As injuries pile up, the NBA’s going to have to address the physical demands it puts on players

For the entirety of my NBA obsession, I have heard countless times from fans about how the league would be better off with a shorter schedule. The sport was originally conceived as a wintertime distraction, and yet training camps routinely tip off during the heat of an extended summer in early October, and the season often lasts until the third week in June. This, to many observers outside of the game, is wearying.

And for the entirety of my NBA obsession, I’ve been annoyed at the catcalls – usually coming from hoops fans that understandably don’t have the same weird devotion to the regular season as I do. The league continues to get stronger, more athletic, and faster, though. And the commitments placed on superstars or even middling players on lottery teams are growing more and more as the NBA lines up its overseas influence and bloated playoff revenue.

Even those that will skip right to the comment section can’t help but admit that averaging 35 minutes in an NBA game in 2013 is far more taxing than doing as much 30 years ago, or even in Michael Jordan’s era. It’s true that modern science and a plusher lifestyle help buttress some of these wearying concerns, but as the game continues to grow, the injuries continue to pile up.

It’s not that these players are wimps, or that they’re pampered. You simply cannot easily and artlessly compare different generations of NBA players for various reasons, and expecting modern NBA players to make it through a modern NBA season without significant levels of fatigue and/or injury is to be overlooking a litany of dangerous signs.

For years, I met the end of the NCAA basketball season with a column welcoming hoops fans to the professional ranks. Congratulating them on not having to sit through the dog days and winter months of regular season ball, and prepping them for a wild finish to the regular season and the promise of the always-entertaining postseason. That column is on hiatus this year, and not because most of the NBA’s seeds are already set, and the Miami Heat figure to barrel through the East without much complication.

The reason I’m not imploring hoop fans from all corners to come around is because this league is in a tough spot right now, and I can’t help but look to overuse and the league’s schedule as a damning influence. There’s no direct correlation between overuse and freak ligament tears like the ones that have put Chicago (with Derrick Rose) and Denver (with Danilo Gallinari) in limbo this season, but there is a direct correlation between the heel and arch injuries that Ty Lawson and Joakim Noah are working through. And the myriad other cases of wear and tear throughout the league.

Boston is continually having to shuffle veterans in and out of the lineup, and if you think this is typical for teams with older players (dating back decades), look at the sheer amount of career playoff minutes Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have had to put up as they play in the modern, extended NBA postseason. Kobe Bryant may be having a bounce-back year, but he looks nothing like the limping, knee-draining defensive sieve and 21-foot shot-chucker that got in the way of Los Angeles’ postseason hopes in 2011 and 2012. Again, those turns weren’t Kobe’s fault – he gamely tried to play through the pain. It was just that all those years of playoff ticks caught up to him in the last two postseasons.

The same goes for Pau Gasol, who also had to work through his country’s Olympic run last summer. LeBron James looks to be indestructible every time he straps on a uniform, but he’s missed three of his last four games and rumors abound that he’ll only play in the first game of his Heat’s latest back-to-back against Milwaukee and Washington. In some corners, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were made to feel bad about asking out of last year’s Olympics with a pair of debilitating injuries, even after the Heat shoehorned 89 regular season and playoff games into just six months during the “truncated” 2011-12 season.

Kevin Love appears to have come back from that Olympic turn with a knee injury that took until now to give in and go under the knife to deal with. Tyson Chandler’s back woes have persisted all season, following his gold, and Chris Paul still has to pace himself just to make it to the second round (he hopes) in one piece.

It’s not just the All-NBA First Team types that are dragging.

Jrue Holiday was the first player born in the 1990s to make the league. At just 22, he would seem to have the sort of sprightly legs that most of us get melancholy over missing a few years later when even the ice and ibuprofen don’t help. Working for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers at 38 minutes a contest, though, is starting to wear on the 2013 All-Star. In ways we’re privy to, like his off shooting nights, and in ways we won’t learn about unless we ask. From the Philadelphia Daily News:

"It's been tiring, obviously. I won't lie," said Holiday, who has shot 12-for-55 (21.8 percent) over his past three games, including a 2-for-24 stinker at Charlotte. "It's my first time really going through a season where you're averaging more than 35 minutes. It's about taking care of yourself. There's a lot of things that I can't do that other people probably can. I'm sleeping all day instead of waking up and going out and watching a movie or something. I'm in bed all day."

And the mental fatigue?

"That's something that you also have to learn," Holiday said. "I was talking to the vets, like Damien [Wilkins] and Dorell [Wright] and all the guys that have been here and been on good and bad teams and really just going through that struggle. It's just something new and something I'm trying to get through."

And to those that think these players are whining, or that we’re making excuses for millionaire athletes who are allowed chartered flight service and a top-level medical staff at their beck and call?

Well, sometimes the creature comforts can’t keep up with the speed and growth of the game. And the international play, international exhibition season, and extended playoffs (from a best-of three first round 27 years ago to a current playoff structure that could see even a dominant championship team playing 23 postseason games on the way to a title) adding to a league that is physically in the best shape of its life.

At its best shape in its peak, it should be noted. With some of the league’s best work coming in January and February with the eyes of the nation looking elsewhere, and not in a ratty April, May and June as the league’s stars limp to the finish.

As we discussed last week, the league is in a Catch-22 situation. The sheer amount of worldwide basketball talent has made a 30-team league a viable option, and if you don’t believe me while watching the Bobcats tonight, just wait on the international studs you’ll see entering the NBA in 2014 and 2015. To top that off, this is a star-dominated league. And the same fair weather fans that are clamoring for a shorter regular season are still the ones that will pay to attend a game in that one time per year a Kobe, LeBron, or Ricky Rubio comes to their city.

So, they want the NBA to eliminate games. Just not their games. Some other chump’s games, because we only get Kobe once a year.

This is why the NBA trots every team out once or (if it’s an in-conference pairing) twice a year to every road arena. And this is how the 82 games build up. And this is why LeBron James, perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport, will probably play every other game at best during the month of April.

I don’t have an easy solution. The NBA cannot turn its back on decades’ worth of 82-game history, and its owners will never stand for a loss in playoff revenue and a shortened first round. And with dollar signs in their eyes, the league’s top office likely has no plans to roll back the heavy travel involved in the internationally-obsessed exhibition season.

The answer, as it always is, will probably have to remain somewhere in the middle. NBA players can’t be expected to play every game, as is the case in the low contact MLB and or the low-output 16-game NFL season. Teams, and players, are going to have to get used to smartly resting players for occasional games throughout the season so as to avoid the fatigue injuries that are just going to pile up more and more often and with greater intensity to match the frequency.

The NBA’s schedule has yet to catch up to a league that is growing bigger, stronger, and faster. It’s now up to the teams that employ these players to match this athletic acceleration with a bit of brainpower, in order to keep these players healthy.