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Should Free Agents Be Concerned About Lakers' Chronic Health Issues?

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Should Free Agents Be Concerned About Lakers' Chronic Health Issues?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers will have a lot of open spots to fill next season. Should NBA free agents be concerned about the team’s chronic health issues?

This isn’t just your garden variety of sports maladies—it’s an outright epidemic. During a season in which injuries across the league have seemingly skyrocketed, the Lakers have resembled a Typhoid Mary of broken bones, injured knees, ruptured tendons, herniated discs and more.

The team lost 184 games last season due to injury and are already at 176 missed games this season. Is this a red flag for potential free agents? 

Injuries are always a part of the game, and for the moment, most players will be thinking about the current season. Come this summer, however, that could change.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ problems continue. Steve Nash has missed 74 out of 133 games since joining the Lakers. On Sunday against the Chicago Bulls, he got kneed in the exact same spot where he fractured his leg last season. That original fracture, of course, led to the nerve root issues that have plagued him ever since.

Fortunately, this latest mishap doesn’t seem to be serious, with Nash hoping to play Tuesday against the Jazz.

It’s easy to point to age as a culprit—Nash turned 40 last week. It’s not so easy to use that as an excuse for the team’s woes on whole, however. The Lakers’ injury parade seems to have no preference, striking both the old and chronically beat-up, and players who have been relatively unscathed.

On February 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nick Young suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left patella. It seemed like one more freak occurrence for a player who had been doing fine all season.

The never-ending carousel has Lakers head coach Mike DAntoni throwing new starting lineups onto the floor, necessitated by whatever bodies he has available at the time. Every member of the roster has started at least five times this season.

Is there anything to the notion that something’s poisoning the Lakers’ well? Should free agents be concerned, or is this simply a matter of random happenstance?

In addition to Nash and Young, other injured Lakers this season have included Steve Blake with a torn UCL; Jordan Farmar with back-to-back hamstring tears; Pau Gasol with tendonitis, a toe injury and strained groin; Xavier Henry with torn cartilage in his right knee; Chris Kaman with back spasms; Jodie Meeks with a badly sprained ankle; Jordan Hill with a cervical strain and rookie Ryan Kelly who was still rehabbing from foot surgery when the season began.

And then, there’s Kobe Bryant. The Lakers’ five-time NBA champion tore his left Achilles tendon last April, requiring reconstructive surgery. Until the injury, he was No. 3 in the NBA in minutes played that season. After a lengthy recovery, he returned to action in December, lasting just six games before fracturing the lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee.

The question of whether Bryant’s usage played into his injury has been widely debated. Per Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, Bryant’s former coach Phil Jackson weighs in:

Kobe's minutes he's played, the time he's been on the floor, the duress and the way he's played has taken a toll, obviously. And his injury, I think, was part of the chain of events that happened because of his Achilles tendon. Unfortunately it set him back and now he's got a knee injury.

It can be hard to pinpoint cause and effect when injuries continually bleed into each other. What’s certain, however, is that the Lakers’ health situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Mike Trudell for the team’s official website, interviewed Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti last summer, asking about his toughest season in 29 years. Here’s part of what Vitti had to say:

It wasn't a tough year, it was a tough 10 years in one. The NBA is different from pro football and other sports because we don't have as many players. You can go several seasons with the rotation really not missing many games, like we did a few years ago.

Case in point: During Jackson’s last season coaching the Lakers, four starters—Bryant, Gasol, Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher, as well as sixth man Lamar Odom—played in all 82 games.

Nobody on the Lakers’ current roster has played in every game this season, and it’s still only February.

In January, Bleacher Report’s resident injury expert, Will Carroll, examined the idea that while the Lakers injuries cost them millions of dollars, it is a problem that could be solved. Carroll noted that while the team has a training staff plus an on-call network of medical personnel, there’s only one athletic trainer—Vitti. This, compared to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns, who each have three, and the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs who each have two athletic trainers.

When approached for this article, Carroll wasn’t so sure that the number of Lakers injuries would pose a problem during free agency. As for the age factor, he had this to say:

Older players aren't more frequently injured, up to a point. There's something of a survivor’s effect. You don't play at 30, 35, and beyond, without being able to stay healthy and recover. There is a cliff, to be sure, and we've seen players like Nash go way over it, but in general, age is a poor predictor.

Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer and injury analyst for Rotowire.com, also runs the injury site In Street Clothes. Stotts recently wrote that the Purple and Gold had lost a league-worst $19,631,653 due to injuries, by the halfway point of the season.

B/R reached out to Stotts, who noted that Lakers health issues appear to be rooted in two categories: chronic injuries that have been particularly limiting to aging veterans such as Steve Nash, or simple bad luck.

While chronic issues have pestered the elder Lakers statesmen, freak injuries have also taken their toll and it starts with Kobe Bryant. The team was prepared for their MVP to miss the first 19 games recovering from his Achilles surgery, but no one could have anticipated his tibial plateau fracture. There have been very few cases of such injuries in the NBA and the injury itself has proven costly both on the court and off.

Steve Blake’s torn UCL is another rare injury that should be attributed to bad luck. In the last five season only four documented cases of true UCL tears have been recorded. The knee injuries to both Nick Young and Xavier Henry were also injuries that should be viewed as unpreventable given the situation in which they occurred.

Could fewer injuries during the Jackson era be credited to coaching style? Rotation patterns during that period tended to be stable, while the triangle offense itself was less about speed and athleticism and more about half-court sets and moving without the ball.

By comparison, DAntoni has frequently experimented with lineup changes, and prefers an up-tempo pace with heavy pick-and-roll action. Could this be adding stress to players’ bodies? Could there be a snowball effect, with older players being injured more frequently due to wear and tear, while less-experienced players are pressed into heavier minutes, and as a result, more injuries?

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

I asked Stotts if there was anything to this reasoning.

Potentially, but there isn't much evidence to support the theory. Farmar's hamstring strain is the only injury that could be the result of motion/speed. Furthermore you aren't really seeing many non-contact injuries that could be associated with fatigue or overuse. They all seem to be the result of colliding with another player, stepping on an opponent’s foot, or some other isolated incident.

Is there no correlation between pace and injuries then? Or, is it a moot point, given that the league overall is getting faster?

At the start of the season, Ken Berger for CBS Sports, considered the increased number of ACL injuries across the NBA. Iman Shumpert, who tore an ACL during the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2012, offered the following:

The game is becoming so athletic and so explosive that you're putting so much stress and such a pounding on there. You got guys Euro-stepping around people. You're contorting your body in so many different ways now with the new-age game that I could see like the ACL's are going like that.

Then again, the question being asked here, is whether there is anything specifically inherent to the Lakers’ system that would give free agents pause for thought. D’Antoni’s small ball preference isn’t likely to deter anyone. After all, this is the way of the league these days.

Can just one factor be separated out this cleanly? There's also a cannibalized roster led by an aging superstar and a coach who has not displayed a consistent touch in recent years, all coming together to form a questionable impression.

Ultimately, the extreme number of injuries this season becomes part of the overall climate in Lakerland. 

Not all free agents will be concerned with the Lakers’ chronic injury problems. But, it only takes one coveted player with cold feet to make a difference.

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