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First-round injuries abound (again)
There have been several memorable moments in the early stages of these playoffs ... but also no shortage of injuries affecting some of the foremost names in the game. Just like last spring's playoffs
It is too early in the NBA postseason for an injury rant.
Or is it?
On this Newsletter Tuesday, just the 11th day of the 2021-22 playoffs, we’ll restrict ourselves to more of a resigned lament.
(Editor’s note: It was still Tuesday on the West Coast and in Hawaii when this story was published.)
Only two of the league's eight first-round series are complete. May is still a few days away. The pileup of notable injuries, in such a short span, is therefore significant.
Remember last season’s playoffs and the various Elias Sports Bureau bulletins notifying us that a record 10 All-Stars missed at least one game? This postseason we’re already up to five current All-Stars who have been sidelined for one or more games: Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Dallas’ Luka Dončić, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet. Chicago’s Zach LaVine is poised to take that number to six after entering the league’s health and safety protocols, jeopardizing his availability for the Bulls’ elimination game Wednesday in Milwaukee. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell will have to play through a left hamstring injury in Thursday night’s elimination game against visiting Dallas to keep that number from swelling to six or maybe seven.
We repeat: That number could reach seven All-Stars before these playoffs turn two weeks old on Friday.
Injuries always intrude upon the NBA postseason, so I haven’t worked myself into a shorten-the-damn-season-already frenzy quite yet. Mind you that’s partially because I’m deeply skeptical that it will happen any time soon no matter how much lobbying we do.
Franchises and their owners will always want the revenue from 41 home dates and surely continue to resist calls to shorten the schedule from 82 games to 72. (Or to 58 games for the Premier League devotees among us who are forever intrigued by the idea of a 30-team NBA in which everyone plays each other twice, home and away, to produce a completely balanced schedule.)
We can also expect ongoing pushback from league officials who contend that there is no certifiable data in circulation to support claims that a shorter regular season will reduce playoff casualties … or that recent injury rates are any higher than the norm. Some injuries are indeed fluky.
Yet in real time, sadly, marquee names continue to be sidelined at a worrisome and dispiriting rate. Team executives and medical experts have been quietly voicing concerns for months about the short- and long-term impacts of the NBA staging three consecutive seasons infiltrated by the coronavirus and separated by shorter-than-ever turnarounds, fearful that player health could suffer as part of the tradeoff for playing through the pandemic to keep the business going.
#thisleague, after all, is essentially stuffing 2½ seasons into two calendar years.
In June 2021, in one of my last pieces for The New York Times before launching this Substack, Sopan Deb and I wrote the following in a co-bylined story:
There has been a fierce debate for months about the culpability of a shortened off-season and a compressed schedule for the rate of injuries. Various team officials and players, most notably the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, have attributed this season’s injury wave to the rigors of back-to-back taxing seasons. The decision to play out the 2019-20 schedule in a restricted-access bubble environment at Walt Disney World in Florida because of the pandemic imposed many physical and mental-health challenges on players. Then, just 72 days after the Lakers won the championship over Miami, this season began.
League officials have countered by insisting that injury rates have remained consistent with recent seasons, without revealing the methodology or any specifics behind the data. As the losses of marquee players piles up, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the volume is rising on the question of what it means to win in a year like this, when so many stars are missing.
In April 2022, beyond Boston’s stunning sweep of Brooklyn and the raggedy but wildly entertaining Memphis/Minnesota series out West, we’ve quickly been forced to fixate on:
🏀 Scottie Barnes' left ankle.
🏀 Middleton's left knee.
🏀 Booker's right hamstring.
🏀 Embiid's right thumb.
🏀 Kyle Lowry's left hamstring.
🏀 LaVine’s COVID-19 status.
🏀 VanVleet's left hip.
🏀 And Mitchell's hamstring.
It must be noted that these playoffs have also featured a number of comeback stories. Golden State’s Stephen Curry embraced a sixth-man role to ensure he could return to the lineup in time for Game 1 against Denver after sustaining a bone bruise and sprained left foot in mid-March. The Celtics’ Robert Williams missed only the first two games of the Brooklyn sweep less than a month removed from surgery on a torn meniscus. Dončić missed only the first three games of the Mavericks’ series with Utah in the wake of a scary calf strain in Dallas’ regular-season finale on April 10. Barnes missed only two games after Embiid came down with 280 pounds on the Rookie of the Year's prone ankle.
Embiid, meanwhile, has vowed to play through the torn ligament in his thumb … after (gulp) playing on a torn meniscus during the 2020-21 playoffs.
Focusing on such gloom is no fun, but it’s not just the length and breadth of the starry injury list. It’s the havoc it wreaks on the most important pages on the NBA calendar.
The surest thing in today's uncertain playoff field was thought to be the 64-win Phoenix Suns. Those same Suns, without Booker, are scuffling to get past 36-win New Orleans in Round 1.
Philadelphia, Miami and the reigning champions from Milwaukee — all regarded as potential East champions — can't come close to their perceived ceilings if Embiid, Lowry and Middleton are compromised. More reason, perhaps, to fear the Celtics, who just broomed the Nets into an earlier offseason than anyone imagined.
Who would you pick, right now, to reach the Finals in June?
