NBA Players Are Ready to Return to Basketball. But Are Their Bodies?

Believe it or not, we are quickly approaching the restart of the NBA season. After a hiatus that has lasted over four months, most of the players have arrived in Orlando to enter the NBA’s bubble and (hopefully) conclude the season. The 22 teams left in playoff contention will hold training camps and intersquad scrimmages to prepare their players for what should be a grueling and exciting conclusion to the 2019-2020 NBA season. At the end of the month, each team will play eight games to finalize playoff seeding; the playoffs will then begin on August 17th.

While many fans are eager to cheer on their favorite players and teams as they head into the home stretch, several players across the league have voiced concerns about the restart, including the increasing number of cases in Florida, the potential to distract from important social justice causes, and the injury risk due to extended time off the court. While all three are significant concerns, this post will attempt to analyze whether fans should expect their favorite teams to be without their best players due to injuries sustained on the court during the restart.

While this represents an unprecedented event in NBA history, we can look back at the 2011 NBA lockout as an imperfect comparison. When the 2005 collective bargaining agreement expired, owners and players were not on the same page financially. The two sides failed to come to an agreement until November 26th and did not end up playing games until Christmas Day—well past the scheduled start date of November 1st. Between July 1st and December 1st, players could not access their team’s facilities, trainers, or staff. Because of the delay, teams had to settle for a shortened training camp and preseason before beginning the season. Many of these developments resonate with what current players are facing as they head into their respective training camps. Thus, if there was a significant uptick in injuries after the 2011 lockout, it is quite possible that there would be a similar increase this year.

To answer this question, I gathered injury data from the site Pro Sports Transactions, which lists transactions across sports leagues such as trades, suspensions, and injuries. I examined data between the 2010-2011 season (one season prior to the lockout one) and the 2018-2019 season (one season prior to this one). I believe that this represents a worthwhile sample to examine injury trends. After compiling the injury information, I divided the data into two—one examining the full season and the other examining just the first eight games of the season. Since each team will be participating in at least the eight seeding games during the restart, it is important to see whether there were more injuries early on in the season before players were fully warmed up. The results can be found in the two charts below:

Full Season

SeasonGamesDaysInjuriesInjuries/GameInjuries/Day
2010-20118217091011.097560985.352941176
2011-2012661245508.3333333334.435483871
2012-2013821705897.1829268293.464705882
2013-2014821705757.0121951223.382352941
2014-2015821707348.9512195124.317647059
2015-2016821707619.2804878054.476470588
2016-20178217091011.097560985.352941176
2017-201882177120014.634146346.779661017
2018-20198217785610.439024394.836158192

First Eight Games

SeasonGamesDaysInjuriesInjuries/GameInjuries/Day
2010-2011822176228
2011-201282111314.1255.380952381
2012-201382212415.55.636363636
2013-201482112115.1255.761904762
2014-201582114017.56.666666667
2015-2016822160207.272727273
2016-201782115319.1257.285714286
2017-201882022628.2511.3
2018-201982111514.3755.476190476

Based on the two charts, it is clear that there were not additional injuries during the 2011-2012 lockout season. This holds true when looking at injuries per game and injuries per day across both the entire season and the first eight games. In fact, the lockout year actually had fewer injuries during the first eight games than any other season this decade. This could potentially be explained by players choosing not to play as hard as they ease into the season—something that some teams may have the luxury to do this year but certainly not others.

While the conclusions of this brief study pose a more optimistic view for potential injuries during the NBA’s restart, there are certainly some other factors to consider. As mentioned earlier, the circumstances surrounding the 2011 lockout and this year are quite different. While players did not have access to their typical resources from their teams, they still had the ability to play competitive basketball during their time off. Some players chose to play overseas, others engaged in pick-up games with teammates, while others held organized workouts with their teammates. These luxuries were not available to players during this year’s hiatus. In addition, only information regarding the number of injuries was available for this study. It is possible that, while there were not more injuries during the lockout season, the ones that were suffered were more severe. This hypothesis is supported by a study conducted after the 2011 NFL lockout, as well as the fact that the NBA is providing players with additional insurance in case of career-threatening injuries sustained during the restart. So, while fewer players may get injured during the final couple of months of the NBA season, a lot could still go wrong for players during these uncertain circumstances.

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