Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is latest injured NBA player; is schedule to blame?
The NBA lost another star player to injury on Friday.
This time it happened in Salt Lake City, where the Utah Jazz were playing host to the Indiana Pacers. Jazz star Donovan Mitchell leaped to try to disrupt a pass by Indiana’s Edmond Sumner, got tangled up with Sumner and turned his right ankle when he landed.
Mitchell, who leads Utah in scoring at 26.5 PPG, was helped from the court and didn’t return.
Although the NBA-leading Jazz (42-14) came back to beat the Pacers 119-111, there was plenty of concern around the team. Mitchell did not address the media after the game, opting for treatment instead.
On Saturday, ESPN reported that an MRI revealed no structural damage in the ankle, but Mitchell was still expected to miss "several games."
The injuries to prominent players have caused some rumblings in NBA circles about the 2020-21 schedule, which was compressed in an attempt to make up for the havoc wreaked on the league last season by COVID-19.
Those rumblings have only grown louder over the past week, with the injuries to Mitchell and Murray.
"We understood coming into this year, even going into the bubble, that this season was going to be different, this season was going to be compressed, and we’re going to have to take care of our bodies the best we can," Jazz guard Mike Conley said Friday. "We know that injuries come from lack of rest and not having as many days off and having to travel every night."
Nuggets coach Michael Malone made similar comments earlier in the week.
"You can see the fatigue on our players," he said. "You can see it on their bodies, in their body language."
Indeed, Denver's Murray hadn’t played in eight games heading into the night he got hurt, as he had been nursing a sore knee.
And it isn't only the Nuggets and Jazz who are worried about increased risk of injury. In a story written by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes earlier this week, several NBA personnel expressed concern.
One called the compressed schedule "brutal." Another said, "I’ve never experienced anything like our injury spate."
One assistant coach said, "Hands down, it’s the worst schedule I’ve seen in 25 years in the league. It’s utterly insane."
There is no denying that NBA teams are being forced to shoehorn more games into a smaller window this season. In the nine-plus weeks from the All-Star break to the end of the regular season, teams have to endure three-games-in-four-days stretches an average of 13.9 times.
To some extent, all of this makes sense. The NBA is still reeling from the chaos of a 2019-20 season that was interrupted by COVID-19. Eventually, the season was completed in a bubble in Orlando, but it didn’t end until October, when the Los Angeles Lakers outlasted the Miami Heat for the championship.
The 2020-21 season started just two months later, and the league has crammed 72 games into 146 days in order to not only move toward a normal timeframe but also finish before the Olympics are scheduled to begin in late July.
The result is that NBA teams are averaging 3.6 games per week — 3.75 after the All-Star break. In a normal season, teams play about 3.42 games per week.
"Playing every other day for six weeks is a problem," one general manager told ESPN.
Given all of this information, it might seem obvious that the schedule has caused problems. In addition to Mitchell (ankle) and Murray (knee) going down this week, the list of stars currently out from injuries includes the Lakers' LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf), the Nets’ James Harden (hamstring) and the Bulls’ Zach LaVine (health protocols), as well as prominent rookies LaMelo Ball (wrist) of the Hornets and James Wiseman (knee) of the Warriors.
Even so, the NBA has defended its scheduling, claiming that injuries are actually down 6% this season.
"Injuries are incredibly unfortunate," NBA executive David Weiss told NBA.com. "We hate to see them. They’ve always been a part of the game, and how we’re seeing them this year is not that different from how we’ve seen them in recent seasons: lower than some, higher than others."
According to the league, there are 43 players who have missed no more than one game this season, nearly double the number who did so last season.
But there is evidence that star players have been impacted. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 2021 All-Stars have missed 15% of games this season, which would be the second-highest rate in NBA history.
Teams seem to believe there is an issue, with many shortening practice time and abandoning game-day shootarounds in favor of more rest.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out. Because when it comes time to determine a champion, it could be depth and health that end up making the difference.
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