Dealing with the coronavirus was the priority for the NBA in 2020-21, but as the season draws to a close, data suggests the League saw a dramatic increase in non-COVID-19 related injuries.
Some team health officials said the effects will boost the way they manage player health for the upcoming season.
The average number of players sidelined per game due to injury, non-COVID or layoff this season was 5.1 (includes both), according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the highest since he began logging in 2009-10. That does not include games lost due to health and safety protocols.
The increase was even more pronounced when it focused on the stars of the League. This season’s All-Stars missed 370 of a possible 1,944 games (19%), the highest percentage in a season in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. An average of 13.7 regular season games were lost each this year.
Throughout the season, team health officials and executives internally feared a series of soft tissue injuries, such as hamstring strains. Earlier this week, Brooklyn Nets star guard James Harden exited Game 1 of the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks with a right hamstring injury. Similarly, Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley will miss Tuesday’s Game 1 against the LA Clippers with a mild right hamstring strain. In the regular season, Harden missed more than a month and Conley missed six games in February and nine in April and May with the same injuries.
These types of injuries can be related to fatigue and stress. Fears of more of these injuries became more pronounced as the schedule condensed at the end of the season, as teams made up games postponed due to COVID-19 issues.
There were 2,909 games lost to soft tissue injuries this regular season, according to certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts, who maintains the most authoritative public injury tracking database covered by the NBA. It is the second highest figure that Stotts has recorded since recording began in 2005-06. The most was 3,038 in the 2017-2018 season, which was played with 82 games compared to this year’s 72-game campaign.
A Western Conference athletic training official said it was difficult across the League to adequately train players during the season, both because of the rigorous daily COVID protocols and because players were increasingly deprived of sleep hours, which it led to more rest for players and canceled practice and target practice.
“When you can’t train, you injure your soft tissues,” the athletic training official said. “It is a known fact.”
Several athletic training officials said they were more cautious than in recent years with players who appeared fatigued or were sustaining minor injuries, leading many to be sidelined or playing shortened minutes as a precaution. These coaching officials said they expect to operate under the same circumstances next season, especially as the League faces a second consecutive offseason, increasing the cumulative effects of fatigue, stress and sleep loss from the past two seasons to Players.
A second athletic training official for a Western Playoff team said, “We still have a contracted offseason (rest period) and we just had a very high density of games; I can’t imagine we’re free. I have to think about it. next year with a more normal schedule, but we can’t be sure how much load these players will carry to the start of camp next season. “
“It’s brutal on the whole,” added an NBA general manager.
In the last week alone, various NBA stars and coaches have publicly discussed the price the season has taken.
“I always think that from the moment we enter the bubble until now, it has been exhausted,” said LeBron James, 36, after his first outing in the first round last week. “Mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally draining.
“Every team has to deal with it, obviously. But with us and Miami going a long way in the bubble and then coming back on short notice to this season, it has been exhausting.”
The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, last year’s NBA finalists, faced a 71-day offseason, marking the shortest change in NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
James and Anthony Davis battled injuries throughout the season and appeared in just 27 games together.
Davis missed two months of the regular season with a calf strain and suffered a groin strain in the Lakers’ first-round playoff series. James missed 26 games with a sprained ankle in March and said after the season it was still bothering him.
“We’ve been in this for a while, so where we’re headed first is halftime,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley said after the Heat were swept by the Bucks in the first round. “Our players, our staff, the people who have been here every day, every day, they are mentally physically exhausted. And I think they just need to rest for a couple of weeks, a month.”
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said: “I think this year has been the hardest in my 20 years in the NBA. It’s the mental cost, the physical cost, the emotional cost.”
And as one Eastern Conference general manager put it: “There will also be a lot of stress after this season.”
Sources said the league disagrees that the schedule or offseason has increased injuries or wear and tear on players or that the amount of time to rest and recover has been limited. Officials note that in a normal calendar year, teams play 82 games and return after a 14-week break. During this two-year period, the average team played 20 fewer games than it would have played in that period and had an additional two months off. Of course, those numbers do not take into account complicating factors caused by the pandemic, such as early test times or other elements linked to the COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s been a grueling season for everyone, for all teams, for all players,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in late April. “The COVID protocols, the lack of emotional connection. Not being able to see family or friends, going out to dinner, all the normal things you do to fill your cup and complete your social life. We didn’t have any of those things, so this season has been extremely exhausting. “
Sources said the League is expected to involve the teams’ general managers and other staff members in all sorts of competitive matters, including the schedule, in a more formal way in the near future, which will help inform how the calendar of the next season will be affected.
“Everybody is a fan of fewer trips,” said an NBA general manager of a playoff team.
But the prospect of a second straight offseason is a theme many in the league noted even as this season unfolded. The NBA Finals are scheduled to end on July 22, with the Summer League scheduled for August and teams could resume training camp in late September before starting a new season in October.
In discussions between the Players Association, the League and the partners, a decision was made collectively to return the League schedule to normal as quickly as possible, a full roster of 82 games that begins in October with a Final the following June. League sources said.
“These two years have certainly been stressful from a lifestyle and mental health standpoint, and we shouldn’t overlook that,” NBA executive vice president of basketball strategy and analysis Evan Wasch told ESPN. “But from a real basketball competition standpoint, when you consider the reduced number of games in each of the last two seasons and the total amount of time off the court, players will end up having between the break and the two. off seasons, we are not in a worse situation in terms of general wear and tear and rest and recovery time than we would have been in a normal two-year period. “
“The only thing that influences this is how fatigued everyone is, which, as we all know, is not unique to the NBA,” NBA Senior Vice President David Weiss told ESPN. “We are so grateful for the work of the athletic coaches, the doctors, the contact trackers and everyone who participated in this season’s health and safety effort. It’s amazing how hard they had to work this year.”
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton contributed to this report.