The NBA’s Injury Debacle: A Bigger Picture

Recent postseason injuries to superstar athletes Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard have reignited a spark into the debate over the NBA’s condensed 2020-2021 season. Following the NBA’s Bubble experiment used to continue the 2019-2020 season in the wake of COVID-19, the month of November 2020 brought an announcement from the league slating the start of the 2020-2021 season for December 2020.

Among other athletes and staff, Lebron James was particularly against the perceivably quick turnaround, especially since his squad went the distance in the 2019-2020 Bubble postseason. Such an opposition was recalled by James in a recent twitter post.

Aside from James, there are many other takes that both agree with and oppose his argument surrounding this debate. We’re going to attempt at taking a full look into these perspectives and produce a rather balanced, rational response to the situation. Before we do so, though, we must lay out the mutual facts that neither side can deny: the timeline.

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Typically, the NBA season is made up of 82 regular season games and a best-of-7 postseason format where any given team can play up to a maximum of 28 games. Such a regular and postseason setup is normally fit into a 9-month span from October to June of the subsequent year. However, the current 2020-2021 season being observed started two months late and will eventually end a month late from December 2020 to July 2021. 

In addition to this change in scheduling, the players also had an unorthodox sequence of rest periods. A little over 4 months into the 2019-2020 season, the league suspended operations indefinitely in the wake of its first point of contact with COVID-19 with Rudy Gobert. As hindsight reminds us, this hiatus spanned from March 11th to July 29th. This effectively gave the players nearly 5 months rest, before then heading into Bubble competition.

The Bubble experience for each organization was varied, meaning the amount of rest leading up to the December 2020 start date for the next season was varied also. This is not even mentioning the good handful of teams who weren’t privy to any Bubble experience at all. So, let’s first look at the 22 teams invited to Orlando.

As we all may know, there were 8 regular season games for each of the 22 teams to determine the 1-8 seeding for postseason play in both respective Western and Eastern Conferences. There was even an extra play-in game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies to determine the 8th seed in the West.

Long-story short, the teams that played the most was the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers at 28 Bubble contests with a handful of non-playoff teams playing the minimum. In essence, the Lakers played 28 games in the final 73 days of their season. As a means of comparison, the Golden State Warriors played an equal 28 games in the final 73 days of their 2018-2019 season when they lost to the Toronto Raptors. 

With all that said, there’s still a few final pieces of information needed to complete our timeline. The Lakers and the Heat, whom both endured the heaviest load in the NBA’s Bubble, would have the shortest turnaround of 71 days leading up to the start of the new 2020-2021 season. In contrast, each of the teams that failed to secure a spot in the postseason would observe 130-day turnarounds, give or take a day or two. And as for the 8 teams that didn’t get a ticket to Orlando, they observed a 286-day turnaround. 

There you have it. That’s the objective breakdown of the sequence of events that prefaced the 2020-2021 season. At this point, it’s time to start crafting an opinion on the situation ourselves. 

The vast world of perspectives on the league’s management of the 2020-2021 season is very complex. The takes depend on the organizational role of the individual. This means players will likely perceive the season differently from a league official. They just have starkly different roles and therefore different motives and priorities.

As I see it, the players that are taking offence to the season’s December 22nd start date are the ones on Bubble teams, especially the ones on teams that made a deep playoff run. Opposite of these players are the league and its officials, who believe they made the right decision with the December 22nd start date. And between these two are us outsiders in the middle, the group that can navigate through the biases of each side and come to a contemporary analysis of what’s really got everyone clamoring. 

The first question we must ask is whether or not the league has actually run into an injury problem. I mean, have the frequency and/or rate of injuries significantly increased? Ehh, sort of. 

According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN, the average amount of players out per each game from both competing teams was 5.1, an all-time high compared to any other year following and including the 2009-2010 season. The next highest figure from Pelton’s research was 5% below that of this current season. 

Now, is 5% an extremely high margin? I mean, not really. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be a high enough increase to fully support the implied argument that the increased rate of injury was due to one, sole cause. It’s also worthy to shed light on the fact that the increase resulted from a comparison performed within the contents of a mere decade-old database; the strength of the figure would be propped up with more time and data. However, for what it’s worth, it still objectively displays that there have been more players sitting out from games, which is important to keep in mind as we dig further into the current state of player health in the league. 

Just today, I came across a comment on a post reporting Kawhi Leonard’s potential ACL injury that spoke of the disheartening trend that has been developing over the course of the postseason thus far: All-Stars are dropping like flies in the desert. Though brief, there was Luka’s bout with neck pain against the Clippers. Chris Paul’s bad luck ensued with his shoulder injury in the Suns’ first-round matchup with the Lakers. Thank goodness he eventually overcame it against Denver, just to then contract the coronavirus afterwards, but I digress. Jamal Murray tore his ACL. James Harden’s hamstring softened. Kyrie turned his ankle. And now Kawhi with this knee scare. 

Sources: ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Los Angeles Times

It’s just a mess and research from Elias Sports Bureau reflects that. The official All-Stars for this season have missed, in aggregate, 19% of their 1,944 games, the league’s highest rate ever. Some of you will cite the era of load management to say that not all missed games are due to injury. And I get that because I thought the very same thing when I first came across the figure. But, for those that keep up with the league from season to season, it was pretty clear that there were more injury complications for the league’s top players than in recent years without even synthesizing data. 

