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With each cellphone chime, Wednesday got a little crazier.
One tweet said Kawhi Leonard’s knee was “good” when, in fact, it was not. He’d miss Game 5 and maybe more in the Clippers' playoff series against Utah. Then one said Stan Van Gundy, the experienced coach and expert communicator hired to shepherd Zion Williamson’s ascent, was out in New Orleans after one season.
Then another chime and Chris Paul was out, placed into the NBA’s COVID protocols — a reminder that the pandemic is still with us. And then, like a tiny little morsel of dessert, Scott Brooks and the Washington Wizards parted ways, another head-coaching job suddenly open.
Only then was it time for breakfast.
“Wild-ass morning,” one NBA general manager texted.
Hours later, the Dallas Mavericks shook up their front office, getting rid of general manager Donnie Nelson just days after a report in The Athletic about turmoil in the organization — a report that owner Mark Cuban called “b----."
That phone would chime again — this time from a string of LeBron James tweets — in response to the vague news about Leonard that has the league’s most influential people fearing the worst.
It was a painful reckoning for the NBA as it approached the finish line of its second pandemic season, the shadows from Brooklyn star Kevin Durant’s giant performance Tuesday night quickly undone in a series of league-altering news.
Team medical personnel around the NBA are quick to point to the league’s compressed schedule and postseason — decisions driven by a desire to play as many games as possible to satisfy the league’s broadcast partners while ensuring that the money faucet doesn’t get turned all the way off.
It’s impossible to know if this is bad luck or if it’s the result of a tighter schedule in an effort to wrap up the playoffs before the Summer Olympics and to get the NBA back on a normal schedule next season. But the inference is being made — this isn’t coincidence.
James, a critic of the NBA’s shortened offseason and the league's decision to hold an All-Star game, didn’t pass on the chance to tell everyone involved — the NBA and the players’ union — “told you so.”
“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff games (most in league history),” he wrote in a series of tweets. “This is the best of the year for our league and fans but missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that know about the body and how it works all year round it’s ME! I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now.”
James then tweeted: “And I know all about the business side (factors too) so don’t even try me! I get it.”
That stat James is referencing is per Elias Sports, with eight different All-Stars having missed at least one game in the NBA playoffs — Leonard joining Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Paul will make it nine.
“Injury rates were virtually the same this season as they were during the 2019-20 season while starter-level and All-Star players missed games due to injury at similar rates as the last three seasons,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement. “While injuries are an unfortunate reality of our game, we recognize the enormous sacrifices NBA players and teams have made to play through this pandemic.”
Still, it’s hard not to classify this season as an outlier based on the circumstances.
For all of the conversation about the Lakers’ bubble title needing an asterisk, that season ended credibly —James holding the trophy after defeating a healthy Miami Heat team as the Lakers navigated the mental challenges of the environment better than almost anyone else.
This year? The Brooklyn Nets, the league’s most talented team, might end up as the eventual champion, but they’ll have gotten there by navigating a playoff more notable for who was missing than for who grabbed the title. The Nets are still missing one star, Irving, and played two others a combined 94 minutes in Game 5, so who knows?
The Suns said they’ll update Paul’s status on Saturday — even if vaccinated, he could miss extended time if he tested positive. He’ll be able to return once he tests negative twice (separated by 24 hours) or if he’s asymptomatic for at least 10 days and gets cleared by medical staff.
The Western Conference finals could start as soon as Sunday.
Even if the Clippers somehow get there, Leonard’s availability would be a real surprise considering his injury history and pending free agency. If the Clippers don’t advance, they’ll have something other than a made-up curse to blame.
If the Clippers need help pointing fingers, James is available.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.