Debunking the NBA’s deceiving injury trend

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It’s been a brutal NBA season with regard to injuries — as a fantasy basketball owner, general manager and head coach for not one but two teams, I know all about it. As the playoffs reach a fever pitch in my leagues with high school and college friends alike, I’ve been waiting in agony for Trae Young, Anthony Davis and Gordon Hayward to rejoin the fray (although I should’ve known that I was signing up for this when I drafted Hayward).

I can’t wail too loudly. Obviously, these bumps, bruises and broken bones have had far greater ramifications for the NBA itself. But my fantasy ownership plight has been a symptom of a fast-spreading plague — a plague of NBA injuries that seems to be approaching catastrophic proportions with each passing day.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid, who are debatably three of the league’s five best players, have missed a collective 77 games at time of publication. Young, Davis and Hayward have all missed extended periods of time. And the Denver Nuggets’ championship aspirations fell as dramatically as Jamal Murray did upon tearing his ACL.

With Murray’s injury, as well as Embiid’s and that of LaMelo Ball, NBA fans have seen a contending team, an MVP campaign and a dominant rookie season all derailed by injuries. And it seems like no coincidence that all these injuries are occurring this year. The tidal wave of injuries sweeping up both perennial All-Stars and promising young talents was precipitated by this season’s condensed nature. Or was it? In fact, how certain are we that there even has been a disproportionately large number of injuries this season?

Much commotion has been made about the fact that the NBA schedule features more games during an average week than there were last season. Each team was scheduled to play 72 games during the 2020-21 regular season campaign — 10 fewer games than in a usual regular season — but the league’s COVID-19-induced late start date has meant that this shortened schedule is still rather compressed.

On average, teams’ schedules are more densely packed than in past seasons. Many basketball fans have been critical of league leaders’ handling of the situation, arguing that the season ought to have been even shorter so that games could be more widely spread out. Particularly bold individuals have gone so far as to accuse NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and his peers of prioritizing revenue over players’ health.

As fun as it would be to write about sinister Silver rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally with a cat on his lap, his bald head shining like the Larry O’Brien trophy, I do not believe that this condensed schedule is to blame.

While a lot has been said about the packed slate of games players are enduring this season, the fact of the matter is that with teams playing an average of 3.6 games per week — just 5% more than last year’s number, it would be unfair to pin the blame on the supposed greed of Silver and other league decision makers.

Perhaps a more striking statistic is that injuries are actually down 6% this season. Now, this number should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was reported a couple weeks ago by the NBA itself. While it’s somewhat nebulous what the league considers to be an injury, the statistic concerning average games per week cannot be fudged. Therefore, it seems likely that too much fuss is being made about a marginally more intense schedule.

Before pointing a finger at NBA overlords, it might be worth considering that what seems to be an unprecedented number of injuries is actually just a disproportionately large number of injuries to high-profile players.

James and Durant are aging. Davis, Embiid and Hayward have been injury-prone for their entire careers. And devastating ACL injuries like that which Murray suffered are nothing new in such a quick-paced game. Given recent injuries to these players prior to the 2020-21 season, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that these stars and a few others have experienced suboptimal health this year.

The stars were aligned for stars to crumple and fall this season. The next time I want to curse Silver for the evils his condensed schedule may have wrought upon my fantasy basketball teams, I’ll keep that in mind.

Ethan Moutes is a deputy sports editor and a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].