A sea­son of painful re­minders

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - BY TIM BONTEMPS tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

To be­come a cham­pi­onship-level NBA team, a dizzy­ing num­ber of things have to fall into place. The right play­ers need to be ac­quired, whether via the draft, trade or free agency. The right coach­ing staff needs to be in place. And an in­fra­struc­ture and sup­port sys­tem has to keep ev­ery­thing work­ing as it should be.

In ad­di­tion, some­thing else is re­quired for a team not only to reach the rar­efied air of the sport’s elite but to stay there: health. And for all of the ad­vance­ments that have been made in rest and treat­ment and re­cov­ery in re­cent years, there’s still a large por­tion of health that seems to come down to good, old-fash­ioned luck.

Over the past week, the NBA uni­verse has ex­pe­ri­enced just how un­for­giv­ing this sport can be. Two of the game’s bright­est young stars, Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves guard Zach LaVine and Mil­wau­kee Bucks for­ward Jabari Parker, have seen their sea­sons abruptly end — along with a large chunk of next sea­son — af­ter each tore the an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in his left knee.

With a pair of false steps, two of the most promis­ing and ex­cit­ing young teams in the league took a giant step back­ward.

Be­tween those in­juries and the ones that kept Philadel­phia’s Joel Em­biid from play­ing ei­ther of the past two years and fel­low rookie Ben Sim­mons from step­ping on the court this sea­son, this has be­come an NBA cam­paign de­fined by young tal­ent spend­ing far too much time on the side­lines.

These in­juries have all been un­for­tu­nate re­minders that, to win in the NBA, the tal­ent has to stay on the court.

In many ways, the re­cent rash of in­juries high­lights what may be the most im­pres­sive ac­com­plish­ment of the al­ready leg­endary ca­reer of LeBron James. Even at 32 years old, James leads the NBA in min­utes per game (37.7) and is play­ing like one of the best play­ers in the league — if not the best — and he has never suf­fered a se­ri­ous in­jury in his 13-plus years in the league.

That com­bi­na­tion of dura­bil­ity and ex­cel­lence is why James is on pace to put up a sta­tis­ti­cal ré­sumé un­like any­one in the his­tory of the sport. It’s also a re­minder that not ev­ery­one is blessed with the long-term abil­ity to re­main healthy.

Think about the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers of the late 2000s with Bran­don Roy, Greg Oden and LaMar­cus Aldridge. That was sup­posed to be the foun­da­tion of a ti­tle con­tender; in­stead, Roy and Oden couldn’t stay on the court. Think about Der­rick Rose win­ning the NBA’s MVP award in 2011 as the Chicago Bulls and Mi­ami Heat ap­peared like the next great NBA ri­valry; in­stead, Rose suf­fered his first knee in­jury the fol­low­ing spring, and he and the Bulls have never re­cov­ered.

From Bill Wal­ton to Ralph Samp­son, Yao Ming to Grant Hill, and Gil­bert Are­nas to An­fer­nee Har­d­away, the his­tory of the sport is lit­tered with play­ers and teams de­railed by in­juries. And while the Tim­ber­wolves, Bucks and 76ers have plenty of rea­sons for op­ti­mism, both now and mov­ing for­ward, the in­juries all three teams have en­dured will hang over them mov­ing for­ward.

That’s es­pe­cially true for Parker, who has un­for­tu­nately torn his left ACL twice in the first three years of his ca­reer, making his re­cov­ery all the more daunt­ing — es­pe­cially af­ter he had been play­ing at an all-star level in his first full sea­son back from the ini­tial in­jury. But it re­mains un­clear whether LaVine can come back as the same player he was pre-in­jury, when he won two slam dunk ti­tles, whether Em­biid can re­main healthy or whether Sim­mons will avoid fur­ther re­cur­rences of his bro­ken foot.

These are the chal­lenges that all three teams will face mov­ing for­ward. Where re­cently only op­ti­mism reigned, now a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism isn’t just rec­om­mended — it’s nec­es­sary. This is the new, un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity that the Tim­ber­wolves and Bucks are living in and one the 76ers have been stuck in for three years.

For the rest of us, it’s an­other re­minder that one false step, one bad break, can change a team’s di­rec­tion for­ever.

JEF­FREY PHELPS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mil­wau­kee’s Jabari Parker was helped off the court Wed­nes­day af­ter tear­ing the ACL in his left knee for the sec­ond time in his three-year NBA ca­reer.

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