor Oladipo injured his knee coming down from an open dunk in a game against the LA Lakers. Jamal Murray, similarly, came down from a lay-up attempt at an awkward angle. Both teams were looking to repeat, if not build on, successful Orlando Bubble runs. Both teams made moves to push them there amidst this season of turbulence. Now, both teams will seek to overcome the challenges of the 2020-21 season.
These are just the latest injuries, but they certainly won’t be the last. What happens to Phoenix when (knock on wood) Chris Paul’s hamstrings hit their semi-annual snag? What happens to the Clippers when Kawhi Leonard needs more time off than a load managing day? There’s another month to the regular season, a grueling play-in tournament, and then a hyper-speed playoff run. As much as the innovations in rehabilitation, recovery, and player safety have grown exponentially… It’s clearly no match for the current state of the NBA.
So What is it?
This wasn’t unpredictable, even if you can’t predict what players it will hit. The NBA played this season following the most unique off-season in NBA history. NBA players had four months off, then many of them played in a bubble. The teams that played in said bubble then had an abbreviated off-season. The farther you got, also known as the better your team was, the shorter your break. If you were the LA Lakers or Miami Heat, you had just over two months.
The abbreviated off-season meant different things for different players. Older vets that needed to heal up? They had less time to heal up. Younger guys pushing for that big chance? They had to fit all that work into a shorter window. Guys who missed the bubble entirely? They had to get into game shape after eight months off without playing a game as the country was locked down. None of that is easy on anyone’s body.
To make matters worse? This season, the NBA fit a 72 game schedule into just under five months. The last 82 game schedule was played in 2018-19, and it lasted from October 16th through April 10th. That month and ten games become important when looking at the schedule. Teams regularly have four games in five days and occasionally will even play five in seven. In April, the San Antonio Spurs have 10 games in 14 days. The toll that takes on your body is exacerbated when the off-season ahead of it was abbreviated.
The wear down on the players was inevitable. The grind of this season was unlike any before it. Analysts commented before the season that it was going to be a rough year. But knowing a tough season is coming doesn’t ease seeing guys get hurt every night.
What’s this Mean?
In short, this is just an injury hurdle of the season we’re watching. The teams atop the Western Conference are the healthiest with the most consistent rosters. The Utah Jazz left the Orlando Bubble in the first round. Bogdanovic and Ingles didn’t play in the bubble. Now, their consistent lineup reflects a team well rested and ready to go each night. Part of injury prevention is luck, but part is also schematic. They rotate perimeter players around Gobert and Favors in a way that has kept them healthy to date.
The Phoenix Suns went 8-0 before leaving the Orlando Bubble, and then they added Chris Paul, Dario Saric, and Jae Crowder in the off-season. Like the Jazz, the Suns rotate through perimeter players while Paul and Devin Booker take turns taking the other’s load. Currently, they have a healthy roster and sit in second in the West.
Out East, the only consistency has been inconsistency. Philadelphia suffered an injury to Joel Embiid. Brooklyn has balanced Harden, Durant, and Irving’s health. Milwaukee mortgaged their future for Jrue Holiday, but he’s missed nearly 15 games.
The trick in the Eastern Conference? Having multiple stars. When Embiid went down, Ben Simmons rose as a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate. With Durant out, Harden was back to playing at an MVP level. And without Holiday, Milwaukee relied on the All-Star service of Khris Middleton and the two-time defending MVP Giannis Antentokounmpo.
Meanwhile, Atlanta was also riddled with injuries. Rondo, before being traded, played in just 27 games. Bogdanovic has just 12 starts. Danillo Gallinari has played less than 40. The result? They were underperforming so badly their coach was fired. And now that they’re back? Nate McMillan looks like a genius.
Does it Matter?
Injuries happen. No, an injury doesn’t mean there’s some asterisk on this year. It doesn’t mean we need to devalue anything being done by the teams at the top. No, we don’t need to “not count” this year. We damn sure don’t need to wait and see if it counts or not based on what the outcome is.
But this season does serve as a learning tool. There will be future lock-outs, future Collective Bargaining Agreements, and future schedule changes. Due to both the abbreviated off-season and the expedited regular season, this season’s toll needs to be remembered in those discussions.
It also needs to be a footnote in the #NBATwitter world. It’s not that this year was harder or easier. It was different. It was unlike any season before it. Thus the results are wonkier than any season before it, too.
And there are aspects of that that aren’t miserable. What the Jazz and Suns are doing is fun. Seeing what happens in the East is fun. Watching LeBron James make a run at a title while playing without any homecourt advantage in the playoffs will be fun.
That doesn’t mean watching guys go down every night isn’t also miserable every time it happens. Misery loves company, and this year the company is huge.