Tag Archives: Injuries

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.

 

 

The Spurs Keep Losing/Waiving Bodies

With the start of the playoffs but a week away, the notoriously cautious Spurs have seen their would-be playoff roster go through quite a shake-up over a 12 hour span.

First it was announced that Boris Diaw will miss 3-4 weeks after having surgery to (deep breath) remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Later, it was announced that the Spurs have requested waivers on mercurial swingman/rapper/entertainer Stephen Jackson, citing concerns that his “strong personality” (putting it lightly) would cause locker room tensions with him struggling to adapt to his diminished role.

Diaw was no longer starting for the team, as Year 3 of The Tiago Splitter Experience has finally seen a full-blown bloom. Popovich hesitated to play Splitter next to Tim Duncan nearly of all last season, with the twin towers combo seeing only 129 minutes. Popovich was clearly more comfortable spacing-wise with the non-shooting Splitter next to a 3 point threat in Matt Bonner – the two shared the court for 702 of Splitter’s 1121 minutes. Duncan, meanwhile, played next to whatever 4th big was in the rotation at the time – initially DeJuan Blair, eventually Diaw.

This season, such qualms seem to have been thrown out the window, with Splitter and Duncan having shared the court for 819 minutes. The Spurs have scorched opponents in those minutes, to the tune of 106 points per possession (right around where they are for the season), but even more impressively, they’ve held opponents to 92.7 – a number that would easily lead the league, and is a full 6 points better than their 3rd best mark. The Duncan-Splitter combo was easily this year’s greatest addition to a squad that somehow keeps improving even though you think their roster is maxed out, an unlocked super-weapon among an arsenal that was nearly complete but still slightly lacking.

Alongside the two, Diaw has settled in as the utility third big. His 38.5% mark from three isn’t as big a boost as it seems, as he rarely shoots, but his vision and passing are helpful cogs in the steamrolling machine that is the Spur offensive system. His loss is huge not because he played a crucial role, but because his 23ish minutes a night were dependable quantity. In replacing them, the Spurs will likely have to choose between two defensively inferior players with glaring offensive flaws in Blair (spacing) and Bonner (a slow release, high accuracy sharpshooter who has struggled to get the same looks in the playoffs over the past few seasons).

The third option is a tricky one, and opponent dependent – and that is playing small, with Kawhi Leonard as a nominal power forward. Such lineups could work against similarly small lineups that the Nuggets (Wilson Chandler at the 4), Thunder (Durant) or Clippers (whenever one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is sitting) like to run, although running them against the Grizzlies could be a dangerous endeavor.

The loss of Jackson, however, makes it hard to pull the blanket in that direction without leaving the back-part of the lineup in the cold. Without Jackson, the ideal players for such three-guard lineups would seem be Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili – with the premier two of those three dealing with lingering injury issues. Replacing any one of the three can go downhill in a hurry: Gary Neal was a regular feature in last year’s playoffs, but is a clear downgrade, and beyond him are unknown playoff quantities in Nando De Colo, Patty Mills or Cory Joseph.

All that said, cutting Jack strikes the mind harder than it strikes the hardwood. Much like last season in Milwaukee, or the year before that in Charlotte, Jackson’s play this year hardly matched his cult figure status. At 35, his athleticism has been gone for a few years, now, taking his shot creating abilities with it. He’s hitting 37% of his shots, and 27% of his threes. He has a single digit PER, a sub-48 true shooting percentage, and his assist rate just barely outperforms his turnover rate. Each and every one of these numbers has its flaws, but the full ensemble makes it hard to reach any other conclusion: Jackson is no longer a particularly useful basketball player.

Gregg Popovich (and, by extension, the entire Spurs organization) seems to agree. The drop in Jackson’s minutes hasn’t been dramatic, but it was there – Jack sat comfortably at 19.5 ticks per night, after 23.8 with the Spurs after last year’s trade deadline and 21.4 in last year’s playoffs, and was left out of San Antonio’s top 10 most used lineups. A stat like that should come with the appropriate asterisks – namely, that between injuries and Pop’s merry-go-round, the Spurs don’t exactly have “most used lineups” that go beyond their starters, and Jackson’s case is hurt by the games he sat out.