The reflex answer: Can you tell me if any other presumed contender will be as healthy as the Celtics and finally whole Warriors suddenly look?
“None of it is an exact science,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in July of leaguewide injury concerns during last season’s Bucks/Suns Finals. “It’s something that even pre-Covid, as you all know, we were very focused on at the league. We put people in place to focus exclusively on injury prevention. Precisely why we have the injuries we do is still unclear to us. It’s something that we’ll continue to study in the offseason.”
You can safely presume that said studies are still ongoing. Probably for offseasons to come.
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Nothing else Ja Morant does this week will generate a reaction to match the social media meltdown that greeted his epic "Ja Breaker" dunk (H/T Ian Eagle) over Minnesota's Malik Beasley on Tuesday night.
It might have been the dunk of the season, followed by 18 more points from Morant in the fourth quarter to key Memphis' rally from a late double-digit deficit in a crucial Game 5 win over the visiting (and seventh-seeded) Timberwolves.
That said ...
As a sentimental old fool with strong old school feelings about who is and isn't a Most Improved Player candidate in #thisleague, I found it moving on Monday to see Morant award his MIP trophy to teammate Desmond Bane. Morant, remember, previously announced that Bane should have been the Grizzlies' representative among the three award finalists alongside San Antonio's Dejounte Murray and Cleveland's Darius Garland.
The leap Morant made as a scorer this season (19.1 points per game to 27.4 PPG) was undeniable, as was his rise to unquestioned All-Star, but I've mentioned on numerous occasions previously that I pretty much never consider a high lottery pick like Ja — who went No. 2 overall in his draft and won Rookie of the Year honors — as a MIP candidate.
Morant frankly went to a new level during last season’s playoffs and would have been an MVP candidate this season had he not lost 25 games to injury. The spirit of the MIP award, which was adapted from the NBA’s old Comeback Player of the Year trophy last awarded in 1985-86, has long been to reward up-and-coming players ... not the game's elite. And the reason old schoolers like me think this way is that the league’s official ballot actually used to specify in writing that the award was intended to reward up-and-comers who had improved dramatically and not a player making a comeback.
My good friend Gary Washburn explained this in his own smart terms in his Sunday column in The Boston Globe. Noting how the award has been won in recent years by New York's Julius Randle and New Orleans' Brandon Ingram before Morant, Washburn referred to the jumps these current and former All-Stars made as "natural progression."
I see it the same way. Morant was drafted to be a franchise player and is living up to that projection step by step. The more fitting MIP contenders, to me, were Golden State's Jordan Poole, Bane and Murray, whom I selected on my unofficial ballot in a nod to Murray’s unforeseen rise to All-Star status in his sixth NBA season in San Antonio after the Spurs selected him with the 29th overall pick in 2016.
The league office, however, no longer provides voting guidelines for the MIP or any of its season-ending awards, so voters have the latitude to take it any direction they want. In recent years, that has meant Morants prevailing over Pooles ... even though Poole went from spending time in the G League last season to averaging 25.3 points per game in March this season and filling in ably for both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson when the legends were injured for the title-contending Warriors.
A cynic might say that Morant wanted to cede his MIP recognition to Bane only because he no longer wants to be associated with anything other than the league’s upper crust, but I appreciated his stance regardless.
Of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, only two have previously won an NBA championship: No. 3 seed Golden State and No. 4 Dallas. The six teams trying to break through: No. 1 Phoenix, No. 2 Memphis, No. 5 Utah, No. 6 Denver, No. 7 Minnesota and No. 8 New Orleans.
In three seasons with Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving has appeared in just 103 of 226 possible regular-season games, including only 29 of 82 (35.3%) this season.
Until I was reminded a few days ago, I had forgotten that the Lakers started 21-7 last season before the various injuries sustained by LeBron James and Anthony Davis sent them tumbling down the standings. That means the Lakers are just 54-72 since after adding in this season's 33-49 mark.
The Hornets, now looking for a new coach after the ouster of James Borrego, have missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and last won a playoff series in 2002. Charlotte has reached the playoffs only three times since Michael Jordan became its majority owner in 2010.
The NBA announced late Tuesday that 283 players — including 247 from the college ranks and 36 international players — have entered their names as early entry candidates for the June 23 NBA Draft. Those players have until 5 PM ET on June 13 to withdraw their names from consideration — or until June 1 if they are hoping to retain college basketball eligibility.
Jay Wright, who served as an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich on the USA Basketball staff at the 2019 World Cup in China and last summer's Tokyo Olympics, had nine of his former Villanova players in the NBA this season. They include Detroit's Saddiq Bey, Phoenix's Mikal Bridges, Dallas' Jalen Brunson, Miami's Kyle Lowry, Sacramento's Donte DiVincenzo, Portland's Josh Hart and Utah's Eric Paschall. Wright, 60, stepped down as Villanova coach last week after two national championships and four trips to the Final Four (including this season) in 21 years with the Wildcats.
Thanks to the many eagle-eyed readers (like David Strom and Jack Stein) who caught my recent mistake on the longest active postseason droughts in major North American team sports. The Seattle Mariners indeed hold that distinction at 20 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth. Next in line are the NBA's Sacramento Kings (16 seasons and counting) and then my Buffalo Sabres (11) from the NHL.