Kyrie Irving is currently out of action and not traveling with the Cleveland Cavaliers due to a bruised left knee. The latest mishap brings up an inevitable question—is the All-Star point guard injury-prone or just unlucky?
In this case, the diagnosis could have been much worse.
It’s one thing to look at a singular event and chalk it up to chance. Irving hasn’t been injured just once, however, but repeatedly throughout the course of a relatively short career. There would seem to be an obvious pattern, not so much in the types of injuries, but in the fact that they occur with regularity.
Before delving too deeply into Irving’s past, let’s take a look at his most recent malady. It occurred against the Indiana Pacers on New Year’s Eve. According to Zach Harper for CBS Sports, Irving was attempting to go around George Hill for a layup when something went wrong:
As he was gathering his steps, he lost his balance and seemed to have his knee give way in a manner that caused him a considerable amount of pain. He returned to the game but was given an MRI the next day and listed as day-to-day. Irving’s knee is not good enough to play Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets and he will not even travel with the team to Brooklyn.
As reported by Jason Lloyd for the Akron Beacon Journal, Irving initially feared that the injury was more severe:
I thought the worst had happened. My left knee is pretty weak right now. I was falling all over the place. I didn’t have my legs under me. I’m still hoping that there’s nothing wrong, just something slight, if anything at all. Just hoping for the best.
“Falling all over the place” isn’t the safest thing on a hardwood court. That’s how it is in sports—injuries happen for all types of reasons including unforeseen circumstances, lack of conditioning, carelessness and the inherent risk of 10 guys running and jumping at an accelerated speed.
The word “luck” can be used as a means to deflect either blame or culpability—something unfortunate occurred, and it’s simply a matter of happenstance. Someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As a freshman at Duke, Irving suffered a toe injury while performing a seemingly routine baseline cut. As reported by Bret Strelow and Stephen Schramm for the Fayetteville Observer, the injury seemed to baffle even Duke associate head coach Chris Collins:
It’s a combination of things. There’s a ligament and some bone in there that have been damaged. And from what we’ve seen, it’s a very unique injury. It’s a form of turf toe but it’s a little more severe than that. It’s been hard to explain in layman’s terms. But because it’s in the ball of his foot, that’s a really dicey area. That’s where you do all your cutting and your jumping. And that’s where you do all of your pushing off from. That’s what’s made this all the more delicate. I don’t know that the injury has an exact label. If it has a name, I don’t know what it is.
At the time, Irving’s foot injury may have simply seemed like a freak accident. He played just 11 games in his only season at Duke, before being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Cavaliers.
During his rookie season, Irving banged his head against Dwyane Wade’s knee and was eventually diagnosed with a concussion. Later in the same season, the Cavalier’s Rookie of the Year sprained his right shoulder. In July 2012, he slapped a padded wall during summer league practice in Las Vegas, breaking his shooting hand in the process.
Irving began his sophomore season in the NBA by fracturing his left index finger in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Next up was a broken jaw, suffered when he landed face-first after being knocked down by Luc Mbah a Moute of the Milwaukee Bucks. Toward the end of the season, Irving suffered a hyperextended knee in practice and missed three games.
Irving had hoped to play a full season for the first time, but it’s not to be. According to ESPN news service, Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown is being cautious with his star point guard:
“I think he understands what he needs to do to help make sure he takes care of his body long term and not think about the short term. I don’t think it’s a big problem for him.”
What exactly does “injury-prone” mean, besides the obvious? Sometimes, we look at an athlete who seems to have a particular area of concern. Andrew Bynum’s knees have been a problem throughout his career, for instance. Yao Ming’s feet were always a concern, as was Tracy McGrady’s back.
For Irving, it’s about the frequency. Is it realistic to chalk his injuries up to something as amorphous as luck? It may be convenient—an easy way to shrug something off, as if actually avoiding reality through a word.
Is there a rhyme or reason here? Could something be done at this still-early point in Irving’s career to curtail what seems like an obvious and potentially career-shortening trend? Will Carroll, who covers the injuries and sports medicine beat for Bleacher Report, had this to say about Irving:
What you see is all traumatic injuries in no particular pattern. You could say that he can’t hold up or that his game is the type that will lead to this, but I don’t think you could call him injury prone. There’s simply no pattern. A broken hand or bruised knee happens as a result of a random event. Certainly you could make arguments about his style or physicality, but nothing to pattern or prevention.
An argument can be made that yes, we should label Irving injury-prone because that’s what our eyes tell us. Yet, Carroll points out the obvious: There’s no commonality to the type of injuries. There’s nothing physiological that’s causing Irving to get a concussion one night or twist a knee on another occasion.
So, can nothing be done to right Irving’s injury problem? Is this no more than the inherent dangers of the sport itself? And just like that, "unlucky" moves right back into contention.
Irving plays hard, and that’s to be admired. He drives to the hole with aggression and purpose. He breaks his opponents’ ankles, so there’s the possibility of damaging his own. He may not crash and burn as often as, say, Dwyane Wade did in his prime, but he crashes often enough.
By all rights, Kyrie Irving, just 21 years old, should have a long career ahead of him. His bruised knee isn’t likely to have a large impact in of itself. Yes, he plays hard, and yet that is to be admired—games aren’t won by overcautious players. Hopefully, his road is still long. It would be a shame to see it cut short, especially by bad luck.