NBA stars missed an average of 28 games
Why are stars not playing?
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BY HENRY ABBOTT
Zion Williamson spent most of last season away from the New Orleans Pelicans. Ben Simmons missed a lot of games for a lot of reasons. Kyrie Irving played, and then barely played, for the Nets.
NBA stars are missing a ton of games. I looked at everyone who has played in an All-Star game over the past three years—48 players in total—and then added the NBA’s current high-earners to beef up this sample to a decent enough chunk of players that it would be possible to approach a trend. By my count:
The average NBA star from this list missed 28 games last season.
Zero of those 48 players checked into even 80 of the 82 games last season.
Five top players—Williamson, Simmons, John Wall, Kawhi Leonard, and Jamal Murray—missed the entire season.
It’s a trend that includes many of the league’s biggest names and practically all the MVP candidates. Over the past three seasons, it’s clear that too few players are ready to play:
Kevin Durant has played zero, 35, and 55 games;
Stephen Curry has played 5, 63, and 64;
LeBron James has played 67, 45, and 56.
The way it’s playing out now is … complicated, and a story of several converging factors (mostly injuries) and a few others that happen in the shadows (including whatever weirdness happened between Wall and the Houston Rockets).
Stars don’t play 82 games anymore. This is new.
So why are the biggest stars missing, on average, 28 games per season?
A common guess about anyone missing work is that players today lack the proper gritty mentality. Simmons and Irving were in headlines last season seeming not to want to work. And occasionally you’ll see quotes from former NBA players complaining about a lack of dedication from today’s young players.
But let’s put that in context. In covering the NBA most of my adult life, I’ll simply say that professional athletes generally work harder than anyone. That’s how you get there. Slacking off means someone else will get your spot—probably somebody with the mindset to tackle 82 games.
I’m not sure that’s happening. Meanwhile, workaholics show themselves in the NBA all the time.
The current NBA includes a player—Russell Westbrook—who joined the NBA in 2008 and didn’t miss a game until the playoffs of 2013.
Despite constantly playing injured, Joel Embiid essentially rejects arguments that he might sometimes need to rest.
LeBron James has long had the habit of getting to practice hours early, then working out that entire time. (Here at TrueHoop, we published a series making the case that—amazing though he has always been—the King’s habits of overwork hurt his team, in part by making him reject younger teammates who didn’t share his exact approach.)
Then there’s Jimmy Butler. A few years ago, Seerat Sohi wrote a story about Butler cataloging the dogged work that got him to NBA stardom. In his youth, Butler flirted with homelessness, made a day’s lunch money stretch all week. He committed to college with a letter faxed from a McDonald’s, and at college often literally slept in the gym in a sleeping bag. Buzz Williams, his college coach, tells Sohi: “Jimmy looks at himself as, ‘I better get better today or tomorrow I’m not gonna be able to eat.’”
Butler brags that he’s the guy who’ll go after teammates if they slack. “If I don’t think you’re doing what you’re doing to the best of your ability,” he says, “I will for sure let you know. And I will have no hard feelings about it. I’ll embarrass you. I think that comes with the job. You get paid a lot of money.”
If a gritty mindset could keep you on the floor, surely these men would persist.
Jimmy Butler hasn’t played more than 58 games in any of the last four years.
Since the 76ers drafted Embiid eight years ago, he has missed roughly four complete seasons’ worth of games. He has never played 70 games in any season.
And while Westbrook was once the NBA’s Iron Man, his streak of playing every game ended years ago. The last three years he has played 57, 65, and 78 games.
Since becoming a Laker, LeBron has played 67, 45, and 56 games.
Those players don’t play every game—and nobody else does either.
What’s the deal?
There is evidence to support several different theories. Here are three:
The game is more intense now, with everyone running faster, jumping higher, cutting more aggressively, and taxing their bodies more. This is measurable, inarguable. Maybe the players who play hard all the time used to last longer before getting hurt because it’s a more intense workload now.
“Load management” may not be a popular term, but a sports science-based approach to injury prevention may have caught on anyway—especially after Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to a title in 2019 while sitting out half of the regular season.
In these recent years, the stress that affects the whole world—COVID, racism, climate, generalized instability—has been taxing everyone, including players. As science writer Christie Aschwanden explained on BRING IT IN early in the pandemic, “stress is stress,” meaning our immune systems and health and all the things that get us to work in shape suffer whether the hardship is from working out too hard or having a fight with a loved one.
Theory No. 1: This explosive game is taxing.
There is excellent evidence (endorsed even by NBA commissioner Adam Silver) that youth basketball is more damaging to players than ever. Baxter Holmes has written groundbreaking stories about the perils of poorly organized, single-sport specialization. There is evidence that a growing number of young NBA players are arriving with damaged bodies and, despite improvements in training and sports science, often enduring massive injuries.
Players used to grow up playing many sports, and the very nature of the game used to be less explosive. There’s convincing evidence the game used to be gentler on bodies.
I can’t see why whatever happens before the NBA wouldn’t continue in the NBA. Now, super athletes are flying all over the court, cutting hard, putting greater forces on their joints. NBA defenders have always had to scramble to cover the areas where the offensive players like to shoot. That used to be mostly around the rim; now it’s every square inch almost all the way to the logo near half court. Decades ago, teams just didn’t guard the 3-point line much.
