Fans of the Brooklyn Nets rejoiced last year when their team united three of the biggest stars in the NBA: Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. Yet this talented trio played together for only eight games during the regular season in 2020 – 21 — and the Nets sank from runaway title favorites to an injury-riddled second-round exit.
While injuries can be decisive in any sport, they plagued the entire NBA last year — and they’ll remain a big problem until the league lengthens the offseason it has shortened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the new season set to start next week, basketball fans should expect another spike in injuries and players who sit out games. This will frustrate fans and hurt television ratings for a league looking to rebound from a drop in viewership.
The culprit will be one of the shortest offseasons in the history of the NBA: Just 91 days between the game on July 20, when the Milwaukee Bucks won their championship, and the opening-night tip-off on Oct. 19 between the Bucks and Nets.
This follows the shortest offseason in the history of any of the four major American sports leagues, when NBA players rested for just 71 days between the 2019 – 20 and 2020 – 21 seasons — and created the conditions for one of the most injury-prone seasons in the NBA’s history.
“NBA players collectively missed more time during the 2020 – 21 season than in any single year dating back to 2009-10,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton said.
The league’s biggest stars were affected at an even higher rate. According to Elias Sports Bureau, last season’s All-Stars missed 370 out of 1,944 possible games — that’s 19%, the highest such rate in any single season in NBA history.
Moreover, 12 All-Star players missed at least one game of the playoffs, twice as many as the next-highest number in NBA history.
Before the pandemic, an NBA offseason usually lasted around 140 days — enough time for battered players to heal after a grueling season. The problem of the shortened offseason is now compounded by the length of the regular season, which goes back up to the pre-pandemic normal of 82 games. Last season, teams played a shortened 72-game schedule and the injuries still piled up.
One solution, from the standpoint of a team seeking to win a championship, is to practice “load management,” which involves resting players to protect their health and make them ready for postseason excellence. Yet this causes its own kind of injury: It hurts the fans.
Imagine a family of Los Angeles Lakers fans who can afford to attend only one game per season. They buy their tickets, pay for parking, and show up at Staples Center, only to discover that LeBron James is taking the night off. Sorry, kids: He needs to “manage his load.” Better luck next year!
This has become a common practice for all-NBA-level players such as James and Kawhi Leonard, who have already both proved their worth to their teams and made their money. They can afford to miss a few games every season to reduce their risk of injury. Yet they’re the reason fans attend games in person and watch them on television: More than any other sport, the NBA is a star-driven league. When its best players aren’t dunking on their rivals and knocking down contested threes, it suffers more than when an NFL linebacker needs to nurse a sprained ankle or an MLB pitcher must skip a start due to a sore arm.
My prediction: The aggravations of injuries and load management will hit an all-time high in the new season, threatening the popularity of the NBA. During the last regular season, the NBA aired 168 nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN, and TNT. On average, these games suffered an astounding 25% dip in viewership from the 2018 – 19 season. This is understandable, given a record number of star players benched with injuries or resting in fear of one. NBA games were less fun to watch.
The ultimate solution is for the NBA to extend its off-season, for the sake of what happens when millions of fans want to watch the best players in the world.