Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Injury onslaught crippling NBA playoffs

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, bottom, is guarded by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Oakland, Calif. Irving injured his knee in the game and is out for the season.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, bottom, is guarded by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Oakland, Calif. Irving injured his knee in the game and is out for the season. The Associated Press

Only days ago, the NBA Finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers was among the most highly anticipated and compelling championship series in recent seasons.

It featured everything from competing styles to dueling superstars to rookie coaches to impassioned, deserving fan bases.

But Kyrie Irving’s knee injury in the series opener changed the story line.

The party never got started. The Warriors were the deeper, more balanced team – the overwhelming favorites – before Irving’s left knee buckled midway into overtime Thursday. Now? With the All-Star point guard joining ailing All-Star forward Kevin Love on the bench? Bay Area officials should start working out the logistics for another Bay Area parade.

LeBron James and his superpowers notwithstanding, the series looks, sounds, feels like a bust. A Warriors sweep wouldn’t be a shocker. And while that stinks for those hoping for a competitive series, in one very significant respect, the hobbled Cavs are contributing to the higher good.

On basketball’s grandest stage, the light is finally shining on an issue that, in recent years, has been whispered about but too hastily swept under the rug: Serious injuries are crippling the league. In these playoffs alone, John Wall, Pau Gasol, Kyle Korver, Mike Conley, Patrick Beverley, Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews – to name just a few – either missed games or were reduced to bystander status for the entire postseason due to injury.

Even before Irving’s knee buckled in the opener, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the trend – or what appears to be a trend – while admitting that the analytics-driven league can more aggressively and collectively gather the pertinent information and study the causes.

“Our data doesn’t go back that far, at least to a point that it’s really reliable in terms of games missed,” he said. “In other words, the injury data isn’t showing that this was a worse year in terms of injuries than last year. Having said that, there are more high-profile players seemingly that are injured this year than last year. So that always concerns me.”

In an interview with USA Today on Thursday, Silver indicated plans to delve more deeply into the matter, in conjunction with all 30 teams and the players’ union. One of the more perplexing problems has been the chronic lack of cooperation among team training and medical staffs. While some organizations share information with their peers, other franchises impose a code of silence to protect their warped perception of a competitive edge.

The Kings have been right there with the culprits. After Chris Webber suffered his devastating knee injury during the 2003 playoffs and was forced to undergo microfracture surgery, a number of physicians with other other clubs complained that the Kings’ front office guarded both the nature of the injury and the ensuing treatment as if Arco Arena were the Pentagon, not a basketball facility.

Silver’s prodding and the flurry of injuries at least hint at a more collaborative approach. But without adequate hard data, there are only theories, suggestions and anecdotal evidence about the causes behind the apparent increase in the frequency and severity of injuries.

The most commonly held beliefs include: that players are turning professional at a younger age and subjected to physical demands before their bodies are fully developed; that the emergence of AAU programs subject young athletes to an excessive number of games and don’t allow time for physical recovery; that the game’s global explosion pressures NBA players to compete for the national teams during offseason international tournaments, adding wear and tear after a grueling 82-game regular season; that in contrast to previous decades, players train throughout the offseason, often under the supervision of individual coaches.

The Cavs are among a number of NBA teams who have hired a director of sports science to monitor their players’ practice and game habits.

“We look at things like, ‘What are a player’s peak minutes?’” said Cavs general manager David Griffin. “And we really tried to spend a lot of time this year on recovery, giving guys appropriate time off in practice. You do have bigger players playing faster, colliding more often. Players are capable of doing things they never could in the past. They can change direction in a phone booth. The amount of torque, the pressure on your joints, it’s hard to control all of that power. Some of these are freak injuries. But the more smart people we get involved, we’ll start to find some answers.”

In an ideal world, of course, the league would lengthen and widen the court, affording more space for bigger, stronger athletes to operate and reducing the likelihood of collisions. That won’t happen because of the seat configuration already established in arenas.

But Silver is exploring the possibility of eliminating games on consecutive nights – a suggestion Dirk Nowitzki voiced early in the season – and reducing the number of preseason games. James and his coach, David Blatt, have urged more drastic action: trimming the 82-game regular season schedule.

“If the league would reduce the schedule by 10 games and get rid of the back-to-backs, I think that would help,” said Blatt, who coached overseas for two decades and prefers the two-games-per-week schedule. “Some of the injuries we see, particularly the way the game is going, with the level of athleticism, speed and strength that goes into playing the game ... I would say, absolutely, the difference in schedule has a lot to do with the relative (frequency) of injuries.”

But, again, the NBA is a global game without a universal answer.

“I’ve had this conversation a lot,” said Warriors assistant Luke Walton. “I don’t know. Guys used to play in Chuck Taylors. I don’t even know how they could run in those (sneakers). Maybe the athletes are a lot better today, so you’re talking about 260-pound guys running faster, cutting harder, and that puts more pressure on the joints.”

The league’s challenge is to keep the conversation going, and equally important, to pressure franchises to share information. Otherwise? Who wouldn’t prefer an NBA Finals with healthy Warriors and healthy Cavaliers?

NBA Finals

Best-of-seven series will be televised on Ch. 10

  • Game 1: Golden State 108, Cleveland 100 (OT)
  • Sunday: at Golden State, 5p.m.
  • Tuesday:
  • at Cleveland, 6p.m.
  • Thursday, June 11:
  • at Cleveland, 6p.m.
  • Sunday, June 14:
  • at Golden State, 5p.m.*
  • Tuesday, June 16:
  • at Cleveland, 6p.m.*
  • Friday, June 19:
  • at Golden State, 6p.m.*

*If necessary

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