The NBA suspended their season last year in March. When the pandemic hit, it became unclear whether the season could be finished or not. Eventually, the NBA and NBPA came to an agreement, and the bubble was born. The NBA was able to resume the season in late July, and the Finals concluded in October.
With the current season starting in December, the offseason was an extremely short two months. There were multiple reasons for worry coming into this season, but has it been affected by the quick turnaround?
A Slow Start
An official start date for the 2020-21 season wasn’t announced until November. The conclusion was a December 22nd opening night, but starting the season later in January or even February was a potential idea early on. As a result, many players and teams planned their offseason around a much later start date.
For some players, this resulted in slow starts to the season, as they had to work themselves into shape through the first month or two. This can be seen in Luka Doncic, whose schedule was thrown off by the early start date. In December, he averaged 23.8 points on 44% from the field and 10% from 3. Those numbers increased to 28 points on 47% and 33% shooting in January. Then in February, he averaged 30 points on 48% and 43%, a return to his expected performance.
For players like Luka, the quick turnaround caused a slow start to the season and possibly affected the team as well. The Mavs had a slow start to the season, with an 8-12 record at the end of January. This was not solely on Luka, though; they also missed their other star, Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis had surgery back in October to fix an injury to his meniscus that he sustained in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. When the surgery took place, the next season wasn’t expected to begin before January. This, of course, suggests that the surgery and rehab plan were scheduled around a January start date. As a result of this, Porzingis couldn’t return until the Mavericks game on January 13th. Even after that, he didn’t look the same as his usual self for a month or two. Likely the result of a short offseason he couldn’t take part in.
The Mavericks have clearly been affected by the quick turnaround this season, and that effect is being felt around the league. Many teams had similar situations to the Mavericks. Stars underperforming to begin the season, or players missing the first few weeks.
Injuries were the biggest worry this year with the shortened offseason. A quick turnaround gives players much less time to recover AND less time to ramp up into the season. With other sports leagues going through the same situation as the NBA with the pandemic, maybe other leagues would display an injury trend?
Interestingly enough, the Premier League in England did. Similar to the NBA, the EPL finished their season later than usual and had a short offseason as a result. We also saw less time between games, just like the NBA. In October, the Athletic reported that the Premier League saw a 42% increase in muscle injuries at that point in the season. This backs up the theory applied to the NBA; a short turnaround was clearly cause for worry.
Ethan Strauss of The Athletic wrote an article on April 21st in which he talked to Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com. In the article, Jeff Stotts explained that injuries this year in the NBA are actually right on league average compared to the last 5 full seasons. So it turns out there has been no increase in injuries so far this year. The NBA echoed this sentiment, stating that injuries are slightly down this year compared to others.
It turns out the league wasn’t affected by the quick turnaround in terms of injuries. But with all the stars missing time you can’t blame people for feeling like it was. Players like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Joel Embiid all missing time makes the problem seem bigger than it is.
Playoff Teams are Hurting the Most
The quick turnaround wasn’t equally bad for every team. For the 8 teams that missed the bubble, the offseason was actually extremely long, 10 months to be exact. For the teams knocked out before the playoffs, the offseason would’ve been roughly 4 months long. But for teams that made the playoffs, especially those that went far, the offseason was brutally short. These teams are also coming off a couple of months of intense playoff basketball.
The conference finals took place last year in early October. The Miami Heat played the Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers played the Denver Nuggets. It’s expected that those teams would be most affected by the quick turnaround. Anybody who’s been paying attention to this season would tell you that they have been. We’ve seen all four teams struggle with injuries, and the Heat and Celtics have struggled to find any rhythm all year.
The Celtics have been affected by the quick turnaround all season long. Kemba Walker missed the first few weeks rehabbing from knee problems that had peaked in the bubble. It took him at least a month or two after returning to get his rhythm back, and some fans might argue he still hasn’t. Romeo Langford didn’t make his season debut until after the All-Star break as he recovered from wrist surgery for an injury sustained in the bubble.
It’s not just Kemba and Romeo that have missed time. Other players have been in and out of the lineup with various small injuries. Most notably, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams have each missed multiple games for different injuries. Combine that with all the player days they’ve missed due to the league’s Health and Safety Protocols, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Their coach, Brad Stevens, has had to run out 29 different starting lineups this year. They’ve severely underwhelmed this year due to the lack of continuity.
Similar to the Celtics, the Heat have underperformed this year, likely due to all the time missed by their players. Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro have missed significant time due to injury this year. This has stuck the Heat with the same lineup inconsistencies as the Celtics. The Heat have run out 24 different starting lineups this year, none playing more than 16 games together.
These issues have manifested in their offense this season. Last year they were the 7th offense in the NBA, with that number jumping to 4th in the playoffs. So far this year, they’ve been 24th in the league on that end of the floor. Without all their players available consistently, they haven’t performed up to expectations. Their problems are very similar to the Celtics, and both have been below par this year due to the shortened offseason.
Los Angeles Lakers
Unlike the Heat and Celtics, the Lakers and Nuggets haven’t dropped far in the standings this season. They’ve been affected by the quick turnaround in a slightly different way.
Injuries to LeBron and AD this year are clear demonstrators of these effects. LeBron’s injury has kept him out for over a month at this point. Anthony Davis just recently returned after missing roughly 2 months. There’s a good chance that these injuries are a result of less off-season time to recover. LeBron, who is now 36, puts a lot of focus on his body, like a lot. But with an offseason that short, he had no time to recover and very little time to build up and prepare for the season. Everybody is dealing with these same issues. LeBron and AD just ended up being the unlucky ones.
The Lakers have stayed afloat without their two stars but have been nowhere near the same team. Their offense has been 25th in the league so far in April, which is no surprise when you look at the roster. The loss of AD and LeBron doesn’t only hurt the Lakers; it hurts the league as well. These guys are some of the premier players in the league. Tons of fans tune in to watch them play and losing them really impacts the league.
Similar to the Lakers, the Nuggets are actually doing pretty well in the standings. Unfortunately, injuries had inflicted this team all year long, coming to a head when Jamal Murray tore his ACL against the Warriors just two weeks ago. It’s impressive that this team has kept winning despite injuries to key players, but even so, the loss of Murray will hurt tremendously come playoff time.
Recent injuries to Will Barton and Monte Morris only compound the problem for Denver. They will need Michael Porter Jr. to step up down the stretch if they want to contend in the playoffs. All these injuries happening late in the season suggests that a compressed schedule may also be a cause. After playing at the highest level in the summer and fall, this Nuggets team had just two months to recover before an extremely compressed season started again. It’s the same problem that all 4 of these teams are going through. All 4 teams have seen injuries and other troubles as a result.
A Smaller Affect than Predicted
So it’s easy to see that some teams have been affected by this shortened offseason, but others haven’t. Many people worried about the effects a shortened offseason could have as we got ready for the current season. Now that we’re near the end of this season, we can see that the effects haven’t been quite that bad. The teams that have been most affected were those that went far in the playoffs. This increased the number of games they played and shortened the rest they got. As far as being healthy this season is concerned, deep postseason runs last year were a double negative.
All things considered, the NBA may actually be lucky this year. Had the number of injuries went up, there would have been an outcry from the fans. Many people have problems with the number of injuries even though they didn’t go up. Imagine how loud the criticism would be if injuries actually were up. Or if somebody like LeBron, AD, or Embiid were out for the season instead of just a month or two.
The big problem has been some of the elite teams took a step back this year. The Heat and Celtics don’t look anything like they looked last year. Yes, there could be other reasons for that, but the short turnaround is a logical conclusion. The amount of star players missing large chunks of games has hurt the league as well. The league has definitely been affected by the quick turnaround, but it’s been to a manageable degree so far. In what’s been a crazy year, the NBA has done OK while navigating the craziness.