Breaking Down Why NBA Teams Are Cloaking Player Injuries
Dealing with and reporting injuries has been, is and likely will always be a tricky business in the world of pro sports, including the NBA.
It's a business that some organizations (i.e. the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and New Orleans Hornets, among others) seem to have taken advantage of during the 2012-13 season.
Teams are often hesitant to disclose the specific nature of a given ailment because doing so jeopardizes the health and safety of the affected player. Physical contact is part and parcel with playing basketball, and if the opposition knows the details of a key player's corporeal vulnerabilities, it's to that opposition's competitive advantage to target said vulnerabilities in a physical manner.
It may not be ethical or a matter of good sportsmanship, but it happens all the time, and it's a mode of behavior in which nearly everyone in the Association seems to engage at one point or another.
Consider Dwight Howard's ongoing bout with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder. Howard is subject to far more punishment than most by virtue of playing the center position—and by being a nearly unstoppable physical specimen in that spot, no less.
But now that everyone knows that the Los Angeles Lakers big man has a bum shoulder, defenders have taken greater liberties to swipe down even harder on that part of his body when fouling him. Such has resulted in Howard having to sit out multiple games on two separate occasions.
The point being, there's a key disincentive to keep coaches, trainers and front offices from speaking candidly about injuries if they can, lest they subject their players to specific harm.
By the same token, the franchises themselves have a public trust to uphold with the fans who make their operations possible. The NBA is and has been a star-driven league for at least the last 30 years or so.
People typically want to see the best of the best play and quite often put money in the pockets of the league and its owners to do so, be it directly (by buying tickets to games) or indirectly (by tuning in on TV, the Internet, radio, etc.).
As such, coaches (and the teams that employ them) have been known to land in hot water when dealing with the health of players in a manner judged to be "dishonest."
That was the case in late November 2012, when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent home a slew of his most prominent players—including Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—ahead of a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat.
The league subsequently levied a fine of $250,000 against the Spurs for Pop's actions, and commissioner David Stern offered the following explanation for the punishment (via Ben Golliver of SI.com):
The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case. The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami.
The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.
The Spurs’ actions were in violation of a league policy, reviewed with the NBA Board of Governors in April 2010, against resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.
Yet, as yours truly noted at the time, the NBA had done nothing to reprimand the Golden State Warriors for essentially deceiving their own fans in a manner that was far more "sinister" than anything Pop did.
The team told fans and local media that Andrew Bogut, for whom the Warriors parted ways with Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh at the 2012 trade deadline, had undergone a minor arthroscopic cleanout of his troublesome ankle last April.
In fact, Bogut had actually opted for microfracture surgery—a more serious procedure that requires a longer recovery period. Bogut and Warriors general manager Bob Myers finally came clean about the severity of Bogut's situation on Nov. 28, but only after the team had previously suggested that the seven-foot center would be back in early December.
Bogut didn't return until Jan. 28.
Why, then, might the Warriors have kept this under wraps for as long as they did? Were their doctors really so oblivious as to the health of one of the team's most important players? Or was the team's marketing wing so concerned about the potential loss of season-ticket revenue over the summer that the organization, as a whole, opted for a campaign of misinformation to keep the sales flowing?
(Methinks the truth lies somewhere closer to the latter than the former. Just a hunch, really.)
Golden State's (mis)handling of Bogut's situation might also have offered the team something of a competitive advantage on the court. If the Warriors claimed that Bogut's return was impending, then opponents would have to spend the necessary time and energy to prepare for his presence accordingly.
As it happens, Bogut's first game back (a 114-102 win over the Toronto Raptors) came as something of a surprise, even to some of his teammates.
Warriors players/coaches among early pregame workout groups think Andrew Bogut will play vs. Toronto tonight, but all are holding breath.— Rusty Simmons (@Rusty_SFChron) January 28, 2013
The Warriors are hardly alone among NBA teams in their suspect handling of news regarding player injuries. The Hornets weren't exactly forthcoming about Eric Gordon's knee injury back in November and December. Neither were the Clippers all that eager to talk about Chris Paul's bruised kneecap, which kept him out of 12 games in a 14-game span between mid-January and early February.
