It has been less than a week since the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA Championship, a series that could be described in one word – injuries.
Now that the dust has settled, I’ll speculate on the futures of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and suggest a possible remedy to prevent such an injury-laden NBA playoff season going forward.
Kevin Durant missed a month of the playoffs after suffering what the team called a calf injury during the Warriors’ second-round series against Houston. He returned in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, only to reinjure his right leg in the second quarter.
Almost immediately, reports surfaced that the team believed his injury to be an Achilles injury. He underwent surgery days later to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
Quickly, media pundits debated whether the team and its medical staff were at fault for allowing Durant to play before he was ready. While I do think the Achilles rupture was related to the calf and could have been prevented had he rested longer, I don’t blame the team.
It can be difficult to know exactly when the calf muscle is fully healed. It’s hard to replicate some basketball movements at full strength and speed in physical therapy. His calf probably felt good with shooting and dribbling, and the team and player took a calculated risk.
Durant now faces a likely year-long rehab from surgery. Going into free agency, it will be interesting to see if the injury scares away any potential suitors. Achilles injuries can be devasting for pro athletes.
A 2013 study of NBA players who underwent surgery for an Achilles tendon rupture showed that 39 percent never returned to play, and the ones who did had a marked decrease in playing time and performance. Likewise, a 2017 study of NBA, NFL and NHL players found that 30 percent never returned. The NBA players experienced significant decreases in games played, playing time and performance.
Warriors guard Klay Thompson suffered a knee injury in the third quarter of the decisive Game 6. After being helped off the court, Klay returned to shoot two free throws, hoping he could come back later in the game. It turned out that the prolific shooter had torn his ACL.
Now Thompson faces reconstructive knee surgery and 9 to 12 months of rehab. His chances of returning to play at the same level as before the injury are higher with ACL surgery than with an Achilles repair. It can take up to two years for the surgical knee to feel like the uninjured knee, or the involved knee before it exploded. For a player also entering free agency, the timing couldn’t be worse.
Durant played in 78 of the Warriors’ 82 regular-season games, logging more than 3,200 minutes, including preseason and the playoffs. Klay also played 78 games, and was on the floor for more than 3,400 minutes.
I believe the length of the regular season is largely to blame for these and some of the other injuries that kept star players on the bench in the postseason.
In today’s NBA, athletes play harder than ever, night after night. They cover more space on the floor because of the evolution of 3-point shooting. Plus, advanced statistics track every aspect of a player’s performance, pushing them to give their all more than players ever have.
Teams playing fewer games means a better quality of play. We rarely get to see NBA players at their peak because of fatigue from the long season. If guys were rested, fans would see players at their best. The product on the court would improve.
Here is my proposal to shorten the regular season. I think we would see fewer injuries. Fewer stars missing games, and players able to compete at a high level because of less wear and tear is good for the league and fans.
Each team would play the 15 teams from the opposing conference, once at home and once on the road – 30 games. They would play their 10 non-divisional conference teams, once at home and once on the road – another 20 games. And they would play their four divisional rivals four times each – 16 games. Teams would play 66 games instead of the 82 they play now.
Finally, throughout the year, the NBA could hold a single-elimination tournament, much like the English Premier League does with the FA Cup. That’s five games at most. Lose a game and you’re out? Ratings for that kind of tournament would far exceed the ratings for the current regular-season games now.
I realize that a shorter regular season is unlikely because of the huge loss in potential revenue. Fewer games would affect the bottom line for owners, which would trickle down to employees in the ticket office and concessions and more. But we would have fewer stars missing months of actions, especially in the biggest series of the year.
Editor’s note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”