Injuries leave lingering questions
Steve Nash's words were haunting for their honesty, their poignancy and most of all their accuracy.
It was Friday, he was talking about his attempt to fend off age and injury to return to game action, and he reached the conclusion that "in the end, you always succumb."
There's no escape, only postponement.
The NBA's appeal is that its athletes perform feats that the rest of society -- even basketball players at the major college level -- can't match. The soaring dunks, the perfectly timed passes, the remarkable skill and concentration required to make a jump shot at the buzzer over a defender's outstretched arm. Yet the players are still susceptible to sprains, strains or simply deterioration, elements that all came into play on a depressing Friday that saw another Lakers game played without Nash and Kobe Bryant, more woes for the Brooklyn Nets without Brook Lopez and Deron Williams and a fresh set of injuries to Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol and Andre Iguodala.
My curiosity isn't about the injuries occurring -- they happen to almost every player at unpredictable times -- it's about the response to them. Will they alter plans or style of play? Could it mean the end of Nash's career and a change to the Lakers' financial outlook? Does it mean an alteration to Rose's daredevil attacks?
But you can change how you play. Early in Chris Paul's career, he realized his body wasn't built to withstand the punishment that's found in the lane in the NBA, so he adjusted accordingly. The difference could be seen in the drop in free throw attempts per game during his first three seasons. He reached the point where he was actually more dangerous when he stopped near the free throw line and became a threat to shoot or pass than when he was going all the way to the hoop.
Rose might need to make a similar modification. Make pull-up jumpers and teardrop shots a bigger part of the repertoire. Throw lobs to Noah.
Or he could follow the lead of Russell Westbrook, whose response to a meniscus injury was to push the engine to the same level of rpm each game. He appears to be undaunted by the prospect of another injury.
"I just go out there and play and think about the task at hand," Westbrook said recently. "I know my teammates need me and want me to do great and need my energy. That's my job."
For someone as young as the 25-year-old Westbrook, energy can be the No. 1 asset. In a pregame meeting with the ESPN broadcast crew for the Warriors-Lakers game Friday, coach Mike D'Antoni relayed a stat he'd heard: The top 35 NBA leaders in the "distance covered" measure tracked by the new SportVU system were all under 30 years old. Youth is such a benefit in this sport, while experience remains such a necessity in this league. The two NBA Finals participants from last season, the Heat and Spurs, have two of the four highest average ages on their roster.
A guy like Nash is as savvy as they come. But his body is betraying him. Nash is adamant that he wants to continue playing. (As if to prove it, he went to the ball rack, grabbed a basketball and started shooting as soon as he finished talking to reporters.) He has a contract through the end of next season and knows that represents his final opportunity to play professional basketball. I don't begrudge any athletes who want to extend their careers, even those who go through the retire-unretire-retire-unretire cycle like Brett Favre and Roger Clemens. Once they're done, they'll never be able to re-enact their greatest gift and glory: playing their sports at the highest level.
But what if Nash CAN'T play? What if the nerve irritation that was triggered by a fluke collision with Damian Lillard last season keeps him from returning to the court? If Nash plays in fewer than 10 games this season and is declared to have a career-ending injury by an independent doctor, the NBA could grant the Lakers salary-cap relief for the $9.7 million owed to Nash next season, giving the Lakers a nearly clear slate heading into free agency.
How much of that money will go to Bryant? That depends, in part, on how much Kobe can be Kobe when he returns from that torn Achilles tendon. The reports from his practice sessions have him looking like his usual All-Star self. Can he recover and sustain? That's the greatest challenge he faces, similar to the query Nash put out for himself. Both know they are capable of flashes of their Most Valuable Player forms. They just don't know how long they can maintain it.
With Bryant likely to miss his 14th game against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, it's worth remembering what he told me right before he sat out the 2010 All-Star Game with an ankle sprain. "I don't miss games, so if I miss games I want to make sure that I'm ready," Bryant said. "I don't want to miss them in vain."
In other words, any time you don't see him playing, you know he's seriously hurt. You won't find a player more dedicated to conditioning and rehabilitation than Bryant ... yet he hasn't been able to overcome this injury to date. Bryant has always had the confidence to put his skills against defenses, conventional wisdom and sometimes even the tenets of the game itself. Now he's up against the human body, the wonderfully complex yet inherently flawed collection of cells, bones, ligaments and muscles.
I've always been fascinated by storytelling devices, in particular when the audience already knows the outcome. "Breaking Bad" told us early in its final season that Walter White would end up dethroned and estranged from his family ... yet it was still compelling to follow the path he took to reach that point.
We know what awaits these NBA players -- in the end, they always succumb -- but for Kobe, for Nash, for Rose, for Gasol and for everyone else, it's the fight to hold off the inevitable that continues to provide the intrigue.