Adversity remains to be the ultimate litmus test for title-worthy sports teams and injuries are a common occurrence across all sports and teams to varying degrees.
Injuries incite the fight or flight response for squads in that major injuries to important players can bring out the white flag for the season or require coaches and the remaining players to adapt to the current situation. Minor injuries themselves are nothing to push aside, as they can build up to major injuries or they can kill momentum that would otherwise have been pivotal to a squad’s season.
The NBA has been ravaged by injuries as of late, with marquee stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid having all been simultaneously sidelined at one point in time. Durant, who had just returned from a prolonged absence due to a hamstring injury, suffered what was described as a left thigh contusion after just four minutes of action, effectively putting him back in the sidelines.
As of press time, 92 players are currently on the injury list. Some of these players may not miss time, but even the slightest affliction has an effect on players and in turn team performance.
The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that as per league-given data, NBA player injuries are down six percent from last season and that overall, the trend remains “in line with data from the five previous seasons.” COVID-19 health and safety protocols may have added to the perception of higher numbers, but the current format of this season has in part helped reduce injuries this season. Stein also added that on average, players played 3.6 times per week this season, up from last season’s 3.42. He also adds that flights are down by 15 percent compared to the previous year.
There are indications, however, that this current spate of injuries can be attributed to the quick turnover from last season to this current one. Seventy-one days separated Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble from the opening day of the 2020-2021 season, with the Los Angeles Lakers playing on both days. The Lakers’ finals opponent, the Miami Heat, meanwhile, played the following day.
Below are data on the top 10 players in terms of most minutes played during the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
|Player||Team||Games Played||Total Minutes||Minutes per Game|
|Jimmy Butler||Miami Heat||21||806||38.4|
|Anthony Davis||Los Angeles Lakers||21||769||36.6|
|LeBron James||Los Angeles Lakers||21||762||36.3|
|Jamal Murray||Denver Nuggets||19||753||39.6|
|Tyler Herro||Miami Heat||21||706||33.6|
|Nikola Jokić||Denver Nuggets||19||694||36.5|
|Jayson Tatum||Boston Celtics||17||690||40.6|
|Bam Adebayo||Miami Heat||19||687||36.2|
|Jaylen Brown||Boston Celtics||17||672||39.5|
|Jae Crowder||Miami Heat||21||660||31.4|
Naturally, the four teams that participated in the conference finals logged the most minutes. Apart from Butler, Davis, James, and Jae Crowder, the players on the list are all 25 and younger. Except for Nikola Jokić, each of the players on the list missed at least three games, with four missing at least 10 games. Davis, James, and Jamal Murray are the ones who are currently sidelined for more than a game and all three played at least 36 minutes in 19 games.
The Celtics and the Heat were relatively spared as both Tatum and Jaylen Brown played around 40 minutes last postseason, but both missed five games each. However, Tatum’s recovery from COVID-19 has been prolonged and compounded by complications.
Among all the injuries, it is perhaps Murray’s that is the most devastating. Not only could the left ACL tear he suffered last April 12 potentially keep him out from even next season, but it also douses the momentum that the Denver Nuggets built from last year’s postseason run. Denver will now have to cope without their star point guard and this will increase the pressure on MVP front runner Nikola Jokić and the newly acquired Aaron Gordon to take on even more playmaking duties.
Meanwhile, for the Lakers, missing two of their stars has had its tough moments but they have been able to maintain the solid defense that was crucial to last year’s title run. The defensive culture that Frank Vogel has instilled has translated into a league-best 106.0 defensive rating. Of course, the games that both James and Davis played factored into the figure, but maintaining the effort and energy through this rough stretch has been remarkable.
During that span, however, they’ve fallen to 7-9 since James went down with a high ankle sprain and 14-15 with Davis out. Compared to other LeBron-led teams whose win-loss record without him has been dismal to say the least, the Lakers have been able to avoid a drastic drop in the standings. With the return of Davis and James right around the corner, the Lakers could be primed for an extended run in the playoffs – if he returns healthy.
The Utah Jazz had been among the more relatively durable teams in the league until Donovan Mitchell suffered a right ankle sprain in the third quarter against the Indiana Pacers. As of this writing, Mitchell is sidelined and will be re-evaluated by the end of the week, and this means he could be slowly brought back or effectively shut down for the regular season.
This current run without the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft will test Utah’s mettle, but two factors work in their favor at the moment. Their NBA-best 42-15 record keeps them 1.5 games ahead of the Phoenix Suns, who themselves could rest their stars in Chris Paul and Devin Booker down the stretch. Aside from that, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz’s bench, led by Sixth Man of Year candidate Jordan Clarkson and veterans in Mike Conley and Joe Ingles have been with Utah for quite some time so the familiarity of Quin Snyder’s system will help keep them competitive even without their franchise player.
While they also lost in the first round of the bubble postseason like the Jazz, the Brooklyn Nets remain one of the more intriguing teams in terms of title chances. So far they’ve found ways to win, as they have managed to earn a 38-19 win-loss record that puts them in second place in the East. What makes this achievement more significant is that the trio of Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving have only played a total of 186 minutes together through seven games as all have sat out due to injuries or personal reasons. We have yet to see them together at their best for a prolonged period of time. That’s an exciting thought for their fans and a scary thought for opponents who can’t effectively scout them.
Debating the main cause of injuries among NBA players will be a long and arduous debate. So many factors come into play that what may be beneficial to one may actually be harmful for the other. A shortened offseason certainly didn’t help.
It’s given that whoever wins this year’s title will not do so unscathed, but what will be more telling rather than who got hurt will be how teams adjusted to the circumstances thrown at them. Success in the playoffs is all about resilience and nothing worth having comes easy, but it always sucks to know that some teams like the Nuggets will not have the chance to fight at full strength. It takes a lot to win championships, including luck on the injury front.