This season’s been historically injury-plagued, and it might only get worse as the NBA returns to normal this fall.
Normal means the following: Not starting a season in mid-December one month before many expected and not rushing into a brand new calendar immediately following a championship where your conference titlists entered a new season seven weeks after competing in the Finals.
After resuming the 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic last July, after the NBA Finals ended in mid-October after teams began training camp on December 1 for the 2020-21 season, and after the season started on December 22, the league is going back to its standard September through June calendar for the 2021-22 campaign.
This past season has been historically disastrous as it relates to the health of the players. Before you even get to the COVID infections, this season will be remembered as the one that’s as injury-riddled as we’ve seen in a number of years, some of us maybe ever. LeBron James had a few things to say about it today.
Almost every meaningful playoff team carried a significant injury and or, in the case of the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics — the Bubble final four — fatigue. Lots and lots of fatigue.
This time, those who play deep into the playoffs will be around through late June and at least early July, mid-to-late July if you reach the NBA Finals, leaving you two months to prepare before training camp. At least there will be an actual off-season with Summer League and such, but there’s something else going on this summer that was postponed from last year: The Summer Olympics.
The Olympics will be held in Tokyo, Japan, from July 24, days after whenever the Finals will end, to August 8. Regarding men’s basketball: Japan, Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, France, Spain, Australia, and the United States have qualified. There are four spots left that will be fought for in Canada, Serbia, Lithuania, and Croatia, respectively, at FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments from June 29 to July 4. The 2020-21 Most Valuable Player has already passed on that.
Team USA had been already expecting to receive commitments from Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski, as well as Damian Lillard and Draymond Green, as reported by Shams Charania. Per Tim Reynolds, Lillard is in fact planning on going to Tokyo. Charania followed up by reporting Friday that Beal is doing the same. Another star-level player who is strongly considering suiting up for Team USA is Kyle Lowry. And, per Ira Winderman, Jimmy Butler will not.
Earlier this month, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported on the rash of injuries we’ve seen to NBA stars and players. in general, this past season. The report noted the following:
“The average number of players sidelined per game due to injury, non-COVID-19 illness or rest this season was 5.1 (includes both teams), according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the highest since he started tracking it in 2009-10. That does not include games missed by players in the health and safety protocols. The next highest season was 4.8, so 2020-21 was 5% higher.
“The increase was even more pronounced when focusing on the league’s stars. This season’s All-Stars missed 370 of a possible 1,944 games (19%), the highest percentage in a season in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. They missed an average of 13.7 regular-season games each this year.”
Holmes also noted that teams had been fearing soft-tissue injuries, which could be tied to fatigue, like the hamstring strains that sidelined Mike Conley and James Harden in these playoffs.
And entering next season containing another different timeline that has been distorted due to the league’s COVID response, it’s fair to ask whether or not a gold-medal opportunity is enough, amid an ongoing pandemic, to risk your long-term health as the calendar alters once more. In the case of Lillard, Green, Tatum, and Beal, they were all at least eliminated in mid-to-late May and will be two months removed from the Olympics, not including camps and such prior. Lowry hasn’t played since May 2, but he’s also a pending free agent on the verge of securing his last big contract after having turned 35 years old in March.
Pandemic or not, it’s the Olympics, so competitors are going to compete. On some level, this may serve as a training ground for them in preparation of the 2021-22 season. But we still don’t know the long-term effects of rushing into the 2020-21 season abruptly.
Tatum didn’t have a significant injury, but he struggled with COVID and needed an inhaler amid his recovery from the disease. His teammate, Jaylen Brown, had a season-ending wrist injury right before the playoffs. Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle in a dispiriting fashion. Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Kawhi Leonard might’ve torn his. Chris Paul tested positive for COVID, who knows? Anthony Davis couldn’t play through a groin injury and dealt with an Achilles setback all season. LeBron James suffered a high ankle sprain. Jimmy Butler lost 12 pounds due to COVID and looked gassed in Round 1 of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is probably playing with a torn meniscus. The playoffs are still going on for another month, possibly longer depending on the conference finals.
Should players want to play in Tokyo? Absolutely. Should they be saved from themselves? Probably so. Team USA likely doesn’t win gold with college players or just young upstarts like LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards leading the way, and you can’t spell America without greed, so they won’t revert back to the college model. Players will inevitably drop out and or get cut; they have to since all 57 listed can’t make it. But the NBA should be mindful of the players’ long-term health if the guys won’t do it themselves.
Players who play deep into the playoffs probably should avoid the quick turnaround as the league returns to normal just months later. And that should go for players representing other lands internationally, too. That’s not to say you can’t build a team of stars, you will, but if the Brooklyn Nets win the title, you should probably avoid having any of them press onto the Olympics. Didn’t make the playoffs? Sure. Eliminated in Round 1? Perhaps. But beyond that? It’s a risk some would be wise to avoid because the injuries may continue to increase as we go back to the way things were, but this time, we’re going back to normal amid abnormal circumstances.