The NBA took action to combat injuries in the previous offseason, so why are so many NBA players, like Porzingis, on the shelf this year?

Heading into the now-waning NBA season, it was evident that the league actively took steps to attempt to improve player safety and curtail injuries across the board. The reduction of back-to-back contests, elimination of the four games in five nights sequences, and the shortening of the preseason are some of examples of the aforementioned changes that were put into effect.

However, despite the NBA’s efforts this past offseason, the injury bug in the 2017–18 has run rampant, ruining seasons for a lot of the most notable star players in the sport, including the New York Knicks’ cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis.

There have been some gruesome—and absolutely nauseating injuries—to a number of big stars like Boston’s Gordon Hayward, who broken ankle in hideous fashion on opening night, Porzingis, who tore his ACL in February, and New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in late January. And the list doesn’t stop there: Kyrie Irving (knee), Steph Curry (knee), John Wall (knee), Jimmy Butler (knee), Joel Embiid (facial fracture), Chris Paul (knee), and Kawhi Leonard (quad) have all experienced extended absences unaccustomed by the NBA’s superstars—a league dependent on the marketability of said superstars, too.

Arguably, most of these guys mentioned do shoulder the load for their respective teams and their injuries could just be a result of them working too hard. Teams’ most important players often place an exorbitant amount of pressure on themselves on the court and in practice to be “the guy.” Another key consideration for this specific group of players is the fact that they’re on the smaller side, save for Cousins, and take a beating when they penetrate to the lane and try to finish at the rim. There is a variety of reasons and theories as to why these guys haven’t been able to avoid the injury bug; however, crucially, the lack of rest hasn’t seemed to come into play here.


The Rest Factor and the NBA’s Bottomline

Clearly, the fact that a lot of these guys are not front-and-center on the hardwood hurts the NBA invariably, being the star-driven league that it is. The time stars take rehabilitating away from the spotlight of the league does affect the bottomline, much to the dismay of commissioner Adam Silver and the teams’ owners. In other words, NBA executives and officials are fully aware of the damage injuries plague on the profitability of hte league. Thus, something needs to be addressed to curb the rise of season-altering injuries to players.

Over the past few seasons we’ve watched some coaches, most prominently San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, rest their star players for nationally televised games and receive backlash from multiple fronts. Fans who pay hefty prices for game admission want to watch the team’s players, you know, play, and certainly media members have been critical of coaches’ withholding access and availability to athletes. Popovich’s stubbornness—or pedigree, if you prefer that descriptor of the five-time champ—led to a decreased viewership, and interest, in Spurs basketball when games did not feature players such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and now the sidelined Kawhi Leonard. To combat the constant rest of his players, the NBA essentially gave into Pop’s “protest” and revamped the schedule to a degree, reducing back-to-back matches in order to make sure coaches don’t have much of a reason to rest their stud players (vague flares and pop ups of “back pain” won’t do in the NBA according to newly implemented policies).

That strategy has silenced the critics, as resting players for primetime games is pretty much a non-issue. The NBA did a great job in that regard; surely the brand would improve when assumed healthier and well-rested players could produce a top-shelf level of the game with fewer crowded schedules. However, a new and unexpected wave of injuries to stars has caused many NBA games that were once deemed interesting to be unwatchable with star players away from their teams in rehab. Scrolling though the list of guys who have missed time due to ailments this year is jaw-dropping.

According to injury-tracking website ManGamesLost.com, as of February 12th, there were 3,798 games missed due to injury, up 42 percent from the same portion of games last season.

The NBA is in a tough spot here, and it doesn’t seem like there is much more they can do to prevent injuries. Clearly increasing rest time for the players hasn’t helped much, even though everyone thought that was the clear-cut solution. There seems to be so many factors out of the league’s control that contribute to injuries. In an unusual and not often said twist, Adam Silver and company could take a similar approach to the NFL: setting stricter limits on practice time and implementing a protocol to verify athletes are deemed healthy enough to re-enter games. (A rudimentary—O.K., now we’re getting closer to the NFL—concussion protocol does exist in basketball, however, the system isn’t exactly widespread to accommodate the range of common injuries NBA facing players.)

Nevertheless, a more bureaucratic system of injury protocols seems ultra-invasive and not something the NBA would be comfortable with establishing in such a perceived player-friendly league.

Porzingis’ Injury Issues

After all, with this being The Knicks Wall, we should specifically hone in on KP and his unfortunate history with injuries.

It’s no secret that Porzingis is a physical freak of nature and a very rare breed of human. Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis is a very tall man with extremely long legs. This obviously bodes well for him from a basketball perspective, as he is able to easily shoot over 99 percent of opponents and can use his size to be a nightmare matchup on both ends of the floor. There are a lot of positives to being this tall and towering over everyone you come across on the court.

However, there is a well-documented pattern of injuries of players with such a large stature. Most notably, Bill Walton and Yao Ming have had their careers cut short and derailed because they just couldn’t interrupt injuries. More recently, we’ve seen Joel Embiid struggle with being able to stay on the floor. The simple fact is that the human body isn’t designed to support an unnatural 7-3 frame, so early in KP’s career we’ve seen a cluster of nagging lower body injuries, which is a product of Kristaps’ sheer height and imbalanced frame. As basketball fans, we pray that these don’t persist, but the track record of seven-footers and having debilitating injuries is concerning, as highlighted by the graph below:

Kristaps is an intelligent kid who knows his body well and is aware of his susceptibility to injuries due to his size. For example, Porzingis removed himself from a December game against the Nets when his left knee was acting up because didn’t want to take any chances in an insignificant game during the middle of the laborious season. Of course, some were critical of KP—and labeled him soft, whatever that means considering his current fate—but we know all about Porzingis’ competitive nature—he wants to be in the ball game when it matters most, and that’s absolutely the definition of toughness.

Unfortunately, we saw KP fewer than two months later tear his ACL in the same left knee after coming down from a dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Looking back at it, some of us could see the injury coming, as KP ran gingerly for the following bunch games he played in afterwards and seemed to lack the explosiveness and agility as he was trying to avoid putting too much pressure on his tender knee.

What’s Next?

It will be interesting to see what the NBA’s next move as the league attempts to reduce and curtail the prevalence of injuries. As I mentioned before, I don’t believe there is much they can do, unless it is a wholesale, drastic change like reducing the number of games, or setting restrictions on practice time or signaling of potential damage (such as the case in Porzingis leading up to the ACL tear).

Plenty of executives, according to Bleacher Report, believe the NBA’s recent schedule changes have in fact backfired, causing rust and not giving the players a consistent-enough schedule to get in rhythm physically. Others, however, believe this rash of injuries is a fluke, like Steve Kerr who said:

“I know injuries are up overall around the league, but whether that’s due to the schedule is pure speculation. … I think the schedule is definitely good in terms of cutting back the load of back-to-backs and four-in-fives. But I didn’t feel like we were ready for the first two weeks of the season because of [the shortened preseason]. How that affects injuries I have no idea.”

Whatever the reason, or absence of a clear reason, there is to why these injuries have been occurring at such a rapid rate, Commissioner Silver and the NBA needs to address the unpleasant impact injuries have had on the league, players like Porzingis, and teams like the Knicks.