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Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The NBA's injury shadow

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Basketball is theoretically a non-contact sport, easy money compared to the NFL pain factory. Contact or not, prominent NBA players have been dropping like their ligaments are landmines. Below, I've compiled a list of recent All-Stars whose last seasons prematurely ended under the knife.

Kobe Bryant: Achilles rupture.
Kevin Love: knee scar tissue, broken hand.
Rajon Rondo: ACL tear.
Russell Westbrook: meniscus tear.
Derrick Rose: ACL tear (2012).
Andrew Bynum: loose knee cartilage.

This group represents much of the NBA's injury shadow, a draping of dread and doubt cast wide over major franchises. It’s too early to say if the recent spate of injured famous players is anything more than a coincidental blip, but it’s certainly made the 2013-14 season a difficult one to discuss.

The “if healthy” question haunts so many of our NBA conversations. Film mogul Samuel Goldwyn once famously said, “nobody knows anything,” when describing Hollywood. You could say the same about sports punditry, given how even intelligent analysts often see their predictions mocked by the actual games.

Because of these major injuries, making sense of all this has gotten even tougher. The injury shadow doesn't just make a situation gloomier, it obscures your vision. The shadow takes a league n already hard to figure and makes it even more opaque. Suddenly, almost any statement other than “LeBron James and Kevin Durant will be great” seems as precarious as Greg Oden playing hopscotch. If nobody knew anything before, the confounding variable of “how healthy will he be?” ensures they won’t know anything now.

It’s hard to gauge what’s expected from a returning Rose, since he’s relied so much on his speed and hops. If his athleticism is compromised even a little bit, the on-court effects could be depressing. Then again, we could see 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. That would change the league meaningfully.

Bryant is 35 years old and just popped the largest tendon in his body. If Kobe wasn't the game’s most famously resilient force, we’d be writing his basketball obituary alongside T-Mac’s. He’s spoken of a speedy recovery for what it’s worth.

Rondo tore his ACL amid a lot of questions about just how good he was when actually healthy. The mercurial, fascinating point guard’s development has stagnated over the past three years. It’s possible that new Celtics coach Brad Stevens gets the best out of Rondo and helps him forge a better path. It’s also possible that Boston wants to lose as many games as possible, and Rondo’s development is ancillary to that goal.

Love played only 18 games last season and his health is obviously key for a Timberwolves playoff bid. Minnesota has taken over Portland’s status as the sport’s most perpetually broken team, and it’s fair to question whether the injuries can be excused as merely bad luck. If the Phoenix Suns training staff can be praised for keeping guys playing, some other staffs should be scrutinized for having no such success.

Westbrook’s injury is probably the least concerning, as it’s a mere meniscus. The obvious concern is that his approach is so dependent on burst that further injury could really hinder the game’s most reckless superstar.

Even stars who barely missed a game own a patch of the shadow. Dwight Howard suited up for 76 games last season, but concerns persist that back surgery permanently altered his movements. He never quite looked like his old self, even while leading the NBA in rebounding. Stephen Curry missed a mere four games last season, but his ankle twisted into cursive lettering on numerous occasions. Rockets fans and Golden State fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic, but optimistic analysis of both clubs carries a large “if healthy” caveat.

It isn’t just contending teams who might feel held hostage by twitchy tendons. Many of the lesser squads have their franchise hopes pegged to an injury-prone youngster. Kyrie Irving either gets hurt a lot, or his physical infirmity is really just a clever lie to hide Cleveland’s tanking.

Anthony Davis had one of the greatest rookie seasons on a per-minute basis, but “per-minute” is operative. Not only did he suffer ankle sprains, but he also was torn down by a nasty concussion.

Jonas Valanciunas looked fantastic at Las Vegas Summer League, after an uneven rookie season. Now the hope is he won’t miss 20 games in his sophomore campaign for the Raptors.

John Wall secured a max contract after a season in which he played 49 games. It’s good to be talented.

Some of the pain and missed action creates drama. Who doesn’t like seeing the hyped return of the felled star? Mostly, though, the injuries have just been a giant bummer.

Famous players have been getting hurt to the detriment of interest in the game. If that sounds a little grim and hyperbolic, I ask: Would you rather see a playoffs with Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, or would you rather see a playoffs with none of those guys? The 2013 NBA Finals were thrilling, but the playoffs that preceded lacked intrigue because of so much hobbled talent.

Not only is the shadow a drag for fans and of course, the players themselves, but it throws the league into a discomfiting kind of flux. Here’s to hoping the shadow abates.