Joel Embiid is no stranger to the tedium of the training table, the shudder before jumping in an ice bath, the feeling of dragging around a balky, frozen knee. He lost the first two years of his NBA career to injury. He’s missed a swath of regular-season and a handful of playoff games. So when he tore the meniscus in his right knee in Game 4 of the first round against the Wizards, it hardly came as a surprise.
The surprise was that he decided to play through the pain, pushing the tension of watching Joel Embiid—holding your breath every time he falls, hoping this landing isn’t the one that does him in again—to a new extreme.
“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said after Game 1 against the Hawks. “All I gotta do is keep managing it. Get as much treatment as I can, make sure it doesn’t swell up too much. Obviously the pain is gonna be there. That’s normal.” Everyday, he fills his cup as much as he can, trying to replenish it, trying to manage the pain, to push his mind to be stronger than his body. Then he tests it out. “It” being his torn meniscus. “My goal is to win the championship, and I’m gonna put my body on the line to make sure that happens. I’m gonna give everything I got.”
Embiid knows how fragile contention is, how it depends on a million different variables, many of which lie in his balky joints. So does Kevin Durant, who played all 48 minutes Tuesday night despite being robbed of 533 days of his prime after he came back from a calf injury too soon in the 2019 NBA Finals. So does James Harden, who played 46 minutes in the same game after rushing back from a hamstring injury, despite knowing how that injury took his former teammate Chris Paul out of the playoffs in Houston.
It’s not a surprise that these players are so familiar with injuries riddling their hopes. For years, the game has been getting faster and harder and zippier while the off-court demands have ballooned. Injuries have swelled. Trainers have been ringing the alarm for years. The playoffs have become a war of attrition. Availability has become the determining factor.
When COVID-19 shut last season down, the NBA had a golden opportunity to reevaluate problems that were bubbling beneath the surface. Ratings were dropping, the regular season was becoming a boring farce and injuries—especially to star players—were increasing to the point of inevitability.
Instead, the offseason after the bubble was the shortest in the modern era, giving the Lakers and the Heat just 71 days off after their Finals tiff. The NBA rushed back so they could play on Christmas Day and get in those lovely Santa bucks, and they shoved an All-Star Game into the middle of an already-compressed 72-game season, despite pushback from multiple star players.
In response to the correlation between injuries and heavy workloads, players and teams have spent the last decade educating themselves and investing in injury management, from teams hiring more trainers and meticulously tracking data to resting players. The league, however, is almost exactly where it’s been for decades.
The NBA’s chickens came home to roost when the Lakers, with both Anthony Davis and LeBron James hobbling, lost in the first round. On Wednesday, we found out that Kawhi Leonard will be out indefinitely with a troubling knee sprain after going into Terminator mode against the Jazz. LeBron, who spends a reported million dollars a year on maintaining his body, was quick to remind the league just how predictable all this was.
They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff…
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