Brutal Capitalism and the NBA: Greed Triumphant

Basketball has been a life-long obsession.  I enjoy both the college and NBA varieties, although I mainly watch NBA playoff games, and far less often the dreary regular season charades.  We witness this year how Brutal Capitalism affects even the games we watch. At this point the NCAA is a farce, with teams of rented future NBA players (rented by the year) competing with teams composed of actual college students.  Some coaches, like Calipari at Kentucky, have abandoned all pretense of using student players.  In 2010 and 2011, by some miracle, a team composed of real students (Butler) actually made the final twice in a row.  (Duke, which won one of those games, to its credit, also uses real students.)  Jeff van Gundy, who does NBA telecasts, inadvertently pulled back the curtain when he made an unfortunate comment about Austin Rivers, son of Celtic coach Doc Rivers, during a late-season game.  The play-by-play announcer (Mike Breen?) commented that Austin Rivers had continued to attend Duke classes, even though he declared for the NBA draft: he was flying back to Raleigh after the Celtic game, to go back to school.  Van Gundy commented that if he were Rivers he would not waste his time doing that, but would fly to South Beach in Miami to enjoy himself.  Breen (?), somewhat taken aback, indicated that Austin Rivers had promised his parents he would get his Duke degree.  Van Gundy obvious thought that mattered not at all in life – he’s a former NBA coach, and it’s sad to think he had that kind of contempt for his players.  Alas, it’s even sadder to think van Gundy is not alone.

NBA fans know that the owners and players had a labor dispute; as part of the settlement, they agree to a shortened 2011-12 season.  This shortened season crammed far more games than usual into each week.  Teams regularly played back-to-back games; they even played games on three consecutive nights, in different cities.

As a former college player, I was shocked that the Players Association agreed to this schedule, because it was certain to lead to injuries.  High-level basketball destroys your body, as I can personally attest – from concussions down to broken feet.  You must have rest time between games, so that muscles can regenerate.  Young players (those under 25) are particularly vulnerable, because they are competing against older, fully mature men. Toward the end of the season, teams like the Celtics had had enough: they started resting players.  They had away games to which they did not even send key players like Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce. Imagine having paid for a ticket to watch the Celtics in Charlotte, and then having Boston leave the Big Three home for the night.

The brutal regular season has placed a premium on winning your first-round series as quickly as possible.  The Heat will beat the Knicks 4-0 and the Thunder may well win 4-0; the extra rest they get will be a tremendous advantage this year.  The Thunder, in particular, are very vulnerable: their three main stars are all under 25 and classic candidates for an injury in this shortened season.  Because of his style of play, Westbrook is their highest risk.

Let’s review what has happened so far.  One young star after another has been injured.  Many of them (like Rubio in Minnesota or Lin in NY, or, now, Derrick Rose, last year’s MVP) have suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments, a classic fatigue injury (I know, because I’ve had both of my ACLs replaced).  All over the league, teams have fallen apart:  Atlanta is down to its third-string center (and Josh Smith, their star forward, is also hurt); Ray Allen has missed a month of the season in Boston; the Knicks have lost not only Lin but Amare Stoudamire (and various lesser players);  Joachim Noah, the Bulls’ other major star, is also injured.

Rose, quite apart from his recent ACL tear, had missed nearly half the season with other injuries:  again, speaking from personal experience, other leg injuries often lead to a torn ACL, because you compensate unconsciously for the injured leg, and thus develop improper balance.  Rose surely blew out his ACL on the jump stop (me, too):  I can attest that life has few scarier moments than the one when you are in the air, after having blown the ACL, and know you must come back down on it.

This plague of injuries stems from greed.  The owners don’t care about the players: they care about money.  Even from the greed perspective, it’s hard to understand why owners would jeopardize their long-term investment in a player like Rose (the Bulls owe him nearly $100 million), in return for a short-term gain, but that’s the nature of Brutal Capitalism, isn’t it?

The NBA has plenty of company.  The recent travesty of the Champions League semi-finals in European football offers a perfect example.  Barcelona and Real Madrid played on Sunday, in a match that decided the winner of the Spanish league.  On Tuesday, Barcelona, with only one off day, had to play Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final.  Spectators got treated to the remarkable spectacle of Lionel Messi hitting the crossbar with a penalty kick.  When are great players most likely to shoot high in that situation?  When they have a tired hamstring.  [World Cup fans will remember the final years ago, when the Italian stars Baggio and Barese both shot over the top of the bar in the final penalty shoot-out.  Both players had been treated for hamstring cramps during the overtime.]  On Wednesday, it was Real Madrid’s turn to look exhausted, losing a home match to Bayern Munich.  Fortunately, no players suffered severe injuries.

Next season, in the NBA, we will see more predictable injuries.  Many, indeed most of the big men who have recently entered the NBA at age 19 have suffered severe injuries.  The most obvious case is Oden at Portland, but Andrew Bynum of the Lakers began his career with a serious injury, as did Amare Stoudamire: both have had microfractal knee surgery.  Anthony Davis, from Kentucky, is an amazing player, and has a chance to be the dominant player of the next decade if he stays healthy, but the chances he will remain uninjured playing an 82-game schedule against full-grown men, are slim.  Davis will be a prime candidate for an ACL tear or another serious leg injury.

A smart team would limit his minutes, say to 20 or 25 per game, and make sure he did not play more than two games a week.  Given that he will surely go to some woebegone outfit like Charlotte, don’t count on it.  You get a sense of how well-run a team Charlotte is by noting that they just fired coach Paul Silas.  Hmm, now Silas was one of the NBA’s greatest rebounders: think he might be able to help Davis (should they get him) learn some of the tricks of that trade?  Couldn’t you just keep Silas on the payroll as a special consultant?

Ah, but that costs money, and someone also has to pay for the fiasco of this season in Charlotte.  That the BC way.  Unfortunately, the BC way is also to use up human capital, whether it’s the $10/hr interchangeable parts at your local big box store or Derrick Rose, who is scheduled to make over $15 million next year.  Memo to the Bulls: he won’t be back to 100% mentally as well as physically for between 9 and 12 months.  Instead of trying to get him back for the start of the season, let him sit out until the All-Star break.

The dismal failure of the BC approach perhaps taught Chicago Bulls ownership a lesson, but I’m guessing they will make the same brutal capitalist calculation next year:  Rose on the court in November will sell more tickets, and raise TV ad revenue (far more important).  He’ll want to get back as soon as he can, and the public relations campaign will emphasize his tough guy determination as the reason for his miraculous early season return.

Well, Derrick, all I can say is, don’t believe a word of that tough guy bs.  You want to win a title in 2013?  Come back in February.

Update, May 18th (the above written on May 5th).  Miami beat NY, 4-1.  Even so, Chris Bosh has suffered a bad injury and they have looked very shaky without him.  Reports suggest that D Wade is also fighting several injuries (as he did in the regular season, when he missed quite a few games).  His style of play takes a heavy toll on the body.  The LA Clippers are crippled by injuries to their biggest stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.  Paul Pierce of the Celts has a knee injury.  At the moment, the two healthiest teams, by far, are San Antonio and OKC.  San Antonio, not coincidentally, has the deepest bench in the NBA: their starters play far fewer minutes than those of most other teams.  Tim Duncan averaged 28 minutes a game; LeBron James played 39 minutes a game (D Wade 36).  San Antonio only had one player (Tony Parker) who played more than 30 minutes a game (32); LAC had three – Paul (injured), Griffin (injured), Billups (injured, out for the year).

If we look at the other teams, we see Boston’s starting five all played over 30 minutes a game: two are hurt (Pierce and Allen).  Miami had three: two are hurt (one out).  The Lakers’ big three (Bryant, Gasol, Bynum) all played over 35 minutes a game – their woeful inconsistency in the playoffs has a lot to do with fatigue, I think.  Indian had only one player (Granger) average over 30 minutes (three others at 29).  OKC had three – Durant, at 38 m/game played way too many minutes.  Philly had two (Holiday and Iguodala).

To go back to the Lakers, very few players in the league averaged over 35 minutes a game. If we take the remaining 8 teams:  Boston, none; Philly, Iguodala; LAC, Paul and Griffin; San Antonio, none; Indiana, none; Miami, James and Bosh; OKC, Durant and Westbrook.  Three of the seven players on this list are injured.  If we drop the bar to 34 minutes a game, we add two more, Pierce and Allen for the Celtics: both are injured.  D Wade came in at 33.2 minutes (partly due to short stints in several games, due to injury);  he’s playing 37 minutes a game in the playoffs.   It’s hard to see how Miami can win with Wade and James playing nearly 40 minutes a night.   Rondo is playing 41 minutes a game for Boston, and Pierce and Garnett are close to 38 minutes.

Just looking at the minutes played distribution, in this shortened, brutal season, Indian and San Antonio look like the best candidates for the finals.  Boston needs to finish off Philly in 5 to have a chance, and then hope for Miami and Indiana to go 6 or 7, so the Celts get a rest.  OKC has to hope their three wunderkinder hold up under all those minutes.  Miami needs for LeBron to go for 40 every night, and for Wade to get some pine time to rest some of those injuries.

The two freshest teams left in the playoffs are San Antonio (easy #1 in that category) and Indiana.  San Antonio has won 16 games in a row, going back to the regular season, by an average of nearly 17 ppg.  Coach Pop deserves a lot of credit for understanding that in this stupidly scheduled season, spreading the minutes has been, and will continue to be, the key to success.  SA and LAC play back2back games this weekend – in the playoffs, that’s a real abomination.  If Griffin plays 30 or more minutes on Sat and then plays against on Sunday, he will get injured.  Look for Duncan to play limited minutes in the first 3 quarters on Sat.

When SA wins the title, maybe Brutal Capitalists everywhere will learn a lesson.







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