We have seen sprained ankles and strained groins, torn ACLs and shredded Achilles tendons. We have seen Al Horford and Kwame Brown go down with injuries normally reserved for offensive linemen (torn pectorals) and Danilo Gallinari crumble to the ground with a sprained ankle and foot, thereby giving the Denver Nuggets their own little HMO nightmare (four starters down).
If the NBA altered its iconic logo right now, it would be a silhouette of Jerry West with, a crutch under one arm, a sling around the other, ice bags taped to both knees, ankles the size of cantelopes and a red light bulb on his nose, just like the poor schlep on the “Operation” game.
With only one-third of the season complete, at least seven players already appear done for the season: the Hawks’ Horford, Golden State’s Brown, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chauncey Billups (Achilles), Memphis’s Darrell Arthur (Achilles), Oklahoma City’s Eric Maynor (knee), New Jersey’s Keith Bogans (ankle) and Portland’s Greg Oden (although five knee surgeries for Oden would suggest this is the norm for him).
That doesn’t include the blur of players (including Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki) who’ve been sidelined for days or weeks with ailments that can’t be healed during off days because … well, what’s an off day again?
The Hawks played four games in five days and nine in 12 to open the season. They won’t have consecutive days off until next Thursday and Friday – after 30 games in 51 days, including six back-to-backs and one back-to-back-to-oh-my-ailing-back.
Can’t wait for the playoffs. And the introductions.
“And now! At forward! He was 6-9 in December, 6-7 in February and 6-3 in April! Hunched over! In a walker! Vaguely remembers his name and had Jello for lunch! Josh Smith!”
When asked if any of this could be lockout-related, NBA commissioner David Stern said, “The honest answer is, I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.”
There was the lockout. Then came the settlement in late November, the desire to start the regular season on Christmas (TV nirvana for the NBA) and to squeeze in a 66-game regular season. That meant short training camps, a hiccup of an exhibition season (two games) and fewer off days. Also remember that we’re dealing with pro athletes, most of whom stay in shape but, nonetheless, were coming off extended couch time.
This wasn’t wise.
The NBA is paying the price. So is the consumer. The product has been damaged because so many of the league’s stars are going down — and it’s only early February.
“I think this has a lot to do with the
lockout,” the Hawks’ Josh Smith said. “In previous years, we didn’t have so many season-ending injuries. We have the condensed schedule, and guys didn’t have a chance to get their legs under them with a full training camp.”
Smith is one of the fortunate ones. He has avoided significant injuries, but it hasn’t been easy.
But even he conceded, “I’ve had more massages in this short period of time than I would normally have all season. I’m in the ice tub. I’m doing things now that I never did before.”
The Hawks play host to Miami on Sunday night at Philips Arena. The last time the Heat was in town, both Wade (foot, ankle) and LeBron James (ankle) were sidelined. James, in particular, received some criticism, but it’s easy to understand why players and coaches would be cautious, given the schedule.
This isn’t all Stern’s fault. Yes, he saw dollar signs, as did the owners, in mandating a 66-game schedule when 50 would’ve been safer. But the players’ union signed off on this deal. They wanted the revenue, too.
Smith acknowledges, “Guys were just so anxious to get back. We fought for so many different little things, we didn’t even care about how many games we played.”
Stern concedes more games will be lost to injury this season, but isn’t prepared to express regrets about his post-lockout strategy.
“Ultimately we’re going to have to deal with what it looks like at the end of the season,” he said. “To say the sky is falling because there were three or four injuries in a day doesn’t tell you anything. But it’s possible.”
At this point, the odds should tilt toward regret. And I think somebody’s red nose just turned on and buzzed again.
By Jeff Schultz