Hamed Qashmar takes a deep look into the NBA’s pandemic of injuries to its star players over the past decade, and compares these statistics to former basketball greats, and what it means for the future of basketball.
The sports industry is among the most popular and successful business in North America. According to an ESPN poll conducted in 2014, 6% of fans identify themselves as fans of the NBA (Rovell). The industry draws large audiences and generate billions of dollars; the estimated income for the NBA nears $5 billion dollars. Without certain players, casual fans would be reluctant to attend games and watch them on TV. The NBA has seen an increase in significant injuries over the past couple of seasons. Notable players have been getting injured more than ever; Derrick Rose, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook have fallen victim to the trend. Some attribute the massive rise in injuries to players being more athletic than ever. Back in the “Golden Age” of the NBA, superstars like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar relied on smarts, finesse, and savvy play to be successful. Nowadays, there are players who rely heavily on their athletic prowess. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are widely considered to be the most athletic players at their position, and both have fallen victim to knee injuries causing them to miss a great deal of time. The amount of players to be effected by injuries has been on a rise. Fans and teams have grown tired of seeing star players sit out a season because of injury. Not only are the injured players losing, but so are the teams and fans. How do these injuries affect players, and can the injury rate be slowed down?
In the NBA, a majority of injuries occur in the lower extremities, specifically the ankle. Basketball is dependent on getting up and down the court; on average, a player runs over two miles a game. Not to mention all the jumping players do throughout the course of a game. According to a study done by Deitch (orthopedic), Moseley (M.D.), Starkey (PhD), and Walters (PT), of the 702 NBA players they studied, 65 percent of the injuries were in the lower extremity. Of the 65 percent, 13.7 percent were lateral ankle sprains, which was the most common injury. In regards to in game injuries, the ankle sprain was also the most common, totaling 284 instances in 2006. Ankle sprains are by far the most frequent injuries in the NBA; however, most cases are not severe. Notable players who have suffered from chronic or severe ankle sprains include Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant, and Demar DeRozan. Ways to prevent ankle sprains consist of, “prophylactic taping and bracing” and even wearing different types of shoes (1077).
Former NBA.com writer Shaun Powell highlights the increase in significant injuries to star NBA players. He does so in an article written directly after Paul George suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula bones. The injury was a freak incident; George jumped up to contest a layup, and when he came down he had no room to land because the stanchion was too close to the baseline. Nonetheless, the injury did raise red flags, considering George was one of countless stars to be slain by the injury bug. Russell Westbrook missed nearly half of the 2013-2014 season due to an arthroscopic knee surgery. Derrick Rose missed 72 games in the 2013- 2014 because of a torn meniscus. Kobe has missed over 150 games over the past four years with a plethora of injuries: including his Achilles tear and season ending shoulder tear. However, Kobe’s injuries are most likely due to his aging, but the aforementioned guys were young and in top shape. Furthermore, some attribute the injuries to the strenuous 82 game season, but it does not look like the NBA will reduce the amount of games played. They would be losing too much money. Players also practice nearly every day, and not to forget international play, such as the Olympics and FIBA World Cup (Powell).
PhD, Les Podlog, an Adjunct Assistant Professor from the University of Utah, heads a study that finds an increase in NBA injury rates between 1986 and 2005 (Podlog 1). Podlog et al. analyze a study conducted by Dr. Kevin Norton, School of Physical Education and Exercise and Sport Studies. They found that the NBA player’s average weight had increased from 214 lbs. to 223 lbs. (Norton 420). With basketball being such a fast-paced sport, collisions and accidents are guaranteed to happen multiple times over the course of a game. Team’s are looking to get out on the fast break more often and in turn players are running more than normaly. Nonetheless, NBA savants have come to a consensus: players are more athletic than ever. There has never been a time in NBA history in which the most athletic player on the court is the smallest, the point guard. Today, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Bledsoe are the cream of the crop when it comes to athleticism. Each are point guards, and each have fallen victim to knee injuries. These young guns use their uber athletic abilities to maneuver to the paint by using explosive hop steps and deceptive one-two steps. These moves put a lot of stress on the lower half of the body; as stated earlier, the lower extremities are were the most injuries occur. In regards to major injuries to the lower extremities, knees are most affected.
