The NBA can tell us there’s no meaningful difference in the injury data this season, as it did late in the regular season, but our eyes have seen a different story play out for months. Pundits can say injuries are always a part of who wins the championship, but last man standing is never taken quite this literally.
There’s no need to waste time debating whether the team that wins this year’s NBA title will have an asterisk next to its name, suggesting that its accomplishment is tainted by the pulled groins, strained hamstrings, and torn knee ligaments that felled competitors along the way.
This is, of course, a ridiculous concept. There are no asterisks in the real world, only a trophy that will be just as legitimately obtained as the one last year and the year before that and the year before that.
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But the physical crumbling of one team after another during the regular season, a trend that has now defined the playoffs as well, can no longer be disputed, written off as bad luck, or assigned to small-sample variance. Deep down, we know better. And it’s crucial that this disaster is not only taken seriously by the NBA but informs its future in a much more intelligent way than how this season was handled.
As LeBron James began a thread of several tweets Wednesday: “They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen.”
They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE
James didn’t make clear which “they” he was referring to, though it’s worth understanding that the NBA’s 72-game regular season jammed into a little less than a five-month window — with fewer than two months between the end of the 2020 bubble Finals and the opening of training camp — was agreed upon between the league and the players’ union.
For both sides, there was incentive to maximize the amount of revenue the NBA could generate this season amid challenging circumstances and also re-set the schedule for 2021-22 as close to normal as possible. Regardless of whether James’ preferences aligned with that of the union, it is only fair to note that the players had a role in this too.
But more than any other day this season, Wednesday felt like the breaking point to acknowledge that what the NBA tried to pull off this year was a mistake if any part of its goal was to have enough healthy players to have a playoff worth caring about.
Of the eight teams that made the quarterfinals this season, seven will have to either overcome a serious injury to a key player in the playoffs or have a built-in excuse because of it. The eighth team, the Phoenix Suns — who are resting comfortably awaiting the Western Conference finals — now have to deal with the uncertainty of Chris Paul reportedly entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Some percentage of this is the cost of doing business. Injuries do happen, and they’ll never be eliminated as a factor in any team’s destiny.
But when you’ve got Kawhi Leonard sidelined with an ACL injury now, the Utah Jazz uncertain when or if Mike Conley will be available due to a hamstring, Joel Embiid laboring on a torn meniscus for the 76ers, and the Brooklyn Nets having to do this with Kyrie Irving and James Harden going in and out of the lineup, there’s a trend that can’t be ignored. When the players who are carrying the biggest load night in and night out for these teams are struggling to stay healthy amidst this crazy schedule, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
To expand it out even further, eight different All-Stars have missed a playoff game this season, and that doesn’t even account for the ACL injury to Jamal Murray that basically ended Denver's chances of winning a title, De’Andre Hunter having meniscus surgery after Atlanta’s first-round win over the New York Knicks or Donte DiVincenzo suffering a season-ending foot injury during Milwaukee’s first-round series against Miami.
Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) gets fouled by Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) in the first half during game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. (Photo: Jim Rassol, Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports)
This isn’t normal, and it needs to spark some serious conversations within the league about the appropriate number of games in the season, playing back-to-backs, adding rest periods within the season, cutting down on travel, and much more. Everything should be on the table.
The hard part is that intelligent people in sports — and NBA executives are nothing if not intelligent — prefer that their decisions be driven by numbers. They don’t want to make big changes in response to a small set of data points, and the NBA’s publicly stated position has been that injuries were not worse this year versus past years.
But the eye test and common sense have to apply here, too. What the NBA schedule demanded of its players this season was insanity: Lots of three-game in four night stretches, plenty of back-to-backs with travel in between, and precious few opportunities for teams to catch their breath or get healthy. Having star players break down right and left with soft tissue injuries, especially during the playoffs, was always a logical outcome of putting them through a condensed schedule.
Now it’s reality.
Some will say that James’ told-you-so critique of the way this season played out has echoes of sour grapes. He never quite got right after suffering a high ankle sprain on March 20, and the Lakers pretty much reached the end of the line when Anthony Davis went down with a groin injury in Game 4 against the Suns.
But his point about what the NBA’s goals should be is worth taking seriously for next season and beyond. Without acknowledging the mistake of this schedule and the health of players being better taken into account in the future, this seems likely to happen again.
If these playoffs are ultimately little more than a test of attrition, so be it. Crown the worthy champion and move on. But trading a quality playoff product for regular season revenue is not a strategy that will do anything for the NBA’s appeal over the long term.
With this latest batch of injuries, perhaps the league will finally acknowledge that something needs to be fixed.
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