Nonetheless, much like any other playoff squad, the Spurs’ regular season rotation is much more lenient than its playoff equivalent. Certain players get counted on more, and others remain glued to the bench. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie, and it often showed defensively; this season, Pop’s trust in him is unwavering. Combine that with Jackson’s own decline, and it was easy to see how a playoff cut in minutes was in the cards. Jackson apparently disapproved of such changes, and was shown the door.

The issue here, as mentioned above, is that the Spurs don’t really have enough extra flesh to allow such voluntary cuts. The squad is deep on paper, but much of that depth is of the sort that the playoffs wash away. Blair, Bonner, Green in last year’s Thunder series – all are players who have seen huge declines in either minutes or production in past postseasons, and not even the most black-and-silver colored glasses could show a world that sees a late emergence from Aron Baynes. These Spurs’ playoffs will hinge on Parker and Ginobili’s health, but even assuming the best, San Antonio could conceivably find itself in a spot where they just don’t have enough bodies to work through the grind.

That’s why the Jackson cut was so surprising. It wasn’t his huge role, or the fallout between him and seemingly the only organization who accepted him. Rather, it was the willingness of an organization known for its emphasis on stability to voluntarily up its own degree of difficulty. With the team limping into the playoffs on questionable legs and records (6-6 in their past 12 games), and two of the West’s premier teams finding seemingly ironclad formulas to handle them in the past two postseasons, the alarm in the Alamo should be real.

Lineup data via NBA.com

It wasn’t supposed to end like this

The first thing I thought when I heard Kobe had (probably) torn his Achilles tendon was, “Of course that’s the only part of his body that could take him down.”

Actually, I lied. The real first thing I thought was “HOLY SHIT! WHAT?” Then, I thought about his Achilles tendon.

***

In the Greek epic The Iliad, the poet Homer details the lead-up to, the action during, and the fallout after the Trojan War. The War itself could be boiled down to “Hey, she’s my girl!” and hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying trying to get Helen back to Greece. But the whole Iliad recants the personalities and actions of dozens of characters in Greek tragedy. And one of those characters is Achilles.

Achilles–unlike other gods/demigods/etc like Zeus, Heracles or the Oracles at Delphi–doesn’t permeate other stories as much. He’s arguably not even one of the most important characters in The Iliad (despite being played by Brad Pitt on the big screen). In the story (ANCIENT HISTORY SPOILER ALERT), Achilles is described as a fierce and nearly-perfect warrior who can pretty much do anything thanks to his battle prowess and a bit of a rage problem. But when he hears the news of his best friend Patroclus’s death by hands of the great Trojan warrior Hector, Achilles fires up the ol’ internal-rage-machine and pretty much goes nuts. He chases down Hector, and when they finally battle, Achilles destroys him. But before Hector falls, he tells Achilles two things: he asks him to take care of his body after his death, and he tells Achilles how he himself will die.

Achilles, still in the midst of a rage blackout, ignores everything, and kills Hector. After he kills him, he desecrates his body by dragging it around the outer walls of the city. That pretty much angers all of the gods (body desecration was a big no-no, even back then), and Hector’s prophecy of Achilles’s fate comes true; Paris–another Trojan warrior–shoots him dead with an arrow.

Oh, did I mention the only place Achilles was vulnerable on his whole body was the tendon area attaching his leg to his heel?

***

This entire season, we’ve been watching the Lakers in a way we never have before. Usually, we wait to see who they’re going to dominate on any given night and by how much. Each time they didn’t reach that expectation, it was viewed as a treat. A depraved treat.

This season, the wins were only supposed to become more frequent and more dominant. I mean, remember this? But they didn’t become more dominant. Their wheels were falling off all over the place. Their once-assumed inevitable championship season was now viewed through schadenfreude-colored lenses by most of the basketball-viewing public, and it was the first time that this team was expected to be bad–even though it had been expected to be great. The only thing that was keeping them afloat, while also probably sinking them a bit, was Kobe.

We deride coaches like Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau for playing players 40+ minutes per night. Kobe seems like he’d have it no other way. He doesn’t want the fate of the Lakers to be left up to chance. He wants to control it, and he has to be on the floor as much as possible to do that. Kobe’s jaw, indicative of both his inflated sense of self and his basketball-rage, has been a permanent fixture on his face all year. There’s no letting up for him; there is only full-throttle. Once the Lakers get to the playoffs, he can catch his breath. Then, he needs to prepare for the push through the playoffs to title aspirations.

