Dating back to 2005-06, there’s been an average of three ACL tears each NBA season, according to injury buff Jeff Stotts at In Street Clothes. Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury last week marked the fourth player to tear his ACL during this campaign.
Then Donovan Mitchell sustained a scary ankle injury on Friday afternoon. The Jazz All-Star is expected to miss several games. And that’s not to mention Kevin Durant returning from his 23-game absence just in time for James Harden to come up with a limp hamstring...only for Durant to leave Sunday’s outing with a thigh contusion. Joel Embiid may even lose out on MVP honors for having missed 18 games.
“Blame it on whatever you want, everyone’s in the same boat,” said one Eastern Conference assistant coach.
Assessing fault for this rash of injuries is quite complicated.
After a late end to last season and with the Olympics looming in July, the NBA has managed to squeeze in a full season, one that surpassed 70 games and included an All-Star event to satisfy the league’s lucrative media rights contracts. Those financial benefits support the players, coaches and executives as much as the league office. There are still many veteran league personnel, after all, currently unemployed from when teams furloughed or laid off staffers due to the pandemic.
Yet this truncated NBA calendar, which will only grow thornier as teams make up the 32 earlier-scheduled contests that were postponed for health and safety protocols, has left players and team officials alike battered and exhausted. As injuries have mounted and the league calendar churns onward, you can hear the fatigue in coaches’ voices, even over the phone or through Zoom.
Several assistants contacted by Bleacher Report specifically mentioned the league’s stringent COVID-19 testing protocols—a necessary procedure—as another negative factor on players’ rest and recovery time.
“Some nights we fly in at three in the morning and have to get up for a test at 8 a.m.,” another assistant coach said.
These compounding elements have left many teams with vastly incomplete lineups. It seems all of the league’s contenders have faced their fair share of maladies to superstars and key contributors. “Nobody’s got continuity, really,” said one Western Conference executive. And it remains to be seen how that lack of consistency among teams’ active rosters will impact postseason performance.
Brooklyn, for example, has used 31 different starting units so far this season, the most in Nets franchise history. Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving have shared only 186 minutes over seven games. “The core pieces not getting time together is not insignificant,” said the same Western Conference official. “Brooklyn is awesome. But at the end of the day, when it’s 110-106 in the fourth quarter in the playoffs, what are they going to do?”
The Nets are in fact 23-8 in games within five points in the last five minutes—a league-best 20-4 since a certain bearded man’s arrival. And when healthy, their Durant-Harden-Irving triumvirate has indeed been awesome, blitzing opponents to the tune of 122.4 points per 100 possessions in that limited sample size, a whole four points better than the Clippers’ ridiculous 118.5 offensive rating that would be the best full-season mark in league history.
Yet there are certainly more eyebrows being raised among rival personnel—perhaps it’s a hope as well—the longer Brooklyn goes without its full lineup to experiment during this stretch run of the regular season, something that seems like an increasing possibility.
“We may not get any games with our whole roster. Nothing is promised tomorrow,” head coach Steve Nash revealed to reporters last week.
Yes, when healthy, the Nets can simply run two of their three All-Stars in a high pick-and-roll, but whittling that down to a specific duo on any given night requires a lot of tact, teamwork and one superstar’s sacrifice. Not being able to drill those circumstances in a meaningless game in April surely doesn’t benefit Brooklyn. “As far as time and chemistry, it’s not ideal,” Nash said.
“There can be a little bit of tug of war and indecision of who takes it,” said another veteran assistant coach. “The star players aren’t as good with spacing off the ball as other role players. In the regular season, you can even argue that Brooklyn is easier to guard when they have more of the starpower.”
Those record-setting Clippers face a similar dynamic themselves. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have each sat over 13 games. Beverley, the starting point guard, has missed 15 of Los Angeles’ past 17 games and Ibaka, a true frontcourt lynchpin, hasn’t played since March 15. It should be noted that some of that lineup inconsistency has been due to Leonard voluntarily resting. “They’re just so hamstrung by Kawhi picking when and when he doesn’t want to play,” said one Western conference coach.
“At this point in Kawhi’s career, he wants to be a partner in the success,” said one executive.
There’s still been a clear emphasis for the Clippers to build toward the postseason under head coach Tyronn Lue, rather than flipping that proverbial playoff switch when the time comes. Word of Lue’s ability to hold star players accountable, hoping to avoid another postseason shortfall, has been heard far and wide around the league. “I think there’s definitely a level of urgency by their group,” said the aforementioned coach.
Leonard’s rest periods and the Clippers’ injuries have afforded Luke Kennard and Terrence Mann more minutes. Mann’s production during that increased playing time, sources said, dramatically boosted Los Angeles’ valuation of the Florida State product before the trade deadline. Yet just like the Nets, Lue has been unable to truly mix all the ingredients of the Clippers’ roster. He’s yet to play a nine-man postseason lineup through a game’s first three quarters, for example.
“Until we get healthy, we can’t see those different lineups and some of the things we want to do,” Lue said. “We haven’t really been allowed to play with all of our lineups and play with all of our bigs.
Perhaps the addition of Rajon Rondo can help steady any turbulence that may arise in the playoffs. Landing a true floor general was long messaged as a key priority for the Clippers ahead of the deadline, sources said. They didn’t need another one-on-one player to watch Leonard and George operate. “Lou Williams was a duplication. He wasn’t doing anything without the ball,” said one coach.
“Reggie Jackson is a lot of flash and scoring and excitement, but at the end of the day, during crunch time, can he really run an offense?” said one scout. “Rondo’s instincts are so, so valuable.”
Even beyond the injuries, this season’s frenetic game schedule has also left teams with incredibly limited practice time, where coaches would normally have some opportunity to assess different five-man units in light scrimmages.
Missing Embiid for a long stretch allowed Doc Rivers to mix-and-match varying combinations of smaller lineups and reserve fits alongside Dwight Howard, but the Sixers are still awaiting George Hill’s return from a thumb injury. Philadelphia personnel hope Hill can play a key bench role and he may even log minutes in Rivers’ closing group. Yet without all these active bodies and with a limited practice schedule, Rivers has needed to get creative in finding ways to further his lineup experimentation.
“We use shootarounds and I never have,” Rivers said. “We’ve decided that’s the best way right now, to work on stuff during shootarounds. It’s not the same, though. I’ll tell you, working on a defensive shootaround compared to a live, real NBA defense is a big difference. But that’s what we’re all kind of straddled with and I think everyone’s trying to do different things.”
The Lakers, for another example, will have limited time to juggle reinserting LeBron James and Anthony Davis into an offense that’s been reconfigured around Andre Drummond. The Nuggets only get so many games before the playoffs to workshop Monte Morris and perhaps Austin Rivers in Murray’s place. Meanwhile the Jazz are naturally resting players when they can, without sacrificing their chances at the top seed in the West.
Getting there is now, more than ever, half the battle.
“This season is literally survival of the fittest,” said one scout. “It’s going to be the last man standing at this point.”