It was a welcome sight for fans to see Giannis Antetokoumnpo on the floor for Game 1 of the NBA Finals; the Milwaukee Bucks’ star had hyperextended his knee and missed two games during the previous round. In a postseason marred by injuries, though, it only seemed fitting that the Bucks and Suns were unable to make it even 10 minutes unscathed, as Suns forward Dario Šarić tore his ACL going for a rebound in the first quarter.
Ten All-Stars have missed a playoff game in 2021, twice as many as the next highest year since 2000, leaving more teams than ever envisioning “what if” scenarios. The Brooklyn Nets, for example, were a centimeter away from knocking Milwaukee out in Game 7, even though Kyrie Irving and James Harden each missed three games of that series.
While games missed by All-Stars are certainly the most salient measure, they don’t show the full picture of this postseason’s uptick in injuries. The Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young, for example, wasn't an All-Star in 2021 but his absence in Game 5 of a 2-2 Eastern Conference Finals was crucial: Young averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists amid a breakout postseason.
To account for frequency and severity of injuries over a broader sample of players, we can measure the percentage of potential games the average starter missed over the course of the playoffs. Through the first three rounds of the 2021 playoffs, starters missed 7.97% of possible games, dwarfing the next-highest number of the past two decades, which was 5.57% in last season’s bubble.
This injury spike has only intensified the debate about holding a 72-game regular season in a condensed schedule. The preceding offseason had also been significantly shorter than usual for teams that participated in the Orlando bubble. All the while, players missed practice and training time due to COVID-19 testing and other safety protocols.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton found the average number of players who sat out each game due to injury in the 2020-21 regular season to be 5.1, the highest since he started tracking it in 2009-10. Certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts told ESPN that players missed a combined 2,909 games to soft-tissue injuries in the regular season—the highest total on a per-game basis since he began tracking it in 2005-06. Soft-tissue injuries are often attributed to factors such as stress, insufficient rest and inability to train properly, all of which were more prevalent this season.
LeBron James recently posted series of tweets, criticizing the league for not listening to players’ concerns prior to the season regarding lack of recovery time. Suns veteran and National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul on Monday said that while injuries are unfortunate, “everything was discussed as far as the players and the full body of players” before the start of the season.
Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the apparent increase in injuries within the first 60 seconds of his NBA Finals press conference on Tuesday. “Putting aside the specific data for a second, I have no doubt that the additional stress, both physical and emotional, on them contributes to injuries,” Silver said. He pointed out that “the trend line, unfortunately, has been going up the past several years,” despite improvements in training and technology, as well as more load management.
The multi-year nature of the trend is clear. Starters have missed at least 3% of potential playoff games in each of the past seven seasons; that threshold was reached in just five of the previous 15 postseasons.
During recent years, the effect of injuries on the competitive balance of the playoffs has been undeniable. Using WARP (wins above replacement player), Pelton calculated the 10 teams in the past 40 years whose injuries to high-minutes players in the playoffs cost them the most potential wins. All 10 were from the past decade.
The injuries' impact on TV ratings remains to be determined. Overall, ratings are up from last year’s bubble, but down 10% from the 2019 playoffs, which could be attributed to a multitude of factors, including the gradual erosion of linear TV.
Some fans checked out of the conference finals when stars on both teams were sidelined. While Kawhi Leonard missed the entire Western Conference Finals for the Clippers, Paul also missed Games 1 and 2 for the Suns due to COVID-19 protocols. Those were the two least-watched games of the series despite the latter coming down to a thrilling, buzzer-beating alley-oop and the former airing on ABC, which reaches more households than ESPN, the channel that broadcast the other games.
One piece of contradictory evidence: Game 6 of the Jazz-Clippers matchup in the second round was the most-watched in the series by far, despite the absence of Leonard, who played in the first four games.
Silver also noted that instances of players sitting games due to rest was up 100% this season from 2019-20. After an injury-laden postseason, players could be even more cautious with their bodies next year.
Furthermore, the NBA plans to start next season in October to get back to the ordinary calendar schedule. That would mean yet another shortened offseason, compounding the problems of fatigue and physical stress that players are already experiencing.