The NBA's top players can be divided into three categories at next month's All-Star game: The West, the East and the creased.
Several stars will be wearing freshly pressed suits as the result of injuries that have seemingly left no roster untouched. Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez and Al Horford have been sidelined for the rest of the season, and Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant all hope to return within the next month.
Dr. Riley J. Williams III, medical director for the Brooklyn Nets and sports medicine surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York (not to mention a lifelong Lakers fan who played football at Loyola High in Los Angeles), recently spoke with The Times about the wave of injuries in the NBA as well as what to expect from Bryant and Steve Nash upon their returns.
Does it seem like there is a significant increase in injuries across the NBA?
"It wouldn't to me anecdotally seem that we have more, but I just think we have a lot of high-profile guys who are affected this year and then you also have to take into account that we have some repeat offenders in Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, guys who have had injuries and were expected to come back and then have had a series of things that have resulted in more time and more procedures being done."
Given the spate of injuries across the league, particularly to star players, would the NBA be better served reducing its schedule from 82 to 60 games?
"What I've noticed in the majority of players, and I'm not talking about the high-end players, I'm talking about the privileged middle class, the guys who are always sort of wondering about their next contract and how much they're going to make, is that guys are working out all the time. All the time. The season's over and they go to Aruba for a week or two and sort of let their bodies rejuvenate.
"But the majority of these guys, they're playing ball, they're working out, they're with trainers and it becomes really a year-round activity. So while I agree that, yeah, the games are unique and things happen because of the intensity, there's no less of a predilection toward basketball activities even without the games.
"So I think those voids would just be filled by more practices and more working out, which, you could make an argument maybe you're less likely to get hurt. I don't know the data on that, but at the end of the day, it's just unclear to me that changing the schedule from 82 to 60 would have an impact."
Does the use of performance-enhancing drugs make NBA players more susceptible to injuries?
"Let's make an assumption that PEDs were [legally] usable and you could just use them. That would do two things: It would decrease your recovery time and allow you to probably bulk up and be more muscular. So while that may, on the one hand, protect your knees better, that increased muscularity and muscle force is going to adversely affect potentially the Achilles' tendon. So you may be less likely to get an ACL tear but more likely to get an Achilles' tendon rupture. So it's always going to be a mixed bag."
Have you seen anything like the rash of injuries confronting the Lakers where nearly half their roster is sidelined?
"The NBA physicians are a small group, so we know each other, and all I can do is say, you know, it's just a spate of bad luck. But if you look at each individual injury as an independent event, there isn't anything weird about it. Obviously, there were concerns about Steve Nash when he started and those injuries he suffered are exactly the type of injuries you would expect in a guy [that age].
"I hate to say it, but there's a reason you don't see that many 40-year-old point guards in the NBA. It's a lot of wear and tear. To provide historical perspective, it makes somebody like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was still playing beyond 40 and effectively even more amazing. As a Laker fan, remember, we never won a title in that era after Kareem retired. It wasn't until Kobe got together with Shaq [O'Neal] again that that started to happen.
"In terms of their suffering [a lot of] injuries, it usually happens to a team a year and they just happen to be that team this year."
What is your level of confidence that Nash can come back and stay on the court?
"You know, it's not like mutual funds. Past performance is a bit of a predictor of future success. Muscle strains heal. Bones heal. Degenerative back-type conditions and nerve injuries, unless there's some sort of surgical intervention to undo the damage to make more room for nerves that are being pinched, for example, is always going to be subject to a little bit of uncertainty. So if [Nash's concern about long-term durability] is really the main reason why of late he's been unable to participate, it's just very hard to predict."
Would Bryant be better served given where the Lakers are in the standings to sit out the rest of the season and let his body fully heal?
"I don't think that's the best thing and here's why: These guys are creatures of repetition. They take hundreds of shots a day from different points on the court. They run, they basically through the course of their practices and shoot-arounds and participation in play throughout the year just get so comfortable with their craft.
"So I would say, 'All right, listen. We'll use this year as a bit of a reassimilation experiment. We'll watch your minutes and you get out there and play the active game of basketball.' There's still some value to him playing live NBA games. There is nothing like it. So you really need to remember and experience what that feels like and not just sort of be dropped in the bucket and he can use that experience this year to sort of get ready for next year."
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