The NBA Is Betting Its Future on Blake’s Tendons (and It’s Not Going Well)

Teams’ increasing reliance on a handful of stars puts the game at medical risk.

Every year after the Super Bowl, when the NFL loosens its grip on Sunday afternoons, the NBA gamely steps in to fill the void. Last Sunday, the first Sunday without football since August, provided a glimpse at the league’s slate and it was uglier than Shawn Marion’s jumper. Two games scheduled to pit star players against one another turned into blowouts because some of those stars were hurt. The Clippers, without Blake Griffin, lost by 23 to the Thunder, and the Lakers, without Kobe Bryant, lost by 15 to the Cavs.

It wasn’t an anomaly. The downside of a league that builds teams around stars, is that stars can turn into black holes. When the NBA’s best players aren’t playing, the NBA might as well be the NBDL. Gone is the unpredictability that comes with LeBron James or Steph Curry stepping on the court. Is this the night they go for 60? In its place is disappointment, because hoop heads might be turning on TNT to watch the Warriors but the casual fan is there to see Steph shoot threes.

Thankfully, Curry’s played in every Golden State game this year, but he’s one of the few superstars who can say that. Paul George hasn’t played all season, Kobe is done and Carmelo Anthony is considering ending his season. Lebron has missed 10 games, Russell Westbrook has sat out 14, Dwyane Wade has missed 16 and Kevin Durant has been in street clothes more often than a jersey this season. Most recently, Anthony Davis went down with a shoulder sprain and Blake Griffin got a staph infection that’s expected to keep him out four to six weeks. That’s not everyone, of course. Dirk Nowitzki, James Harden, and Chris Paul, along with Curry, have all played at least 50 games, but in a league that schedules marquee match-ups based on big names, if the names on both benches aren’t healthy, there’s little chance the game will be close.

on Jan 21, 2015 at 7:26pm PST

If you want someone to blame for this, direct your ire to the league office. The NBA promotes its stars endlessly and schedules the same dozen teams on TNT, ESPN and ABC. In turn, the networks hype the games like they’re one-on-one matchups between Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin, or whoever’s occupying the leading role that night. When those guys don’t show, everyone loses (and with 82 games a year, it’s pretty common for those guys not to show). No one loses as much as the fans though, who are left with an uninteresting product and no reason to keep watching.

And it appears we can look forward to more of the same as teams try to prevent and anticipate injuries by giving days off, cutting minutes and generally treating players like porcelain dolls until the playoff push arrives in April. Indeed, it’s already happening. Consider LeBron’s two-week absence from the Cavs last month. He wasn’t injured. He took the time to deal with aches and pains. He called it “rest.” Blame age or back-to-backs or a secret trip to a follicular rejuvenation clinic, but once we’ve reached the point where the league’s best players can’t play at their peak without weeks of rest mid season, we’ve got a problem. Especially when it means their teams will flounder without them. The Cavs record without Lebron this season? Two wins, 10 losses. The Pacers, one of the Eastern Conference’s ascendant team for the past several years, are 13 games under .500 without George. We already mentioned all the games KD has missed this season. OKC’s record without him? Eleven wins, 16 losses. The Lakers…are a topic for a different day.

on Dec 16, 2014 at 3:55pm PST

No, not all teams are so dependent on stars. This season in Atlanta, the past few in Memphis, and the success in San Antonio after its big three’s peak have proven that balance and a great system can make up for a lack of otherworldly talent. But the Hawks, Grizz and Spurs have a problem teams relying on stars don’t have–even when everyone’s healthy, they’re boring to watch. That leads us to believe the NBA is doing the right thing by making its stars the star of the show. Those dudes make basketball fun! And that’s why we need to see them on the court. 

Photos by Harry How/Getty Images