Meanwhile, the Knicks had listed Rasheed Wallace as "day-to-day" for much of the time leading up to surgery on his left foot, which (obviously) would've kept him out of action more definitively and for a much longer period of time.
To be sure, 'Sheed is no longer the sort of player that most casual fans clamor to see, be it in person or on TV. No offense to all the hoops heads out there who yearn to see an aging, overweight Wallace rack up technicals and lob catch phrases in lieu of trash talk.
However, Gordon and Paul are both the sort of talents many fans will pay good money to see, and countless others will turn the channel. Those two, along with Bogut, also make their respective squads more competitive and thus more enjoyable to watch for a wider viewing audience.
All of which brings up a number of questions that may (or may not) dictate whether the NBA should act to curb this supposed injury-related malfeasance.
For one, how much of an advantage might the specter of an injured player potentially participating in a game grant to the team engaging in misinformation? How does the opposition's need to prepare for a star player's presence or absence impact said opposition's performance? Conversely, at how much of a disadvantage might full disclosure put the team of the injured player?
These questions, in particular, are all difficult to answer. There's no way to measure counterfactuals against reality. Nor is there any definitive means of determining whether a team is being honest or not about its injury reporting in real time.
But they're not the only queries of note that arise from such a discussion. As far as fans are concerned, how often do fans determine whether or not to buy tickets—be those of the single-game, special package or season variety—based on existing injury reports?
It seems safe to suggest that star players coming to town, as visitors and as free agents/trade pieces/draftees, affect ticket sales. But does their absence on account of injury have the opposite effect?
Moreover, if you're a fan of a particular team, would you rather your team lie about a given player's injury in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage (while simultaneously throwing the "integrity" of the product into question). Or would you rather your team be completely honest about the situation and forfeit both the potential on-court advantage and the added revenue?
It's a difficult issue to parse out, if only because the realm of injury reporting is such a murky one. A situation like Bogut's seems to stand apart from most, since the "cover-up" came during the offseason, when Warriors fans were likely still deciding whether or not to purchase ticket packages.
Golden State didn't get a leg up on the competition by shrouding the true extent of Bogut's surgery in secrecy in the middle of July. Hence, the Warriors' activities come off as more nefarious than most.
As for the others, it comes down to an argument similar to the one made by Pop when he put Duncan, Parker and Ginobili (and Danny Green) on a plane back to San Antonio in November.
The teams are supposed to be in the business of winning. As such, they should be afforded the leeway to go about that business as they see fit, so long as it's within the boundaries of the rules set forth by the league.
If the NBA isn't going to penalize teams for underreporting or misreporting injuries, then why shouldn't they? In a way, it should be an organization's job to find an edge wherever possible, to set itself up for success by any means necessary.
The offense comes in judging intent, which is a whole other can of worms entirely. It's entirely possible that teams may intend to mislead opposing teams, and fans are subsequently misled by accident.
It's also entirely possible that teams are being honest in their assessments, and details are scarce simply because accounting for and dealing with injuries is far less cut-and-dry than most of us suspect. There's also the not-so-small matter of privacy, of doctor-patient confidentiality and of injuries (perhaps) not being the public's dang business.
Not that I have anything against total transparency in these instances. But realistically, if the NBA were to implement a stricter injury-reporting policy, it's difficult to imagine the powers that be having the ability to enforce the rules and keep proper track of every bruise, break, fracture and tear that comes across the wire.
What's to keep teams from reporting fake injuries, or suggesting that a player's ankle injury was actually to a knee, as happened so often in the NFL?
At present, there are no easy answers to any of these conundrums. Instead, we're left only with more questions.
Like, when will Andrew Bogut be back again? Will Eric Gordon ever play a full season? And should teams be wary of Chris Paul's history of knee problems when he hits free agency this summer?
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