Thursday, November 12, 2009

I Injured Myself Just Writing About the NBA

Injuries have always been an issue in the NBA. Athletic freaks like Bernard King, Penny Hardaway, and Chris Webber had prime seasons stolen by catastrophic knee injuries. Nobody can match Bill Walton’s injury woes as virtually his entire career sans two incredible seasons was robbed by knee problems. He wasn’t even healthy for those two incredible seasons. With a sport as fast-paced and athleticism-filled as professional basketball, there are bound to be injuries and, unfortunately, many are serious. However, what has happened to the NBA in recent years makes baseball players look like MMA fighters. Basketball players by the dozens—most of the “star” variety—are spending more time off the court than Pete Carroll does writing checks to recruits.

Just about everyone plays fantasy football. Even the old lady at the antique store downtown can tell you whether to play Tony Romo or Joe Flacco in week 10. Nobody knows more trivial—yet occasionally totally important—things about football than fantasy football players. Likewise, nobody notices trends that might otherwise escape the novice fan than fantasy football players. For instance, if you’re a fantasy footballer, you know that production by elite wide receivers is down across the league this year. I’m not sure the average fan would know that. A monetarily bereft league championship and oodles of pride depend entirely on picking up said trends. It’s not just fantasy football where fantasy players see something develop before the average fan. It’s exactly the same for fantasy hockey and basketball and so on.

By way of the 2005 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the injured reserve (IR) was replaced by the “inactive list.” This prevented teams from stashing players away who weren’t really injured. It had minimal impact; it could even be argued that it had an even bigger impact in the fantasy basketball world. Up until 2005, all fantasy sports had an “IR” for injured players. The new CBA changed that. If you’re a fantasy basketball owner and one of your “stars” is out for three months, you have to play a man down for three months. So, fantasy basketball owners are very much in tune with injury trends. These trends seemed to be status quo until the disastrous NBA injury plague of ’08. To the average fan, everything probably looked the same as it always did. For fantasy basketballers—including me—it was very obvious that something significant had changed. Here is a list of players who missed at least 13 games (or played fewer than 70 games) last season; Yao Ming, Danny Granger, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson, Deron Williams, Caron Butler, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Kevin Martin, Gilbert Arenas, Shawn Marion, Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Man Ginobili, Baron Davis, Carlos Boozer, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Marcus Camby, Stephen Jackson, Michael Redd, Jameer Nelson, Al Horford, Andrew Bynum, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph, Josh Howard, Chris Kaman, Marvin Williams, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, Jamal Crawford, Richard Hamilton, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O’Neal, Cory Maggette, Mike Dunleavy, Tracy McGrady, and Kenyon Martin. Most played far fewer than 70 games.

From a fantasy basketball perspective, things got so bad that I only had four of the 15 guys that I originally drafted at my disposal come playoff time. I’ve been watching the NBA religiously since 1986 and this is easily the most injury plagued basketball season that I can remember. So, was this all a fluke, or is there something bigger going on? My first inclination is that it was a fluke. That didn’t stop me from pushing safeguards in my league in the form of an artificial IR to prevent such carnage for this fantasy season but, as far as I was concerned, they were just “safeguards.” Well, that turned out to be a good idea because whatever injury “bug” infested the league last season is back, and possibly stronger. The NBA season isn’t but two weeks old and there is already a list of injuries that closely resembles the horrifying list from last season. Already, we’ve seen, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Kevin Martin, Eric Gordon, Devin Harris, Tyrus Thomas, Troy Murphy, Michael Redd, Tracy McGrady, Andrew Bynum, Tony Parker, Antawn Jamison, Tayshaun Prince, Francisco Garcia, Nate Robinson, Mike Dunleavy, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Yao Ming (never returned from last season), Yi Jianlin, Hasheem Thabeet, Joe Alexander, Robin Lopez, Daequan Cook, Tim Thomas, and Darrell Arthur miss extended time from injuries. Even Tayshaun is out and he hadn’t missed a game in seven years. This is all in just two weeks. Multiply this by nine and you’ll get an idea what things might look like at the end of the year.

It would be one thing if these were comprehensive lists of NBA injuries over the last two seasons but they’re just lists of players who play major minutes. For a league that thrives almost entirely on its superstars, this has to be a concerning development. Fortunately, Kobe and LeBron have managed to avoid missing time although Kobe has suffered a torn pinky finger and a dislocated ring finger in the last two seasons and still managed to play 208 out of 208 regular season games over that span. Could this all come down to “toughness?” Are players starting to realize that they get paid whether they play through injuries or not? Could be. I don’t think there’s a way to know that or not. It’s possible that Kobe is more representative of the type of basketball player of the past who wanted to win above all. Some injuries are just impossible to play through so even if players today are “softer”, that would only account for a certain percentage of the problem. Maybe players are stronger, quicker, and more skilled than in previous years. The more athleticism that’s on the court likely yields a greater amount of injuries. Explosive moves to the rim or cavalier block attempts are often the culprit in devastating knee injuries.

I don’t have the time or the means to get to the bottom of this; all I can do is make educated guesses. It’s possible that this injury “bug” is just an allusion but I’m not the only one who feels this way. I don’t have irrefutable proof but I’m pretty sure that more players are getting injured than ever before. Again, it could be that the league is more athletic resulting in more injuries. It’s possible more players are taking advantage of the fact they get paid whether they play or not. It could be something I haven’t mentioned like faulty equipment basketball shoes (yeah, right). Maybe the trainers are more paranoid these days so they play it safer for fear of OK-ing a player who goes on to suffer a season-ending injury. Another possibility is that there are just more “good” players in the NBA now than ever increasing the likelihood of an injury to a “good” player. It’s difficult to argue that the league isn't less saturated now than 10-20 years ago. It seems like every starter is a borderline all-star these days. Those are all semi-plausible explanations but what would explain the rapid hike in “superstar” injuries just in the last 2-3 years? Whatever the reason, expect the NBA to take notice and, if this continues, seriously consider shortening the season.

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