In a study led by Dr. Benjamin Busfield, MD, a doctor practicing in Orinda, California, 27 of the 1,144 players in his database had undergone ACL reconstruction surgery. 21 of the 27 were able to return to the NBA; a success rate of 78 percent. The results showed that 44 percent of the players experienced a decrease in their player efficiency rating (PER). PER is a measure of how much a player gets done while he is on the court; it is a crucial advanced statistic because it allows teams to sort out their most efficient players (827). It is important to note that 15 percent of the group saw an increase in PER, and 19 percent experienced no significant change. Regardless, the injury is prevalent and is rising in numbers. Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, and Nerlens Noel are the most notable players to have been affected by an ACL tear. As of now, we are seeing Derrick Rose show flashes of his old self, but Rondo has been a shadow of himself. D Rose has his vintage games, but struggles at times. One would expect him to recover by next season; however, Rondo looks like he might not ever get back to an all-star level. This might have to do with the age difference; Rose is three years younger.
One might ask, “Why has there been a rise in ACL injuries?” There is no definite answer; however, in an article written by Grantland.com writer Neal Gabler, Dr. Brian Cole blames the ACL epidemic on “proprioception.” Proprioception allows an athlete to coordinate their movements; in today’s NBA, the Eurostep and crossover are deceptive moves in which the athlete fakes in one direction and goes the other. A good example for this is James Harden. Few can get to the rim like he can, while utilizing his incredible footwork. He is famous for his Eurostep, and he is also famous for his acting. Nonetheless Harden hasn’t suffered from a major injury like others have. On the other end of the spectrum is Derrick Rose; Rose is much more explosive. He also gets to the rim at will and uses the Eurostep and hop step to do so. However, Rose has suffered from three major knee injuries; it is hard to explain why one player can be so durable while another is not so durable. With that being said, when the athlete is constantly performing such moves, they are also instantaneously reacting to the opponents move. These sudden movements may cause a miscommunication between the athlete’s body and mind, causing an awkward placement of the foot or knee. Not only are NBA athletes bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, but the game has also become so dependent deception. This combination offers a logical, coherent answer to the previous question (Gabler).
A less common, but more severe, knee injury is caused by chondral bone defects has proven to be lethal. When a player’s articular cartridge (smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together to form joints) is damaged, they need to undergo microfracture knee surgery. Microfracture surgery attempts to replace the damaged cartilage by drilling into the knee, causing blood to surface. The blood forms a layer of fibrocartilage, but fibrocartilage is nowhere near as durable as cartridge. Twenty-one percent of players that were treated with microfracture surgery were unable to return to an NBA game. Meanwhile, those who returned had their careers cut short, and experienced a steep decline in performance (Cerynik 1138). Greg Oden is a prime example that concurs with the findings; Oden went through three microfracture surgeries. Oden has been in and out of the league since 2007, and is currently unemployed. Surgeons may need to look at other procedures to repair damaged cartilage that will produce better results for professional athletes.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of sports. The NBA’s most common injuries consist of lower extremity injuries, most commonly the ankle sprain. Ankle sprains are treatable and preventable. On the other hand, the frequency of a much more severe lower extremity injury, the ACL tear, has been on the rise as of late; that is attributed to players becoming bigger and more athletic. Players have to deal with deception and quick reactions, which increases their risk of tearing their ACLs. Another major injury occurs when there is damaged cartilage present in the player’s knee. Treatment for the injury consists of microfracture surgery. This surgery is not very successful for NBA players; surgeons should seek an alternative procedure to treat patients. The trend for injuries in the NBA will continue to skyrocket, due to the fact that everything is a competition, and the competition starts at an early age. For NBA players, the trend will also continue in its direction. Players are continuing to get bigger and more athletic, and the style of play is becoming more up-tempo. Athletes will suffer, but technology and surgical procedures will continue to advance and eventually will slow down the amount of injuries seen.
By: Hamed Qashmar