Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) lays on the floor after being fouled during Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the LA Clippers in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. The Jazz lost 119-111. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — About a half-hour before the NBA Finals began on Tuesday, the Milwaukee Bucks and NBA fans everywhere were greeted with some welcome news: Giannis Antetokounmpo would play in Game 1.
That type of injury news — the positive kind — has been a rarity this postseason. A record 10 All-Stars have missed at least one game this postseason, and that list doesn’t even include Atlanta’s Trae Young, who had been one of the top players in the postseason before he went down during the conference finals.
This year, more than ever before, has been a war of attrition, and the trophy may go to the healthiest team as opposed to the best.
The NBA is well aware of that.
“There’s been a lot of discussion around the injuries,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday. “Putting aside the specific data for a second, I have no doubt that the additional stress, physical and emotional, on them contributes to injuries. None of it is an exact science.”
It stands to reason that the shortened offseason, condensed schedule and the added mental strain of dealing with pandemic protocols put more toil on players’ bodies than normal.
“There’s a few teams that had their playoffs wrecked for health or didn’t get to the playoffs because of health,” former Utah Jazz executive Dennis Lindsey said at the end of the Jazz season.
The Jazz, you could make the argument, were one of them. Donovan Mitchell played on one healthy ankle for much of the second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, and Mike Conley missed all but one game of the series. If those two were healthy, would Game 1 of the Finals have tipped off in Salt Lake City?
Utah is far from alone in being able to wonder what might have been.
The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and Hawks all could make a legitimate case they could have won a title if injuries hadn’t hit them at the wrong time.
But, as Silver said, it’s not an exact science, and that might be the most frustrating thing about it because the league and its teams have been trying to make it one.
“The issue which we’re trying to get to the root of is, does resting work, frankly? Does load management work?” Silver said. “I mean, and there’s different theories out there on it, and what’s most surprising, it’s not just about injuries up this season, we’ve seen this upward trend for several years.”
That is a bit disheartening. Teams have invested millions upon millions to have every bell and whistle and all the information ever wanted only to see players continue to go down at record rates.
“You’d like to believe that with the investment, the level of sophistication, the number of doctors, the amount of analytics we look at, the data we are able to collect that we couldn’t in the old days, that we, putting the pandemic aside, would have seen improvements,” Silver said. “And we haven’t seen that yet.”
So the league is still searching for a solution, and it’s not as simple as more time off or fewer games.
“We see a lot of offseason injuries now; we see a lot of injuries during training,” Silver said. “Load management isn’t just a function of how many minutes in a game a player plays but what other burdens they’re putting on their bodies when they’re not playing and how hard they’re training and what they’re doing in the offseason. So nothing could be more important for our league than keeping, especially a league where stars drive so much of the interest, keeping them on the floor.”
The uptick in major injuries has changed how teams are communicating. In years past, Silver said teams would treat their medical protocols as their “secret sauce.” In a league where every small advantage is seen as currency to protect players, being healthy is considered an absolute gold strike; however, there’s a growing sense among teams that they may have to start working together on this.
All-Stars missing games is bad for competition, bad for interest and bad for revenue. And that goes double for playoff time.
“There’s a recognition that … we all have a common interest in players staying healthy,” Silver said. “… We’ll be looking at best practices when it comes to rehabilitation and training of our players so it will remain a focus on the league.”
That means change could be coming. Silver didn’t seem married to the idea of definitely going back to the regular 82-game season. But he also didn’t seem to believe that fewer games would definitely equal fewer injuries.
“It’s something that we’ll continue to focus on, but it’s not as easy to even discern what’s happening this season,” he said. “It seems it doesn’t correlate precisely to numbers of games, to the amount of time off particular teams had coming into this season, to the density or not of the schedule.”
But when it comes to this season, especially with all the star players going down, he said it was fair to second guess the league’s decisions on how things were scheduled this season.
“We may not know for quite a while, until we’re really able to look back when we know this pandemic is over, whether we made the right decisions or not,” he said.
The fans of teams who were ousted with their top players on the bench already have a pretty good idea.