Giannis Antetokounmpo limped out of Wednesday’s Bucks-Clippers game in the second quarter with a sprained ankle, and did not return. By my count, this brings the number of important NBA players presently either out with injuries or hobbling through them to 9,731,006.
The Warriors are missing half their damn rotation: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are all hurt. The Timberwolves spent the first two-thirds of the season slugging it out near the top of the West, then Jimmy Butler hurt his knee and now they’re hanging onto the bottom of the playoff ladder by their fingertips. The Spurs haven’t been recognizably themselves for even one whole game since Game 1 of last season’s conference finals, thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s mysterious leg problems and the weird psychodrama they’ve set off. The Pelicans weathered the sudden loss of DeMarcus Cousins to what’s depressingly likely to be a career-altering ankle injury and roared up to the West’s upper reaches behind MVP-caliber play from Anthony Davis... only for Davis to sustain nagging rib and ankle injuries. The Thunder had to scrape Corey Brewer off the underside of a toilet seat and plug him into the starting frickin’ lineup when a season-ending injury to Andre Roberson killed their ability to play good defense. The surprisingly pesky Clippers lost Patrick Beverley to a season-ending injury back in December, traded for Avery Bradley in January, and lost him to season-ending groin and abdomen injuries like three weeks later. The Grizzlies’ season all but ended in November when Mike Conley injured his Achilles tendon. That’s just in the West!
The Celtics are a mess: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are hurt; Gordon Hayward hasn’t appeared since his foot fell off on opening night; Daniel Theis is out for the season; worse yet, the loss of Daniel Theis somehow matters. The Cavaliers blew their team up at the deadline to get younger and deeper, and now Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Cedi Osman are all injured and the team’s back to needing contributions from José Calderón. John Wall has been out since late January. The delightful Pacers got as high as third in the East before injuries to Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis stifled their momentum and dropped them back to fifth. Hassan Whiteside has been in and out of the rotation with injuries all season; the Heat are trying to hang on to a spot down toward the bottom of the East bracket while both he and Dwyane Wade are hobbling. Now, Giannis. Before that, Kristaps Porzingis. Somehow this plague has not managed to reach Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, and that feels increasingly like a straight-up miracle.
More than in any season I can remember, the twists and turns of this one’s closing stretch seem to express first and foremost the injury report. For example, the Rockets, Raptors, and Blazers have been the toast of the past month-plus, as each ripped off at least one long winning streak and forced itself to the forefront of the sport’s attention. The Rockets and Raptors solidified themselves as their respective conferences’ frontrunners; the Blazers streaked to third in the West; Houston’s James Harden moved undeniably to the front of the MVP discussion; Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Portland’s Damian Lillard asserted their places in it. Maybe it’s purely a coincidence that those happen to be three of the, say, four or five broadly healthy teams in the upper half of the league; maybe it’s purely a coincidence that they’ve looked so amazing at the same time as their respective conferences’ playoff races have been ravaged by injuries to players of major significance. It doesn’t feel that way!
It’s been at least a dozen years since the NFL completed its gradual and terminal transition from a football league with football outcomes determined by football stuff to a weird shambling hospital drama series whose storylines and outcomes draw directly and pretty much only from its weekly injury report. The NBA’s absurdly drawn-out playoff format gives the sport some protection against what has happened to that league, where the only sensible thing to root for anymore is that your team’s players will rupture their major connective tissues early in the season, so they can return in time to beat the other teams’ MASH units to a championship that now by default comes affixed with an asterisk even when the New England Patriots don’t outright steal it. In a postseason that lasts two months and can involve, for the eventual finalists, up to 28 total games, it’s a lot less likely that a truly undeserving team can ride a fluky arrangement of injuries to a championship, much less that this sort of thing can become the norm.
But if what’s happened to the NBA this season doesn’t necessarily portend that gradual metamorphosis from professional sports league to grisly annual reminder of the essentially random and meaningless distribution of good and ill fortune, it still blows, and more than just for planning what you’ll watch on TV tonight or tomorrow night. What it indicated, in the NFL’s case, was that the sport had reached a level of speed and violence that just simply surpass the hard limits of what even a body as absurd as, say, Clay Matthews’s can withstand: Professional football in the United States will be Hacksaw Ridge until the dudes playing it are basically cyborgs, or much more advanced cyborgs. That’s not quite as immediate a concern for pro basketball as whether your favorite player can get through tonight’s game with both legs attached, but lately it feels like it’s waiting somewhere down the road, with all the other reasons to feel bad about the future.
Wrap Donovan Mitchell in bubble wrap, is what I mean.