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You start here: The NBA injury report always has mattered, always will matter.
But in few seasons has it mattered as much as this compressed meat grinder created by the uncertainty of the pandemic.
For the Miami Heat, there is somewhat of a light at the end of the tunnel, with Saturday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls at AmericanAirlines Arena closing a stretch of eight games in 12 nights. Sunday then starts a run of five in 12.
But in a playoff-seeding race, it’s about more than your own fatigue, your own schedule. It’s about who those you are vying with are going against. So when a Donovan Mitchell goes down, who benefits against a shorthanded Utah Jazz? Same thing for those playing the Atlanta Hawks without Trae Young (although the Heat certainly stumbled in that Friday assignment) or the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard.
While the NBA has cited a similar injury rate to previous seasons, in a more typical schedule, even if the time missed would be the same, the volume of games missed would not.
Take Friday night, alone. Listed as out on the NBA injury report, among others, were Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, James Harden, LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Eric Gordon, Serge Ibaka, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura, Jamal Murray, James Wiseman, Jonas Valanciunas, Clint Capela, Leonard, Mitchell, Young and the Heat’s Victor Oladipo.
That’s just from the teams scheduled for Friday.
And that does not include those sidelined by health-and-safety protocols.
From the outset, the protocols were going to be the season’s wild card, and still yet could be (which makes it all the more confounding that players are opting out of vaccination).
Had Jimmy Butler not missed 10 games in January due to coronavirus, the Heat’s seeding desperation likely would be far less desperate. Had Avery Bradley not missed eight due to COVID-19 in the same timeframe, he might still be with the Heat.
But that was an accepted part of the equation during last season’s Disney World bubble, as well as with the plan to move forward with this season after only a two-month break.
But perhaps that is where the NHL got it right with its 56-game schedule that started on Jan. 13, as opposed to this logjam of the NBA’s 72-game schedule (down from the traditional 82) that opened Dec. 22.
As Elias Sports Bureau tracked, the Heat, from Jan. 31 to March 4, went 51 days without more than one day of rest between games, the NBA longest such streak since lockout-shortened 2011-12, when the schedule did not start until Dec. 25.
In a recent ESPN piece, one NBA general manager said of the scheduling whirlwind, “We have defaulted to survival mode.”
In that same piece, an assistant coach said, “Hands down, it’s the worst schedule I’ve seen in 25 years in the league. It’s utterly insane.”
But it’s actually not quite the definition of insanity, because in doing the thing over and over, in the rapid-fire scheduling, the NBA has wound up with the same result. Injury. After injury. After injury.
Granted, this typically is the portion of the schedule when teams adopt a cautious approach, opting for pre-playoff prudence.
But this also is the first season of the NBA’s play-in tournament, with has more teams actively involved in late-season seeding races than ever. If you’re not the Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic or Cleveland Cavaliers, you’re still playing for something.
But at what price?
And for those seeking to get sharper, well, as Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said before a recent game against the Heat, “Our practices have been the lightest I’ve ever been around.”
So, in other words, teams not necessarily at their crispest, either.
There was, of course, a choice for less. But that would have meant rebates to the regional sports networks for fewer games available for local broadcast, a further salary shave for players.
So all involved were complicit. Money spoke.
Another financial element was the hard out for the end of the season by July 23 start of the Tokyo Olympics. But that’s where another page could have been taken from the NHL, which plays through hockey’s annual World Championships, allowing players to depart for their national teams once their seasons are over.
Ultimately, lessons have been learned should the NBA ever come this way again.
“Too many players getting hurt with this shortened season,” New Orleans Pelicans guard Josh Hart posted on Twitter, “need to not do this again.”