Note: The following post appears in my sports medicine column in the December 7, 2011 issue of The Post and Courier.
When the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat to clinch its first NBA Championship, interest in the sport was at its highest point in many years. Maybe it was all of the marketable young stars in the league or fans rooting hard for, or against, LeBron James and the Heat’s orchestrated dynasty. So how did owners and players respond to this surge in popularity?
They ended negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement, and the lockout ensued. Brilliant.
Now that the sides have tentatively come to an agreement, NBA Commissioner David Stern would like the season to begin on Christmas Day. Reportedly there would be an abbreviated preseason and training camps, and the teams would play a 66-game regular season.
Much attention has been paid to the lockout earlier this year in the NFL and a perceived spike in injuries, most notably Achilles tendon ruptures. Will the NBA suffer a similar fate once teams take the court?
Well, maybe. For one thing, basketball is a different sport than football. Size and strength are more important for at least many positions in the NFL, whereas balance, coordination, and agility might be more valuable in the NBA. But the sports differ in terms of the nature of injuries as well. Football injuries are much more frequently acute, traumatic ones from tackling, blocking, and other contact. Many NBA injuries, on the other hand, are overuse injuries that develop over the course of a long season.
I received a number of comments after the NFL lockout column related to the notion that those are the best athletes in the world. As such, they should come into training camp in shape, whenever it starts. And I agree, and that idea is true with NBA players as well. But I would point out that great overall physical conditioning is not the same as being in game shape. Cutting, pivoting, and explosive jumping are difficult to replicate in the weight room, and it is especially tough to recreate the fatigue of doing those activities for 48 minutes at full speed. And without a long schedule of preseason games to slowly build up their playing time, injuries such as hamstring strains and other muscle and tendon injuries might occur.
Where I could see the lockout potentially affecting injuries could come later in the season. With an 82-game season, the league did its best to spread its games and road trips out. But there were still stretches where teams might play three games in four nights. And successful teams always seemed to rest key players, especially veteran stars, for part or all of one of those games to keep them healthy at the end of the year. With a more compact schedule and only 66 games, each regular season game becomes more important. It might be more difficult for teams to rest players.
And finally, the lockout and adjusted schedule could affect teams and players differently. Will the bodies of younger players without a history of many long seasons hold up better? Will veteran players know better how to manage the physical demands of a long season with less rest? We will soon find out.
I don’t know if the lockout will ultimately lead to more injuries this season. As a fan, I certainly hope it doesn’t. But it seems reasonable that the shortened season and altered schedule could affect the health of the players and teams and ultimately play a role in determining the champions.