But all that changed last night. His rage turned into tears of sadness, and all of what he was trying to control slipped out of his grasp.

***

Classical scholars know that the Achilles Heel story doesn’t come out of the same story as the Trojan War.  The legend of Achilles was derived separately, but the whole story of his life is something that has come to be meshed together in our collective consciousness. He was born, and his mother loved him. She loved him so much, that she dipped him into a river that made everything it touched impervious to injury. The only thing on his body it didn’t touch was his heel. He died later in life from a combination of hubris (caused by his assumption of complete invulnerability) and from excessive bleeding to his heel.

Sounds like shit luck.

***

Back when we all thought it was a reality that the Lakers might not make the playoffs, we figured it was because none of these giant pieces could fit well together. We wanted this grand experiment to fail on its hubris and execution. We didn’t want inhibiting factors to be a part of it; that just takes out all the fun. No, we wanted the Lakers to be bad because they were bad. We didn’t want to predict their downfall by injuries. We just wanted them to not be good. We certainly didn’t want Kobe to face the potential end of his career in a moment like this.

Where’s the fun in that? That just sounds terrible.

***

“Kobe” is a word of Japanese origin which supposedly means “supporters of the Shinto shrine.” Shintoism is a spiritual way of life in Japan that encourages deliberate intent in everyday actions to tie oneself to his/her cultural past. “Achilles” derives from ancient Greek  to mean an “embodiment of the grief of the people.”

Everything Kobe did this season was deliberate with the intent of winning the game, making the playoffs, and competing for a championship. Sure, his hubris and unrealistic expectations got in the way of these goals numerous times, but he never did anything that wasn’t for the purpose of winning–whether or not it was for his own legacy or the team’s doesn’t really matter.

Whatever happens for these last few games of the season and into the playoffs, not having Kobe around is going to feel unnatural and unfair. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t his time. It wasn’t his time because it wasn’t on his terms. Kobe is more than just the arrogant bastard we’ve been following for 17 years. He’s our arrogant bastard, and he’s been a staple of the NBA for too long for us to just have him taken away from us like this.

I will be sad to not see him in the playoffs, sadder than if his team didn’t get there and if he was fine. Because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. No, not like this.

Let’s Get Irrationally Angry About: Al Horford’s Shoulder Injury

Photo from Bob.Fornal via Flickr

Atlanta Hawks All-Star center Al Horford will miss at least three months with a shoulder injury, a major blow to a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

The team announced Thursday that Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in the first quarter of Wednesday night’s game at Indiana. The injury will likely require surgery, stunning a team that has made the playoffs four years in a row and is off to a solid start with wins over Miami and Chicago in the early going.

via Al Horford of Atlanta Hawks out 3-4 months with shoulder injury – ESPN.

The world has become a cold, dark place today.

Al Horford was the thing. He was the one thing. A pit of darkness, despair and isolation basketball lives in the depths of the Phillips Arena, rearing its ugly head 82 nights, plus playoffs, every year. In the form of a Mike Bibby or a Willie Green, a 20 second Joe Johnson dribble-fest or a Josh Smith tease, it was always there, ready to suck the life out of us. On a Tuesday night against the Nets, or in the middle of May against the Bulls, it was and still is awful.

And Al Horford was here to protect us. They tried to stop him. They wouldn’t pass him the ball, and they’d let him defend bigger players, and yet he was there. Knocking down that baseline 20 footer. Hedging on that pick and roll.

He won’t be doing that anymore, this season. Enjoy Zaza Pachulia.

If you think this is harsh, don’t. I love Jeff Teague, I do. Josh Smith is one of the most fascinating basketball players to exist in my lifetime, a trainwreck wrapped in an angelic presence marinated in nutjob sauce sprinkled with world-class athleticism tied together by a headband. Joe Johnson is acceptable, I guess, and Ivan Johnson is the new “I CAN’T BELIEVE HE’S AN NBA PLAYER I LOVE HIM SO MUCH LET’S TYPE HIS NAME ALL THE TIME” dude. And we respect each and every one of them, what they do on basketball courts, what they give us as fans.

We also hate watching it. We didn’t hate watching Al Horford. We loved watching Al Horford.

Stupid lockout.