Between COVID-19 health and safety protocols and a rash of major injuries, it seems that more big-name stars in the NBA are missing games this season than ever before. It’s easy to blame the condensed 72-game schedule, as commissioner Adam Silver fought last offseason for the Finals to conclude before the Tokyo Olympics in July. No matter the cause, what is usually a balanced and exciting fight to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy has become a war of attrition.
Strangely enough, an NBA spokesman claimed, “The injury rate for this season is in line with data from the previous five seasons, including a 6 percent reduction from last season.” The difference is that the injuries this season are afflicting the league’s biggest stars. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid are just a few of the most notable veterans to miss significant time. Even young stars like Jamal Murray and Markelle Fultz have fallen victim to torn ACLs and will undergo at least a year of grueling rehab to return to full strength.
Even if the league’s injury rate is in line with past seasons, it seems that the shortened season has caused more soft tissue injuries. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more big names suffer pulled muscles as they push harder and harder toward the postseason. Just ask the Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant missed almost two months with a hamstring injury, and within a week of returning to the lineup, he suffered a thigh contusion and exited the game. His teammate James Harden has been dealing with a pulled hamstring of his own and likely won’t return until the postseason.
The Nets are an extreme case, as their “Big Three” of Durant, Harden, and Kyrie Irving have only played seven games together this season. But the league’s biggest contenders are dragging themselves to the playoffs, where the push for the championship simply won’t have that same joyous and triumphant storyline as seasons past.
The Los Angeles Lakers dropped from the second to the fifth seed in the Western Conference after losing LeBron James to a high ankle sprain on March 20 and Anthony Davis to a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis on February 14. Luckily, the remnants of their rotation held their own in the two stars’ absence, but it certainly will be nice to be at full strength for the postseason.
For the Denver Nuggets, their first few games with the newly-acquired Aaron Gordon in the lineup seemed to hint toward a deep postseason run. But reality quickly slapped them across the face; Jamal Murray tore his ACL in the last minute of their clash with the Golden State Warriors on April 12. He was enjoying the best full season of his career after his nuclear performance in the Orlando bubble playoffs last summer, but it is yet to be seen how he will look after he returns next year.
It’s undoubtedly been tough for some of the top contenders this season, but the pile of injuries has opened the door for players that haven’t found opportunities in the NBA. Brooklyn signed 30-year-old EuroLeague guard Mike James for depth; he hasn’t played an NBA game since 2018. The Lakers signed eight-year veteran Ben McLemore on April 6 to fill their last roster spot after he was released by the Houston Rockets. Additionally, Talen Horton-Tucker has proven his value at just 20 years old for Los Angeles; he’s played at least 22 minutes in nine straight games.
This season has been extremely difficult for every NBA player, between the grueling schedule, doubleheader “mini-series,” and the threat of COVID-19 lurking around every corner. Whoever wins it all this year will be the one that has managed to physically outlast the rest of the league. It could open the door for a dark-horse team, or it could motivate a juggernaut to emerge on top. But one thing is for sure: the NBA is no fun without its biggest stars to create the highest level of competition.