NEW YORK – The depressing press releases keep coming, with tales of stress fractures and mangled knees and torn pectoral muscles, the gloom infecting every NBA outpost in this uniquely painful season.
New Orleans lost Jrue Holiday to a broken leg on Friday, 24 hours after it was announced Phoenix lost Eric Bledsoe to a torn meniscus, which came six days after the Los Angeles Clippers lost Chris Paul to a separated shoulder, extending a horrific string of injuries that began last fall.
Some are out for the season. Some have returned. Some are still making their way back.
There is no statistical evidence that this season is more injury-riddled than any other, and no definable trend or through line that links Westbrook’s knee to Horford’s pectoral, or Lopez’s chronic foot problems to Davis’ broken hand. Anyone trying to explain it all with a single theory is guessing or grandstanding.
What is striking—and what makes this season somehow appear worse—is the sheer number of stars on that list, and the outsize impact their injuries have had.
The Eastern Conference has been utterly ruined by this, leaving only two viable contenders, in the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. The Western Conference race has been scrambled time and again.
There are no hard conclusions to draw just yet, only cautionary tales—a harsh reminder that championships require good health as much as good talent. Yes, the two-time defending champions in Miami are acutely aware of what is going on around them, and how fortunate they have been so far.
“You cringe,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday, assessing the latest round of roster carnage.
“Ultimately, there’s an incredible unpredictability about it,” Spoelstra said. “All you can do is knock on wood, cross your fingers.”
The Heat’s road back to the Finals, which was supposed to be tougher this season, now looks much smoother, because of injuries in Chicago (Rose) and Brooklyn (Lopez). As of Saturday, only three teams in the East had winning records, and that included the Atlanta Hawks, who are sure to sink after losing Horford.
The injury plague also underlines why Spoelstra—like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich—has been wise to rest his stars whenever possible and to take the long view, even if it costs the Heat a victory here and there.
The Heat rested Dwyane Wade in Brooklyn on Friday and lost a double-overtime game they might have otherwise won. It was the ninth time Wade has been benched as part of a policy to protect his troublesome left knee, to keep him fresh for the postseason.
Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers also were held out with nagging injuries on Friday. Though both felt ready to play, Spoelstra noted, “You have to be very judicious on the process of healing.”
The Heat have the luxury of being judicious. Their identity is well established, and they know what it takes to make a deep playoff run. The withering state of the Eastern Conference helps, too.
Barring a serious injury of their own, the Heat are in no danger of slipping in the standings. They can claim no worse than the No. 2 seed by default. Although, as Battier said, “You never have wiggle room. If you have a cushion, you want a bigger cushion. And you have to be greedy when you have a chance to create separation in the standings.”
Any threat from the Bulls ended when Rose had season-ending knee surgery in November. The Brooklyn Nets’ hopes were undermined by early injuries to Lopez, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, and probably died for good when Lopez had season-ending foot surgery.
Out West, the teams are more talented and the race more fluid, though the injuries have been just as impactful.
The Golden State Warriors staggered to a 5-7 record while Iguodala nursed a hamstring injury. The Oklahoma City Thunder started the season without Westbrook (knee surgery), got him back and then lost him to another knee surgery.
The Clippers just got Redick (wrist) back, but they will be without Paul for at least another month. The Denver Nuggets have been without center Javale McGee (broken leg) since early November and Danilo Gallinari (knee surgery) since last spring.
The LA Lakers (14-23) might never recover from the long-term injuries to Bryant (knee) and Nash (back). The Memphis Grizzlies (16-19) have only slim playoff hopes, having gone nearly two months without Gasol (knee).
It is possible, as some suggest, that faulty training is partially to blame. It’s possible, as Spoelstra suggested, that the size and speed of today’s athletes creates greater strain on their bodies, especially knees and ankles. It’s possible the season is too long (though good luck convincing owners and players to cut the schedule and reduce profits).
It’s also possible that this trend is not quite as serious as it appears. According to the NBA, the number of “significant” injuries—those that caused an absence of at least 10 games—is in line with recent seasons.
The picture is distorted by the number of players who came into this season with injuries that occurred last season, or earlier. That list includes Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Emeka Okafor, Devin Harris, Chase Budinger, Bryant and Gallinari, among others.
Some of the biggest injuries have been freak accidents, not the result of wear and tear. Paul fell on his shoulder. Davis broke his hand while dunking. Westbrook’s knee problems all stem from one incident—Patrick Beverley crashing into his leg during the 2013 playoffs.
Some injuries are simply chronic issues. Lopez had two prior surgeries on his right foot, and those problems are hardly uncommon among 7-footers.
Some injuries can be chalked up to age and mileage. Bryant, 35, is in his 18th season. So is the 39-year-old Nash.
The point being, there is no simple, uniform explanation for the rash of injuries, and no obvious solution, either.
Maybe it’s because of the long season. Maybe it’s a product of poor training routines. Maybe it’s because of the speed of the game. Maybe it’s all of it. Maybe it’s none of it.
As Battier said, “Injuries are a great mystery of our game.”
The only certainty is that too many fans in too many cities will remember this as a season of broken bodies and broken dreams.
“I think it’s sobering for us,” Battier said. “We’re an ankle turn away from joining those teams and then having to scramble. So this is a humbling game.”