The 2012 NBA Finals between the Heat and Thunder were the high-point of a league-wide shift towards floor spacing and away from post play. This season, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have separated themselves even further from their peers, looking poised to wage many more championship bouts over the next decade. Just like Michael Jordan, who never saw a Hall of Fame 7’0 in any of his six NBA Finals appearances, they may be the biggest beneficiaries of a lost generation of big men.
From 2002-2007, four centers were taken No. 1 overall. Six years later, the only one currently playing is coming off major back surgery. Yao Ming and Greg Oden are out of the NBA entirely, no one knows when Andrew Bogut and Andrew Bynum (taken 10th) will be back and Dwight Howard has been a shadow of himself in Los Angeles. Howard was supposed to be the centerpiece of a title contender and one of the faces of the league, not the hobbled captain of a ship that be sinking. Something is happening to the NBA’s best big men and the league needs to figure out what to do about it.
Of course, this is hardly new. NBA history is chock full of big men with careers cut short by injury, from Bill Walton to Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie. A 6’10+ human being is in the 99th percentile of height, an extreme physiological outlier in every sense. Maintaining proper circulation to the extremities at that size is difficult enough, even before accounting for a brutal year-round playing schedule with preseason, regular season, postseason and international games.
Nor can the injuries be pinpointed to one part of the body. Yao was undone by his feet and ankles. Oden and Bynum combined for at least six major knee surgeries before the age of 25 while Bogut has had numerous seemingly flukish injuries to his elbows, hands, wrists, knees and ankles. In his time with Orlando, Howard earned the “Superman” nickname by being nearly one of the NBA’s true ironmen. When I saw him in Dallas, his back was so stiff it didn’t look like he could bend over and pick a quarter off the ground.
The easy answer to the injury question is the size of modern centers. Like every other position in the NBA, they’ve grown bigger, stronger and faster over the last 50 years. We may have reached the natural end-point in terms of how big someone can be and stay healthy over the course of an 82-game NBA season. Yao was listed at 7’5 310 while both Oden and Bynum checked in at 7’0 285. Even in a game of giants, those three stood out in the crowd. The average center last season was only 6’10, 250.
Yet Shaq, generously listed at 7’1 325, carved out a long and relatively healthy NBA career, not breaking down until he was in his late thirties. How was he able to avoid the debilitating injuries that have plagued his successors? It certainly wasn’t his commitment to physical fitness. Was his decision to recover from injuries “on company time” ultimately a good thing for the companies that employed him? These can’t be academic questions, not when franchises worth hundreds of millions of dollars rest in the balance.
Baseball has a similar dynamic with young pitchers, simultaneously the most valuable and most fragile assets in the sport. The difference is that the MLB has made a proactive attempt to protect their players. Over the last generation, the game has changed dramatically. Complete games have gone from commonplace to practically non-existent while pitch counts have taken over the sport. Last season, the Washington Nationals famously shut down Stephen Strasburg just to avoid the possibility of an injury.
That’s not a scenario you’ll see too often in the NBA, where players are given the majority of the blame for being “injury-prone”. However, you can just as easily say that certain teams are more injury-prone than others. There is as wide a range of competence among the league’s 30 medical staffs as there is among its 30 front offices. The Phoenix Suns are proof of that.
Maybe it’s the warm climate that attracts so many other retirees, because something about Phoenix is a tonic for the NBA’s most injury-prone players. Steve Nash and Grant Hill missed 41 total games in their last four seasons with the Suns. They’ve already missed 61 (!) in their first year in Los Angeles. Here’s how many games Shaq played in his last five seasons: 40, 61, 75, 53, 36. Guess which was his only full season with the Suns. Michael Redd played almost as many games with Phoenix (51) in last year’s lockout-shortened season than he did in his last three (61) with Milwaukee. Jermaine O’Neal has been relatively healthy for them this season. Jermaine O’Neal!
I’m not a doctor and I’ve never stayed at a Holiday Inn Express; I really have no idea what makes the Suns different from everyone else. Here’s one interesting article about their “secrets”. Whatever their methods, the Phoenix medical staff should be like the San Antonio front office, with disciples spreading a proven philosophy far and wide throughout the league. However, accountability for a position that rarely gets much media attention will only happen if the players demand it through free agency.
Bynum and Howard will be unrestricted free agents this summer, while Oden will be looking to make a comeback. In choosing a team, their first priority has to be choosing a franchise with a world-class medical staff. If Phoenix can give those guys a measurably better chance at staying healthy, that’s a pretty big deal. Maybe there’s no answer to the riddle of keeping big men healthy in the modern NBA, but if anyone can crack the code, it’s the Suns. I don’t want to be writing the same article about Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors a decade from now.