The best thing I read about Derrick Rose’s injury came from Northwestern grad Michael Wilbon, who grew up not far from Rose’s home in Englewood. But some of it is due to Rip Hamilton’s perceptive comments on how the lockout’s compressed schedule pushed the players even harder without the ususal eff:
This season, Hamilton said, was going to be like no other. Teams would need to be more patient than ever before; players would, too. They were about to put their bodies through hell. Not just the three games in three nights, but the four games in five nights, the seven games in 10 nights, the weeks without practice and necessary rest and recovery.
Hamilton didn’t predict unprecedented injuries that day; he guaranteed them.
Players were beginning a season without a full training camp. They’d also missed the period before training camp when they would wander in after Labor Day and work out under the watchful eye of the team’s training staff for three weeks, maybe a month.
According to statistics compiled by the NBA, the number of one-game injury absences over the season’s first 60 days was up to 57 from 35 over the same period a year ago, an increase of 62.9%. Total resolved injuries, in which players have returned from their injuries regardless of length, were up to 152 from 133, an increase of 14.3%.
And in some ways it’s self-inflicted, at least from the perspective of management. The terms of the lockout prevented players from working with team trainers and team doctors, forcing players to scramble for alternate workout and rehab venues and disrupting honed routines:
“At the end of the day, the league wants it to be difficult [for the players],” one executive said. “It’s like getting kicked out of a club.”
The league tried to balance the compressed schedule and lack of training with expanded rosters to encourage use of reserves, but the compressed schedule also encouraged teams to play their stars harder. Rose’s injury can’t definitively be blamed on the particulars of the lockout—as Wilbon writes, Rose probably puts more torque on his knees than anyone in basketball, thanks to his explosiveness—but cutting off the players from the systems that keep them healthy was a shortsighted decision by the league.
It also can’t be blamed on the lockout because injuries are one of the most familiar stories of playoff time:
Which makes an old idea as fresh as ever: Would a shorter NBA season be better?
It came up again this weekend at the  MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. When Brian Burke, president and general manager of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs said that the current NBA and NHL schedules simply taxed players bodies too much, he drew nods and seconds from a panel that featured the likes of Jeff Van Gundy and Daryl Morey.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that the season is too taxing on bodies. Look no further than one of the NBA’s best coaches, Gregg Popovich, recently resting his stars for a big game against a Western rival.
Popovich also draws praise from Wilbon from his handling of the Spurs—who won the West with a record identical to the Bulls’—a team with a long, impressive record of keeping their stars comparatively healthy and handling their aging bodies well (think David Robinson passing the torch to young Tim Duncan, who is now old Tim Duncan, or the balance moving from 36-year-old Manu Ginobili to 29-year-old Tony Parker). During the regular season, only one Spur averaged over 30 minutes a game: Tony Parker. Three Bulls averaged over 30 minutes a game. Ten Spurs averaged over 20 minutes a game (all playing at least 20 games), while six Bulls did.
The NBA season is kind of broken. The season is arguably too long, and then half of the teams in the league go to the playoffs, so it’s even longer. In 2003, the first round of the playoffs was extended from best-of-five to best-of-seven, which is fairer to top seeds in that they’re less likely to get bumped by a low seed because more chances is favorable to a superior team, and thus gives them more credit for playing better during the regular season, but it also means fewer upsets (which are interesting) and makes the regular season even less relevant to the fan by comparison—at up to 28 games, it’s a one-third version of the regular season, only without the bad teams. So I haven’t payed close attention to the NBA regular season in a long time; it’s like the American equivalent of The Football League.
The Bulls actually aren’t totally doomed without Rose. (For starters, the playoffs are already watered-down.) They played well without him during the regular season:
Playing without Rose won’t be anything new for the Bulls, who went 18-9 when he was out this season. They also outscored opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions when Rose was on the bench, according to NBA.com. Only one team put up a better figure: the Bulls, who outscored opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions for the full season and a whopping 10.6 when Rose was on the court.
Rose didn’t make an average team good; he made a good one great. Bill Simmons describes them as two teams:
[S]omehow they won 50 games juggling the “Here’s How We Look With Derrick Rose” identity and the “Look How Well Everyone Bands Together When Rose Is Injured” identity, only those two realities never meshed, and now we’re in the playoffs, and I have to be honest, I don’t know what the hell to make of the Bulls.
That’s now decided. The result might not be a Finals team, but a Heat-Bulls conference final shouldn’t be unexpected. Even without Rose, they still have their secret weapon.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune