Three-fourths of the N.B.A.’s regular season will be complete after Wednesday’s play, making this a natural time for you to press your favorite newsletter curator to pick a title favorite.
It would be much easier to answer, sadly, if you could first tell me which of the league’s presumed championship contenders will be healthy in June or July.
Prognostications didn’t seem all that daunting in December, when the Los Angeles Lakers looked like such a safe choice to back to repeat as champions, but it is a much more complex calculation at the quarter pole. The culprit: This grind of a season, marked by its numerous game postponements, endless health and safety protocols and arenas that were mostly empty for months, has been overtaken by injuries to marquee players.
Late Monday, in the same game in which Stephen Curry supplanted Wilt Chamberlain as the leading scorer in Warriors history, Denver’s Jamal Murray crumpled to the floor in the final minute after a hard plant in the paint on his left leg. Tuesday morning’s grim diagnosis of a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear confirmed what many had feared in the moment.
“Too many players getting hurt with this shortened season,” Josh Hart of the New Orleans Pelicans posted on Twitter after Murray went down.
Sidelined himself by a recent thumb surgery, Hart inserted a face palm emoji into the tweet and added his hope that the league “not do this one again.”
“This one” refers to a 72-game regular season stuffed between Dec. 22 and May 16 after the 2019-20 season did not end until October, because of the coronavirus pandemic’s interruption, and was followed by the shortest off-season in league history. The league and the players’ union agreed to that timeline, with a strong nudge from the N.B.A.’s television partners, which desperately wanted to start the 2020-21 season during the week of Christmas. The tight turnaround was expected to help maximize revenue after last season’s shortfall of $1.5 billion, and position the 2021-22 season to return to its usual October-through-June template. It was also designed so the league could finish the playoffs before the Tokyo Olympics in late July.
But the rigors of last season’s finish in a bubble environment, combined with a swift return to play this season and a compressed schedule because of the Olympics, prompted fears, like those voiced by Hart, of increased injury risk.
It’s not clear that those factors are driving injuries this season, but many teams believe they are, even without supporting data. Multiple teams I’ve consulted asserted that this season’s combination of schedule density, travel demands and daily coronavirus testing that cuts into players’ rest time have increased injury risk.
Teams are playing 3.6 games per week this season, compared to 3.42 per week last season, and taking 15 percent fewer flights, according to data provided by the league. An N.B.A. spokesman said, “The injury rate for this season is in line with data from the previous five seasons, including a 6 percent reduction from last season.”
It is an eternal challenge for teams and those in the injury tracking business to conclusively attribute an injury to overuse. Some of this season’s most notable injuries, like LeBron James’s high ankle sprain after Atlanta’s Solomon Hill crashed into him, appeared to be freakish. The same holds for injuries sustained in hard falls by two of the league’s most prized rookies, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball (wrist) and Golden State’s James Wiseman (knee). Hart injured his thumb when he banged his right hand on the rim on a dunk attempt.
Yet there are too many high-profile names on injury reports to shake the sense of crisis. A look at the teams that held the league’s top eight records entering Tuesday’s play showed that only two — Utah and Phoenix — were not dealing with major injuries.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers, after starting the season as prohibitive title favorites, enjoyed that status for maybe two months before losing Anthony Davis (Achilles’ tendon and calf) in February and James (ankle) in March. The Lakers were 5-7 in their last 12 games without either of their twin pillars entering Tuesday’s play.
The Nets have been widely billed as the most potent offense in N.B.A. history since acquiring James Harden from the Houston Rockets on Jan. 14. The problem: They’ve scarcely had an opportunity to illustrate their true capabilities, because Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have logged only 186 minutes together across seven games. Durant, who missed 23 consecutive games because of a strained left hamstring, and Irving have been in the same starting lineup only 14 times — and Harden injured his hamstring as soon as Durant came back. The Nets have been winning and scoring freely all season despite the injuries and Irving’s absences for personal reasons, but it’s difficult to gauge this team’s ceiling when we still haven’t seen the full squad.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed five consecutive games and seven of the past 12 with left knee soreness. Coach Mike Budenholzer said on Sunday that there was no timetable for Antetokounmpo’s return, which was unsettling enough, but it is also the first time in that Antetokounmpo, who won the last two Most Valuable Player Awards, has been forced to sit out more than two consecutive games.
Now that the star center Joel Embiid is back after missing 10 games with a bone bruise on his left knee, Philadelphia appears to be the most fortunate contender on a list all would prefer to avoid. Not that the 76ers plan to gloat — not with Embiid’s injury history or when the Sixers are still waiting for the newly acquired George Hill to make his debut after thumb surgery.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers’ Paul George was named the Western Conference player of the week on Monday, but he began this month with an admission that it would be a “day-to-day process” to cope with a toe injury on his right foot that sidelined him for seven consecutive games in February. The Clippers have also been without their starting center Serge Ibaka for the past 15 games because of a back injury, and the point guard Patrick Beverley is expected to miss at least a month after surgery on his fractured left hand last week.
Perhaps sensing the Lakers’ vulnerability, Denver shed its reputation for caution when it comes to making trades by acquiring Aaron Gordon from Orlando at the trade deadline last month. The Nuggets won their first eight games with Gordon, collapsed in a home loss to Boston on Sunday in mystifying fashion, then watched in horror on Monday night in San Francisco as Murray — fresh off missing the previous four games with right knee soreness — sustained a catastrophic left knee injury that almost certainly changed the trajectory of Denver’s season.
Murray was the fourth player to tear his A.C.L. this season, after the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz and Washington’s Thomas Bryant. The N.B.A. has averaged roughly three A.C.L. tears per season since 2005-6, according to data maintained by Jeff Stotts on his In Street Clothes website.
“We are still in the collecting phase regarding the effects of the compressed schedule at this point of the year,” Stotts said. “I am concerned we will see more soft-tissue injuries here in April. They appear to be on the rise from the rest of the season.”
As a huge fan of playoff suspense, as opposed to postseasons in which one juggernaut is seen as untouchable, I would normally celebrate how wide open this championship chase looks heading into the regular-season stretch run. When so much of the uncertainty is tied to injury, it doesn’t feel right at all.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: Do you think Jeremy Lin’s high profile in speaking out against the rise in hate crimes affecting Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is hurting him with the N.B.A.? — Tom Gardner
Stein: I know Lin has many fans who are dismayed that he has not been signed by an N.B.A. team, not even on a 10-day contract, but I don’t think teams are holding his activism against him. It would be shameful if they are; Lin should be applauded and supported in his efforts to bring more attention to anti-Asian racism.
Lin hasn’t played in the league since the 2018-19 season, and a more likely obstacle to his getting back to the N.B.A. are questions about his mobility at age 32. But even that is probably not the biggest issue. Many teams, especially when trying to fill a roster spot with player on a 10-day contract, are hesitant to bring in an established player for a limited role. Doing so invites daily questions about the player’s status — as the New Orleans Pelicans found out after Coach Stan Van Gundy benched Isaiah Thomas for two consecutive games in the midst of Thomas’s 10-day deal that expired Monday.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ DeMarcus Cousins, another former All-Star who recently signed a 10-day deal, has faced the same challenge. Teams are wary about how players accustomed to major roles will adapt to playing limited minutes, and they know they are going to face heightened scrutiny from the news media about how a player like Thomas, Cousins or Lin is being used. It’s much easier for teams, like it or not, to target players whose presence — and their subsequent release if things don’t work out — won’t cause a fuss.
Lin tried to mitigate such thinking and prove his willingness to accept any N.B.A. role by spending nearly 45 days in the recent N.B.A. G League bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. He also posted strong shooting percentages in his stint with the Santa Cruz Warriors (50.5 percent from the field; 42.6 percent on 3-pointers) and still has a month to attract interest.
Q: There is no doubt that the Lakers are at risk to slip further in the standings, but the answer to what’s wrong with them is simple: injuries. Your contention that the Lakers’ roster moves have not “panned out” is reactionary.
As difficult as the Lakers’ last two months have been, they are much better equipped to withstand the absence of their two best players with Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol on the roster. They have also maintained the league’s top-ranked defense without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, even though we hear so much about the lack of rim protection compared to last season’s Lakers.
I’m obviously willing to concede that this season is in jeopardy, because the Clippers, Utah, Denver and Phoenix have all improved, but the culprit isn’t the roster construction. It’s the injuries. — Jordan Baldridge (New York)
Stein: You assembled some strong counters to last week’s piece on the Lakers and the mounting factors that have complicated their title defense, but I think we actually agree more than we disagree.
I would argue that Schröder, Harrell and Gasol have been more up and down than you suggest — and that the Lakers’ aggressive posture at the trade deadline and their subsequent rush to sign Andre Drummond and Ben McLemore back that up. But that was just one item on a long list meant to convey how much more challenging this season has become for the Lakers than they anticipated.
You highlighted one of the bigger worries: The Lakers’ competition looks much tougher this season. Finishing fifth or sixth in the Western Conference is so daunting because it would likely mean a first-round matchup against the Clippers or Nuggets.
An even bigger problem that I contend has been glossed over: We can’t just assume that the Lakers will bounce right back to being championship favorites as soon as James and Davis return to the lineup. Their injuries were significant setbacks that have to be managed cautiously, especially in the case of Davis, who has missed more than two dozen games already. He’s going to need some time to re-acclimate and restore belief in his body.
Q: How about a newsletter story sometime on those Buffalo Braves cards you mentioned? Or a picture? — Paul Quintilian
Stein: I’m not sure that I should subject our loyal and patient readers to the full depths of my Buffalo Braves nerddom, but hopefully there is no harm, since you asked, in enclosing a picture (shown above) of the various Braves team sets and loose singles that I keep within arm’s reach on my desk whenever I need a dose of youthful inspiration.
I’ve saved as much as I could from my youth but have also made a habit in adulthood of collecting Buffalo sports artifacts from the 1970s that I coveted but that eluded me at the time. Growing up is hard.
I praised Ben Simmons for his sensational play in February (21 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game for the month) because it was a tremendous response to nearly being traded to Houston in January for James Harden. But Simmons hasn’t been the same player since the All-Star break as Philadelphia grapples with the Nets and Milwaukee for the East’s No. 1 seed. In his last 15 games, Simmons averaged just 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6 assists per game — and his shooting in that span declined to 47 percent compared to 57.8 percent in 31 games before the All-Star break.
With 50 points in a loss to Atlanta on Friday night, Chicago’s Zach LaVine became the fifth player in franchise history to record at least one 50-point game, joining Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford, Chet Walker and a certain Michael Jordan. In his 13 seasons as a Bull, of course, Jordan scored at least 50 points in 38 regular-season games.
With 30 rebounds on Saturday night against Detroit, Portland’s Enes Kanter became just the fourth player to post a 30-rebound game since Dikembe Mutombo and Charles Barkley each had one in the 1996 calendar year. The only others to reach the 30 threshold in the 25 years since Mutombo and Barkley, according to Stathead: Dwight Howard (2017-18 season), Andrew Bynum (2011-12) and Kevin Love (2010-11).
Moves at the trade deadline nudged Dallas above Washington for the most international players in the league with seven: The Mavericks acquired Nicolo Melli (Italy) to join Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Josh Green (Australia), Maxi Kleber (Germany), Boban Marjanovic (Serbia), Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia) and Dwight Powell (Canada). The Wizards have six — Deni Avdija (Israel), Davis Bertans (Latvia), Isaac Bonga (Germany), Rui Hachimura (Japan), Alex Len (Ukraine) and Raul Neto (Brazil) — after sending Moe Wagner (Germany) to Boston last month as part of a three-team trade.
Jeremy Lin is the only player who finished in the top 10 in scoring in the N.B.A. G League’s recent six-week bubble who has not spent any time in the N.B.A. this season. Playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin was seventh in scoring at 19.8 points per game but is still waiting for a 10-day contract offer. The other two players on that list besides Lin who were not already contracted to N.B.A. teams when the bubble began — Henry Ellenson and Oshae Brissett — parlayed their G League stints into 10-day deals. At 32, Lin was also the only player among those 10 older than 24.