The Future of Injuries in the NBA

Photo: Flickr/Joey KWOK

Last season injuries played a major role in the NBA. We saw key players like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo and their respective teams have the courses of their seasons altered in just the blink of an eye. By the end of the season being healthy had as much to do with — if not more — determining a team’s success as things like getting the right matchup and sheer talent. The eventual champion Miami Heat happened to be both healthy and talented, but still struggled to put away the San Antonio Spurs until Tony Parker tweaked his hamstring.

It’s especially no secret that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012-’13 season was undercut by injuries. Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy– you name a player and they probably missed some time. This was a team that many felt should have contended for a playoff spot, but had their potential limited by injuries and allowed teams like the Lakers and Rockets to sneak in.

As a response to this, new Timberwolves general manager Flip Saunders is taking an initiative towards preventing season altering injuries as much as possible. Speaking at a press conference announcing Nikola Pekovic’s (A player who missed several games himself last season) re-signing Friday, Saunders addressed the issue after Pekovic was pressed about his own durability issues.

“We are working with Greg [Farnam] our trainer and we are going to be very proactive medically,” said Saunders. “I’ve been a firm believer, I believe there have been times we’ve over trained players and there’s been a number of injuries we’ve had over the last five or six years and players continue to trainer harder and harder and harder. And there’s got to be a part where we can come to a meeting of the minds between the two.”

Saunders’ idea isn’t some new fangled, revelatory, abstract idea for preventing injuries — in fact, the idea is quite simple at it’s core — but it’s a very simple step that can get conversation about how team’s can protect their players headed in the right direction. Really, it’s just communication, but in any type of personal or working relationship, it’s an important aspect that cannot be overlook for the organization as a whole to eventually be successful.

Saunders told the media following the presser that, “Coaches work guys, they want to get ‘em working on the floor. They get done, the strength coach wants to show his importance, so he takes ‘em, gets ‘em into the weight room. They get done and all these guys have personal trainers. The personal trainers want to show their purpose, so they take ‘em out and they take them out.”

Essentially, Saunders looks to get everyone on the same page, as opposed to several different people with several different plans for one player to avoid overtraining players before they even play the game.

“So it’s where the players are almost working too much, continued Saunders. “I think there has to be a meeting of the minds of all, and getting all the people. Really getting a good plan or a good format so that the players are doing the right thing and they’re not over-training parts of their body.”

In doing so, the team hopes to get the most out of all of it’s players to ensure success on the court, and on the business end as well. Many may not think about it, I didn’t, but it makes sense that you have several coaches and training professionals who are all pushing their agenda on one player based on what they feel is best without knowing that someone else may have already told them something similar, risking overtraining and later injury. By getting together and putting their recommendations into an open forum, they can design training regimens that are not just safer, but more effective, which benefits everybody involved.

The process has already begun. Saunders noted that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, two of the most devastating injury cases the team has had recently, had employed more full-body training than they had in the past. Ricky has spent his summer with his trainer by the ocean kayaking, and Love has incorporated a yoga practice into his basketball and weight lifting regimen. On top of that, Saunders sent each of his players — not just Love and Rubio — with homework from the coaches on areas they’d like to see worked on with their trainers during the offseason.

As HP’s own Andrew Lynch and Steve McPherson uncovered last month at summer league, other teams are also addressing the injury bug, albeit in a more advanced way. The Spurs have begun tracking their players’ exertion in practices with their D-League affiliate with biometric vests that measure their effort and intensity so the team can better monitor their players. In other leagues around the world, the technology has decreased injuries while increasing performance. Read the article in the hyperlink; it’s fascinating stuff.

These steps, both big and small, could be huge in changing how future seasons play out. We’re talking everything from swinging championships, to MVP races, to saving jobs of coaches and general managers by being able to keep their best players on the floor. As fans, we’re also a beneficiary of this. Think about it: no more teams playing the regular season through as a high seed, only to have their best player suffer an injury at the worst possible time as their opponent rolls them in five games, robbing us of what was once a promising series.

We’re also talking extending players’ careers. We’ve already seen through out the years how career-ending injuries have become fewer and fewer, but now we could see fewer cases like Tracy McGrady where a players injuries compound to the point that their bodies can no longer support their basketball abilities. You can think of several cases like McGrady, who are unfortunate casualties on our way to understanding why injuries happen and how they can be prevented down the road.

The true key will be prevention at the levels prior to the NBA, but that will take time. Rick Barry told me a few months ago that he felt that a rigorous AAU schedule was a part of the problem because the players’ bodies are too underdeveloped to take the beating, setting them up for potential injury hazards down the road.

Of course, the technology that the Spurs use is likely out of the budget for many college programs, no less an AAU squad, but a simple step like that in which Saunders is taking costs very little and could make a big difference.

“The players that came out to Chicago there were a lot of young players with the beginning of arthritis, you know, tendonitits and that at that young age,” Saunders added later on. “So I believe we gotta change it; we’ve got to be more proactive, find a way to be cutting edge.”

According to himself, the new Timberwolves general manager doesn’t believe he has all of the right answers at. However, it certainly seems like they’re moving towards finding them with even just a small step. After all, half of the battle of arriving at that answer is being aware that you have a problem and what you have been doing isn’t working. For a team like the Timberwolves looking to return to the playoffs after a decade, looking at the injury question differently may eventually bring them the right answer. And the more talented teams in the NBA, the better the viewing is, so everybody wins.