A season of painful reminders
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.
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.