A Toast To Good Health

This past NBA season was pretty great for the viewer. Favorite teams playing just about every night, stakes higher, unpredictable rankings… It’s been an exciting time to be an NBA fan.

The results were maybe a little less beneficial for those within the NBA. Fewer games means less revenue for execs. A shorter preseason and no training camp means lower performance for coaches. Less downtime between games means more wear-and-tear on our favorite players.

And herein lies my point for the day: The consequences of injuries on the season.

This isn’t to say that regular season aren’t wrought with injuries, or that players have some superhuman ability to recover given two nights of rest versus one, but this year definitely saw higher quantity and severity of injuries than usual. Because it isn’t just the games for these guys. Days off see them in practice, at the gym for twice-daily workouts, and travel. And which of us ever feels 100% after flying from New York to LA?

The lack of any sufficient recovery time for muscle tissue in regular people causes a problem. For people with such active routines, the consequences can be dire, especially when someone relies on their body as much as players do. They aren’t just “people”, they are important cogs in the machine of the team. That may come off a little minimalist or dismissive, but it’s true.

I love my players to death, but at the end of the day, we’re all in that gym for a reason.

Ready for a biology lesson? When a person works out, their muscles suffer microscopic tears which, given proper food and rest, could heal up in a few days, possibly a week. The rebuilt muscle is bigger and stronger than the old. But if muscles are worked out too often, they don’t have the opportunity to rebuild, or even recover, from the tearing. This ends up damaging muscles tissue and fatiguing the body.

Back on point: When a player’s body is constantly being worked between games, practice and personal regimens, it’s more likely to sustain injury. And as much as a team’s medical professionals, trainers, nutritionists, try to keep on top of things, at the end of the day, players need to perform. End of story.

The worst possible case would be a career-ending injury. I think I speak for everyone (even the haters) when I say that Derrick Rose’s playoff injury was horrifying. Watching the replay makes me sick to my stomach. Not to say that a torn ACL is the end of the world, but they’re estimating eight to twelve months to recover. That’s a year without training or practice, and even then, will he ever be at the top of his game again?

Do we still remember Lin-sanity? Yeah, that was awesome… until he sustained a meniscus tear in his knee and was sidelined for the last six weeks of the regular season, and the Knicks short playoff run.

Ricky Rubio tore his ACL, and dashed Minnesota Timberwolves fans playoff hopes when he was forced to the bench for the remainder of the season.

Two young players exploding onto the scene, forward momentum halted by season-ending injuries due to lack of proper rest for overworked muscles.

And how about players with those nagging injuries? Blake Griffin was dealing with some serious knee pain during the Clippers post-season, and underperformed at the worst possible time. Dwyane Wade’s game was borderline tragic during the Heat/Pacers series, risking his team’s chances of moving onto the Eastern Conference Finals. How about Chris Bosh in that same series, straining his abdominal muscle and sitting out before exploding back to know Boston out of the running for the championship?

A case a little closer to my heart is that of Andrea Bargnani. Promoted as the Toronto Raptors All-Star, hope were high that he would lead the team to… something. Anything. What wound up happening was a left calf strain that took him out for a (relatively) huge chunk of the season. He came back, there was much rejoicing, and then he promptly re-injured the muscle, and was only able to play at half capacity, if at all, during the rest of the season.

Sure, the injuries in these last examples aren’t as severe as the first set, but they do have a fairly serious effect on their respective teams. In a condensed season such as this one, (66 games versus the standard 84) each game is worth more than usual. For Bargnani, to be out for six weeks of a 17 week season (a third of the season) was a huge hit compared to six weeks of a 24+ week season (a quarter of the season).

Back to the case of Derrick Rose: He had been, like the players mentioned above, suffering from nagging injuries towards the end of the season. In his final game, the Chicago Bulls were up by twelve with under thirty seconds left. Rose re-entered the game to protect the lead, and then tore his ACL.

The playoffs always require a heightened level of intensity for team’s to succeed, from players and coaches alike. But given the elevated risk of injury across the league, where do we draw the line of what’s worth it? Tom Thibodeau sent the already-tender Rose into a game relatively unnecessarily. It was the first game of the first round, intensity was still fairly low, and they had the lead. At that point, was it justifiable to have a ‘risk-it-all’ attitude?

We saw what the result was: Rose was out, the Philadelphia 76ers (#8 seed) beat the Bulls (#1 seed) in five games, and no one on that team won. As the series wound down, Joakim Noah hurt his ankle. After sitting out for a few minutes, a reluctant Noah hobbled out onto the court for one of the most painful minutes of basketball I’ve ever watched. Should coaches really be allowed to gamble a player’s livelihood for a slim chance at the ring?

And yes, I am aware that NBA players are adults and can make their own decisions, but it’s the coach’s responsibility to do what’s best for the team, not just the star. If Rose or Noah had even wanted to go back out, their extended value to the team, not what they could contribute in that moment, should have been Thibodeau’s priority, not extending a twelve point lead in the dying seconds.

So when is enough enough? Depends on the level. I had to pull one of my twelve year old girls from two weeks of training in the middle of our season (she was not pleased) because if she hadn’t let her back rest, she may not have been able to continue playing. But at that level, development is key, and much as young players are growing and learning and winning, they haven’t yet achieved their goals. As a coach, I need to protect them and keep them playing.

During Game 4 of the Finals, LeBron James had to sit out off and on during the last few minutes of the game due to leg cramps, which got me thinking. At 27 years old, what is there left for him to accomplish in his career beyond the elusive championship? If he had been injured at all, and ran the risk of aggravating it, perhaps permanently, if he’d continued to play the rest of the series, should he have been expected to continue in the Finals? As careers progress, do players, or rather, should players be expected to take bigger risks with their bodies? Should coaches allow it?

There truly is no right answer. Every player has different priorities, every coach has different expectations. All I can say for certain is that, while the shortened season was super-fun for us, it seems to have been more than a little damaging for the league. Players out for the foreseeable future, teams torn apart, (the Boston Celtics didn’t even have their starters together for most of the season) and coaching staff who look like heartless fiends for pushing their team too hard, too long…

So maybe, let’s just raise a glass to everyone’s health, and leave it at that.

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