When the NBA gets violent, we have a problem. Late in the regular season, a Metta World Peace elbow to the skull of James Harden brings up all sorts of ugly, race-tinged discussions of thuggery in the sport.
The contrast could not be more marked: the fluid, high-scoring artistry versus World Peace’s brute force. It was the introduction of a foreign element, one that debased, even destroyed, the very things that make pro basketball so appealing.
At the same time, though, one of the reasons we look forward to the playoffs is the added intensity on display—intensity that, let’s be honest, frequently expresses itself as tougher, more aggressive play. Skill doesn’t exactly recede; if anything, superstars are spurred to greater heights by mere pushing and shoving.
But if the NBA specializes in amazing displays of athleticism, a hard foul here and there enhances its credibility as a consistently competitive sport—not to mention one that can attract an audience wider than its usual core group of fans.
That’s not to say there’s a fine line between World Peace and playoff basketball because, well, there’s not. That elbow was excessive, uncalled for, without any real context. It’s in the same category as Rajon Rondo’s ref-bump or Amar’e Stoudemire’s assault on a fire extinguisher: aggression for its own sake, occurring outside of the flow of the game and pretty much running counter to the aims of their teams. These weren’t “chippy” games gone wrong, just dudes with issues lashing out at no one in particular.
The disassociated, seemingly random, nature of these acts of violence has much in common with the kind of injury that has so far been the story of the playoffs. Derrick Rose went down over the weekend, without contact or any apparent malice surrounding him. The reigning MVP could just as easily have been playing in the first week of the year or during a non-lockout-shortened year.
Yet despite the seeming lack of a culprit in the case of Rose, or the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert, these abrupt tears and collapses of otherwise perfectly-fit bodies, there’s an easy answer to all this: blame the victim.
Calm down, it’s not what you think. I’m not suggesting that Rose or Shumpert are paying the price for not being in optimal shape (it doesn’t really apply in either of their cases). Rather, it’s exactly their athleticism, the quality that allows them to avoid contact and humiliate musclebound defenders, takes a toll on the body. Rose goes headlong into traffic a lot, sure, but not with nearly the obviously destructive results we used to see with Wade, before he made adjustments to his game, or Allen Iverson before that.
Derrick Rose is simply more athletic than a human body can be without potentially backfiring on itself. It’s not a question of lockout-addled conditioning. As one expert pointed out, if anything Rose would be less of a danger to himself if he weren’t at the top of his game. Sprains, strains and recovery time play into the narrative of out-of-shape bums. Freak knee injuries are a sign that everything is okay.
The most extreme acts of violence in the NBA aren't from loose cannons like Artest or teams looking to slow down a Derrick Rose in the playoffs. The league has absolutely nothing to prove to other sports when it comes to toughness. Rather, the high-flying, speedy action that some deride as avoiding or evading physical contact is in fact putting its practitioners at constant grave risk.
Viewed this way, the league’s most dynamic stars become almost tragic. For Rose to soar above all others, to be truly untouchable, he must bring himself closer and closer to the point of risking self-induced harm. The same appears to be true of Dwight Howard.
We tend to associate players slowing down, becoming more cagey and earthbound, with a decrease in abilities. In fact, it may be a necessity. It’s how the greatest NBA players are able to save themselves from themselves.