What was expected to be a star-studded dream season in Tinseltown has instead been a year-long nightmare. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were expected to join Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant, returning the Los Angeles Lakers to NBA dominance.
Instead, Howard battled through herniated disc surgery and a shoulder injury. Nash suffered a broken leg. Metta World Peace injured his knee (torn meniscus). Finally, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture. Surely, Jack Nicholson was grimacing under his dark sunglasses.
Without question, Lakers fans have a right to feel disappointed with the team's struggles on the court. But is the anger directed at head coach Mike D'Antoni over Kobe's injury justified?
Despite all of the team's injuries, the Lakers entered last week's game against the Golden State Warriors barely holding the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference. Bryant's performance clearly kept them alive. In the Lakers' last seven games, Bryant averaged 28.9 points, 8.4 assists and 7.3 rebounds.
Kobe put up those impressive stats by playing huge numbers of minutes. Despite his 17 seasons in the NBA, Bryant entered that game ranked second in the league in minutes played. In those last seven games, he averaged 45.6 minutes per game.
Kobe's Achilles tendon snapped on a drive to the basket with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter. He had played in every minute of the game up to that point.
Lakers fans immediately chose to blame D'Antoni. On the blog Lakers Nation, 54 percent of respondents believed D'Antoni's choice to allow Bryant to play so many minutes contributed to the injury.
In theory, the idea that fatigue over the course of a game, stretch of games, or a season could lead to a tendon rupture makes sense. The supporting muscles of the leg and thigh would not fire properly, and the sudden stress would fall solely on the Achilles. It makes sense, but there is little evidence to prove it.
Achilles tendon ruptures are traumatic events. Players push off suddenly while changing directions or starting a sprint, and the tendon fails. Athletes in their 30s and early 40s are common victims. These injuries can occur at any point in games or in seasons. Despite the seemingly logical finger-pointing at D'Antoni, many people seem to have forgotten the large numbers of these exact injuries in the NFL two seasons ago. Those Achilles tears occurred in the preseason, largely to first- and second-year players.
Rather than criticizing how or why Kobe's injury might have occurred, fans might worry more about how well he recovers. Achilles tendon repairs do heal reliably. But elite athletes often lose pushoff strength. Will Kobe be a step slower driving to the basket? Will he lose some of his explosive jumping ability?
Even if Kobe does return to a level of play less than what NBA fans have come to expect, it wouldn't be fair to blame his coach.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and Director of MUSC Sports Medicine. For more information about basketball injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to Dr. Geier's blog at drdavidgeier.com.
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