As a result, there are hardly any unathletic players left in the NBA. Maybe the closest is Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokić. David Thorpe has analyzed Jokić’s game for hours, knows all about it. Being a brilliant player, and a giant, Jokić simply has a game that almost never demands he run fast or jump high. Thorpe even has Muzak he likes to chant—it happens now and again on BRING IT IN—to describe how incredibly unrushed Jokić is with the ball: dee-bee-doo …
More than anyone, Jokić moves his body like it’s 1990. There’s more stillness to his game—and, would you believe that, among stars, Jokić stands out as the player who has missed the fewest games? He doesn’t run fast; he doesn’t jump high; but he has missed only eight total games over the last three years combined.
Among stars, Jokić is the NBA’s current Iron Man.
Theory No. 2: There’s sneaky load management happening.
Load management is absolutely real. In recent years, even young players like Ja Morant and Dejounte Murray have, at times, skipped games in back-to-back sets. The league, the fans, and the media all had such strong reactions to the idea of load management that, if it exists now, it may have gone at least partly underground. You can get in trouble with the league, in certain games, for listing a player as out for load management. As a result, I suspect some games listed as “DNP ankle sprain” might really be yielding to the science of exhaustion and injury prevention. This makes it hard to know how many games are missed to load management. It might be more than we know.
And it could also turn up, for instance, in return-to-play scenarios after players have been out with injuries. Not everyone rushes back as fast as they can—and with good reason.
Damian Lillard played 29 games early last season, then had abdominal surgery. If he had played decades ago, perhaps he would have taken the court after the prescribed 6-8 weeks. Now there’s all kinds of research documenting the immense healing power of strategic rest. Lillard says he expects to play better than ever this coming season because of that time away.
“I never had this much time,” Lillard told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, “to fully break down my game and really challenge myself development-wise.”
Theory No. 3 is not a huge trend, but it still bears examining.
In case you’ve missed it: Kevin Durant, not feeling the Brooklyn Nets, has asked for a trade. This sets up an interesting dynamic, which—while no one can possibly predict what will happen in this case—could result in missed games.
When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says, “We don’t want to see it playing out the way it is now,” he’s narrating a dance that has been unfolding over decades.
The Nets have Durant under contract for another four years. What leverage could he possibly have to force the Nets to do what he wants?
Last summer, I spent a long time (over several phone calls) asking, among others, Damian Lillard’s agent (and Durant’s former agent) Aaron Goodwin what kind of leverage an under-contract star has to make demands of an organization. I made a ton more phone calls and got an earful about the emerging struggle for leverage between superstars and billionaires. Teams can withhold huge salaries; players can withhold services. If the player is a big enough star, he might be the one inflicting more pain.
It has been playing out before our eyes: This is how Anthony Davis left the Pelicans, how James Harden got his way out of Houston. It is the stark emerging reality that any star could threaten to stay home if they’re not feeling it. After even more extensive conversations with super-powerful agents and NBA GMs, the answer—role-modeled by the likes of Davis and Harden—is unambiguous: STAY HOME. Make it clear you’re willing to walk away from the NBA.
Ben Simmons’ zero games last season were attributed to a grab bag of causes over time. Mental health, back issues. But he also has Anthony Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, and at times that seemed to matter. There was also a lot of haggling between the 76ers and Paul. The 76ers fined Simmons millions for missing work; sources close to him told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that Simmons was willing to give up the money to get to the team where he wanted to play. In any case, he wasn’t ready to go all year.
Adam Silver recently discussed the issue of superstars making demands of their teams:
Everybody’s got leverage. That’s healthy in certain ways that you have players who—Kevin Durant is a perfect example, has a talent arguably—I just read the population is about to hit 8 billion—that 8 billion people minus one don’t have. I mean, that’s how special these players are.
And there are also teams that enter into binding contracts with players and [that] gives them rights, too. I mean we saw, unfortunately, this play out with Ben Simmons.
So does that mean we can’t improve the system? No.
As I said, though, it takes both us and the Players Association sitting down and I think acknowledging the principles that are at stake here, and that is the sanctity of contracts and the desire for stability that affects not just that player but other players as well.
I am hopeful. We have a very productive relationship with our Players Association. We are not necessarily going to completely eliminate players asking to be moved, but we are going to find a way to move the attention back on to the court.
Who knows how many games Durant will play next year? He has had plenty of injuries over his career. But one implication of his trade demand is that he’ll sit if he doesn’t get what he wants. If he sits, we’ll have to wonder at the cause.
Along with former colleagues like Baxter Holmes, Kevin Arnovitz, and Tom Haberstroh, we are almost a decade into reporting on the sports science which says 82 games—often four or more a week—is more than bodies can take. It once seemed like the billionaires who run the league would be forced, in the name of keeping stars healthy and on the court, to adjust the schedule.
Indeed, Silver has discussed just that.
But in the meantime, the surprising twist in the story is, for some reason or another, the 82-game schedule is dying another way.
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