Yeah...so with Kyrie [Irving getting injured] the other shoe is dropping in my head. I cannot in living memory (which dates back to 1981 or so,) remember a season so universally spoiled by injuries. What gives? I've heard more than one commentators say on air, "With all the medical science, how is this happening?" Now I'm starting to think its just that: with all the medical science, these bodies are pushed beyond reality. Watching the play where Kyrie got hurt, it was like seeing him try to make his body do things bodies aren't supposed to do, and it just up and did what any normal body would do moving at that speed and trying to change directions.
But I don't know...I just can't get over it. Would have loved this years playoffs for the random teams and lack of historical precedent, but I feel like it was stolen from us to some extent. Thoughts?
It's a complex question, but a good one.
Before exploring any other reasons, we must point to the strong possibility that this season's rash of injuries to high-level players is an anomaly. Sometimes statistically improbable things happen. We can't point at a single season, however ghastly, as representative of a trend. We'd need to see injuries repeated and find commonality between them in order to make a solid case that chance isn't influencing our perception.
That said, I also feel cheated out of an otherwise-excellent season and I'm alarmed that the tide of injuries has risen this high. Every second playoff series transpired under the shadow of missing or hobbled players. The promised Western Conference free-for-all became a one-dimensional march and the NBA Finals series, while exciting, has become a last-man-standing match. We're going to escape this time because of the Finals excitement but as a long-term trend this would not be good for the league or its fans.
IF...and again, that's a big if...more than chance is at work here, I can see at least three possible contributing factors.
As you mention, bigger bodies moving faster may be stretching the tolerance of the human frame. Back in the day a 6'8" player was a power forward. Now that's small forward size. Players are packing more muscle as well. 7-footers aren't just expected to lumber down the floor and stand in the paint anymore. Centers are supposed to be mobile, powerful, or ideally both. With defenders just as athletic, straight lines don't exist. How many times can knees, feet, and ligaments that bear hundreds of pounds go left, right, up, and down before showing the strain?
The strain is exacerbated by the amount of time youth spend playing a single sport as they develop. If a player shows NBA potential early, he's playing basketball year-'round on the club and tournament circuit. He's also training for the sport, employing specialized routines rather than the all-around conditioning most of us remember from the "four-sport athlete" days. By the time an NBA coach considers limiting his minutes, our player has taken the court thousands of times, putting in hundreds of thousands of workout reps in the process as his body was developing.
As most 75-year-olds will tell you, specific body parts can only be moved in specific ways so many times before they start to wear down. Young athletes are cramming 40 years of use into 10 years of development. The player card may say "rookie" but the knees are already trending towards "grandpa".
How many ex-athletes have you seen walking into their middle years with pronounced limps? The fittest among us break down the quickest. This isn't an accident; it's a by-product of the system.
I suspect these two factors--bigger players over-stressing their bodies--are combining to bring down entire generations of big men. 7-footers put the most strain on their frames and are the most obvious early prospects, getting into the system before anybody else. Increasingly they're getting injured before their NBA careers have taken off. I wonder if they aren't used up by the time they're drafted.
When the baseball establishment realized that throwing too many pitches was ruining the arms of young pitchers, they instituted pitch count rules in Little League and made coaches aware of the dangers of teaching sliders and curveballs too soon in a player's development cycle. It'd be nice to see the basketball universe move to protect its young athletes as well. But the system is so decentralized, with different factions so frequently at odds with each other, that a unified approach will never take hold. There will always be one more agent/adviser, one more league circuit to play, one more workout benchmark to clear, one more chance to get noticed. Promises of future glory will count more than any caution about future health.
A third factor needs to be divorced from discussion about any specific player's injuries, separated from Irving or big men or anyone else.
I believe that at some point we're going to find that the NBA has a significant performance-enhancing drug issue, particularly with HGH. One of the reasons the current rash of injuries has been so striking is because the best players in the league have fallen prey. I am not implying that any specific individual is enhancing artificially. But in a league where the best players trade on body/muscle development, when those players stand head and shoulders above ordinary mortals, and then large swaths of those players start getting injured, that's a red flag.
Think about how commonplace the "he worked hard to put on muscle" and "he changed his diet and eliminated body fat" mantras have become around the league. Yes, these are pinnacle-level athletes and yes, the 20's allow for most human beings' peak athletic performances but it's still not that easy to transform your body like NBA players seem to. These aren't schlubs off the street starting the Subway diet and suddenly dropping 60 of the 100 pounds they needed to lose (pounds which any reasonable diet and exercise program would have taken off, considering their formerly sedentary state). As we just discussed, many of these athletes have been in training since they were in their early teens, if not before. They've benefited from the highest levels of guidance available in elite high school, AAU, collegiate, and sports-specialist programs. Changing eating habits and working with pro trainers make a difference, but that doesn't explain how guys exit a season looking one way and show up next year looking radically different...or at least not completely given that these athletes were in near-peak condition in the first place.
Whether or not we think a given player is enhancing, explanations are given far too glibly and accepted far too easily in the NBA. This is especially true in a league where the best players are increasingly looking like behemoths, or at least incredibly cut.
The NBA and the Player's Union have come to an agreement to blood test for HGH starting in the 2015-16 season. This is a step in the right direction, long overdue. It'll be interesting to see not just who gets suspended, but whether we'll see bodies revert and whether we'll see injuries decline. (Or whether we'll just see athletes get good at cheating the test.)
The unwritten rule in professional sports so far has been to make money, break records, and win titles any way you can then apologize for it (or not) later. Alex Rodriguez is reviled but Alex Rodriguez also has World Series rings and millions of dollars in the bank. A decade from now his sins will be forgotten and he'll still have that hardware and the money. Thinking that nobody in the NBA is following the same course would be naive.
As someone who follows the sport closely, I'm willing to trade size and quickness for an even playing field and fewer devastating injuries. I'm holding my breath to see how effective the testing is and how widespread the problem it reveals. If the recent spate of injuries is connected to artificial enhancement, it's going to create a huge mess. But the sooner that mess is brought out and dealt with, the better it'll be for all concerned.
You can send your own Mailbag questions to email@example.com. Stay tuned for the next edition of our Blazer's Edge Podcast, releasing this afternoon!
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge