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October 21 2021 8:24 PM ˚

Was the NBA Season Too Much Too Soon?

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) reacts against the Phoenix Suns in the first half during game five in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Phoenix Suns Arena, June 2, 2021. (Photo: Reuters)
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The Los Angeles Lakers will not play another game until October, but LeBron James is apparently not ready to stop dunking. Fresh off the maiden first-round playoff exit of his career, James responded to a cresting wave of injuries to marquee stars with a social media scolding of the NBA.اضافة اعلان

It followed a sobering bulletin about the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, who is out indefinitely after spraining his knee in the Clippers’ second-round series against the Utah Jazz. James took to Twitter to commiserate with fans about the record-setting eight current All-Stars who have missed at least one game this postseason. He also criticized league officials for not doing more in this pandemic season to “protect the well being of the players.”

By more he meant less: James said he warned them of the injury risks in wedging a 72-game regular season between Dec. 22 and May 16, with the playoffs timed to end right before the Tokyo Olympics, compared with starting in mid-January and possibly playing fewer games. The 2019-20 season, remember, strayed into October and spawned the shortest offseason in league history after a four-month interruption because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season,” James wrote. “I knew exactly what would happen.”

Self-serving? Yes. Vague? Yes again. There was an undeniable whiff of convenience to James’ remarks, as a rationalization for the swift end to the Lakers’ title defense, along with a lack of clarity. James did not specify who was warned, or when or where. He was also surely aware that the league and the players’ union agreed on the 2020-21 season schedule and that starting later, as James had hoped, likely would have cost both parties significant television revenue.

Yet the soliloquy, above all, amounted to a loud and powerful “told you so” from James that drowned out the disclaimers. It carried more bite than his recent blasts about staging an All-Star Game in Atlanta in March, and protests against the playoff play-in tournament that his Lakers, after long-term injuries felled both James and Anthony Davis, had to win to make the playoffs after slipping to seventh place in the West.

Beyond the uncomfortable spotlight he brought to a dampened NBA postseason increasingly defined by who isn’t able to play, James said what so many of his fellow players have surely been thinking — using his biggest-in-the-game megaphone. The outburst highlighted a prime concern in front offices and among medical staffs throughout the league: What cost, present and future, did the stacking of two pandemic seasons with such a short turnaround impose?

The players’ union agreed to that timeline after learning that the NBA’s television partners pushed for it. The players, who split annual basketball-related income almost evenly with team owners, were told that starting in January instead of December would cost roughly $500 million in revenue, after last season’s shortfall of $1.5 billion. No less important to the league office was the opportunity to wrap this season up in time to return to its usual October-through-June arc in 2021-22.

In retrospect? It was a giant ask. The physical and mental toll of last season’s restart in the Florida bubble, combined so soon with the rigors of a season in home markets governed by strict COVID-19 protocols, had teams fearing a spate of soft-tissue injuries. Daily coronavirus testing cut into rest and recovery time. Player stress and training time lost, with fewer practices and a second-half crush of games to make up for earlier virus-related postponements, only increased those fears.

As the number of injuries to stars — because of bad luck or the compressed schedule — became a dominant second-half story line, questions surfaced. One of the biggest: How will the franchise cornerstones who shoulder such demanding loads rebound next season?

“I don’t know if people do get the question you asked,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers told me. “There’s so much stress on those guys. Some guys log heavier minutes — they have to do more.”

Rivers’ All-Star center, Joel Embiid, is one of those guys. Embiid has been playing through a small meniscus tear in his right knee. After a roaring start to Philadelphia’s second-round series against Atlanta, he was unable to prevent the top-seeded Sixers from falling into a 3-2 series deficit entering a Game 6 on the road.

Those eight All-Stars who have missed at least one playoff game include Embiid. The number will swell to nine if Phoenix’s Chris Paul, who this week entered the league’s health and safety protocols, has to miss any of the upcoming Western Conference finals.

As I’ve been writing since April, there is little charm to be celebrated from the uncharacteristically wide-open nature of these playoffs when the suspense largely stems from game- and series-changing absences.

Kevin Durant uncorked a performance for the ages (49 points in 48 minutes) on Tuesday to haul the Brooklyn Nets to the brink of the Eastern Conference finals despite Kyrie Irving’s absence with a sprained ankle and James Harden’s limited effectiveness on a strained right hamstring. On Wednesday, Atlanta’s Trae Young starred in a remarkable Game 5 comeback against the 76ers — or, depending on your perspective, Philadelphia’s unfathomable fold. Then the Leonard-less Clippers beat top-seeded Utah in Game 5 on the strength of a dominant showing by Paul George.

These are the things we should be dissecting.

Over and over, sadly, injuries have changed the conversation. They affect every season, true, but the intrusions have seemingly been a constant since March 20, when James (high ankle sprain after Atlanta’s Solomon Hill collided with him) and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball (fractured wrist after crashing to the floor) were hurt on the same day. Ball’s injury threatened his surging campaign for the Rookie of the Year Award, but after missing 21 games, he returned for the final 10 and received the honor on Wednesday.

Elias circulated last week that this season’s 27 All-Stars combined to miss a higher rate of games (13.7 games per player and 19 percent overall) than in any previous season. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union, declined to comment on Wednesday when asked if James had raised his concerns about such developments in consultation with union officials before the season.

“I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year,” James said as part of his rim-shaking social media post.

On this occasion, and this topic, they were comments heard — and felt — by an entire league.

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