As far as I can tell, the NBA has run into an injury problem for this 2020-2021 season. For those of us that don’t react as intensely to media narratives, the problem may seem slightly ballooned past its true extent, but it’s fair to acknowledge there to be a problem in some capacity. 

This next brings us to a more important question: is Lebron James right? Are the increases in injury risk due to the quick turnaround that the league enforced with the December 22nd start date? While I believe it was a factor, I don’t think it was as big a factor as James is making it out to be. Rather, I see a far different factor as the central force driving the NBA’s injury problem: the COVID-19 protocols.

First off, let’s take a look at Lebron’s case here. It’s simple. James’ Lakers squad marched to a championship victory against the Miami Heat and were tasked thereafter to rest, recover, and prepare for the league’s next season in a record-short 71 days. On this point, there’s certainly reason for him, his teammates, and the Heat players to pose their grievances relative to the league’s 2020-2021 plan. 

In all fairness to the league, though, it’s not like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat were coming off of a full season. As we walked through earlier, each Bubble team had 5 impromptu months away from the game after the COVID-19 shutdown. Thus, given the distorted, extraordinary schedule, the league made an equally unusual and evidently controversial decision in response. Given the circumstances, was it the right decision? Yes. Was it ideal? No.

According to NBA league officials, most teams typically return after 14 weeks, or 98 days, following the 82-game schedule. With the exception of the 4 teams competing in the Western and Eastern Conference Finals, the remaining 26 teams ended at or before the 98-day mark relative to the December 22nd start date. This means the vast majority of NBA teams had at least the typical recovery period in preparation for the start of the new season. With this understanding, James’ adamance about the league’s injury problem being solely due to the quick turnaround is flawed, given only a handful of teams were actually posed with a quick turnaround. 

This is why the league made the right decision, even if it wasn’t ideal. The ideal decision would’ve allowed for each of the league’s 30 teams to observe the typical rest period. However, in order to produce this outcome, the league would very well have jeopardized their capacity to return to their usual October-June schedule for the 2021-2022 season; per ESPN’s contacts with league sources, it was collectively decided amongst the players’ union, the league and network partners to return to a normal timeline as soon as possible. 

And so, it’s time to take a look at the COVID-19 protocols, the real primary factor behind the NBA’s player health troubles. 

Earlier, I dished out a couple data figures pointing out the NBA’s newfound problem with general injuries, but what we didn’t discuss was the major type of injury that was plaguing the league’s 30 squads. ESPN Senior Writer Baxter Holmes reported that the teams were most fearful of a heavy onset of soft-tissue injuries, like that of James Harden’s hamstring complications. According to trainer Jeff Stotts, 2,909 regular season games were missed due to soft-tissue injuries. 

These reports support the high prevalence of soft-tissue injuries, but what does that mean? ESPN’s connection with an anonymous Western Conference athletic training official sheds light on its meaning. “When you can’t train, you get soft-tissue injuries. It’s a known fact,” said the official. 

With that factual claim, the official further spoke on the barriers facing teams in properly training their athletes throughout the 2020-2021 season because of the COVID-19 protocols. With early test times and diminished sleep, cancelled shootarounds and practices took effect often in order to promote their athletes’ access to sufficient sleep across the 72-game slate. Put simply, less training to ensure proper sleep have combined to produce the heightened margin of injury for this season’s athletes. 

Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr too laid his take on the impact of the COVID-19 protocols, saying “it has been an exhausting season for everybody, for every team, every player.” His explanation for the exhaustion, though, was rather more interesting and in line with my own conception of the NBA’s pressing injury situation.

“The COVID protocols, the lack of emotional connection. Not being able to see family or friends on the road, go out to dinner, all the normal things that you do to kind of fill up your cup and complete your social life. You don’t have any of those things, so this season has been extremely draining.” 

Note that Kerr’s Warriors were one of the 8 teams who did not take part in the NBA’s Bubble experiment and thus were not faced with a quick turnaround for the 2020-2021 season. If the quick turnaround was truly the one, ultimate cause of the physical, mental, and emotional strain faced by the league’s athletes and coaches, Kerr’s squad would’ve been immune to such effects.

Overall, it’s clear to me that all of these reports point to a simple conclusion: the many extra burdens that are brought upon the organizations from the top-down with the COVID-19 protocols is the clearest reason for both the raised injury risk and the mere mental wear-and-tear of all those involved. Furthermore, such effects have little correlation with the league’s call to start the 2020-2021 season just 71 days after the conclusion of the 2019-2020 finals in the Bubble. 

Disclaimer: I’m not saying the COVID-19 protocols are wrong or that they should be altogether removed as a solution to the athletes’ injury woes. I’m no medical professional and thus have no ground to speak on relative to that sort of policy proposal. But, what I do have a right to, as is the case for everyone else, is the ability to read between the lines of the reported facts. And in doing so, I’ve come to reason the opinion that the protocols have had a more profound impact on the NBA’s injury debacle than the 2020-2021 season start date. 

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