Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending and gruesome leg injury, especially at this time of year, will strike fear into everyone in the NBA.
In this age of “load management” being a fancy term for “night off” and even as the NBA frowns upon resting players anyway, the question will be asked: Should teams sit their stars down the stretch to protect them from something bad happening before the playoffs?
Answers may vary, but the reality is that most teams in this season’s playoff chase might not have the luxury of finding out.
Golden State has gotten players some rest of late, been blown out in those games and hasn’t seemed to mind too much. This is the edge the Warriors have; they are the only team in the NBA right now that absolutely knows it is good enough to win a championship. Milwaukee will likely get some guys some rest when it clinches the No. 1 seed, but losing Malcolm Brogdon for a few weeks already is a reminder that health is everything.
“You’re going to have things that happen,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.
All those teams battling for their playoff lives in the East — Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami, Orlando, Charlotte — can’t really afford to give any healthy guys nights off right now. Out West, while the field is basically known — Utah, the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are all likely in, barring massive collapses — the jostling for seedings will go to the wire.
There’s analytics for everything. Every possession is charted. Every minute played matters. These are real things and helpful things in a data age, and the numbers show that rest can be an enormous aid to everyone.
But at this point in the season, luck might matter more than anything else.
Bad breaks will happen, literally in Nurkic’s case. Bad luck, if it wants to find a team, will find a team.
The Portland Trail Blazers obviously aren’t at fault, since there was no way to foresee something like what occurred Monday night when Nurkic broke his tibia and fibia — an injury that doesn’t just end his 2018-19 season but puts the 2019-20 season in doubt as well.
The thing is, it’s not avoidable. Nonetheless, the approach differs by team and by player.
“I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs,” guard Kyrie Irving said a few days ago, prior to him taking one off Tuesday night in Cleveland. “Makes no sense, the emphasis on these regular games, when you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs.”
The Celtics aren’t even assured of home-court in the first round. In fact, the odds are that they’ll open the playoffs on the road. No matter. Irving wants some rest, so he’ll likely get some rest.
Meanwhile, Toronto can pretty much pencil itself in as the No. 2 seed in the East and with home-court advantage for at least two rounds. But Kyle Lowry is playing despite bad ankles and a 33-year-old body that might benefit greatly from time off before Round 1 begins in less than three weeks.
“I can sit out until the playoffs with the type of injury that I have,” Lowry said earlier this week. “But I want to play, keep a rhythm, get out there with the guys and play some basketball. If I can get out there and play, I’m going to go play.”
The Raptors added Jodie Meeks, which should help minimize Lowry’s workload down the stretch. The Celtics added Greg Monroe, which means Al Horford likely won’t take so much of a pounding in the final games of the regular season. Golden State added Andrew Bogut, and one of the many upsides of that move is that DeMarcus Cousins should be as fresh as possible for his first playoff game ever in a couple weeks.
The Blazers will probably add someone now as well. But whoever that is, he won’t replace Nurkic’s 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, or his defense, or his spacing that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum need someone to provide so they can be at their best. The Western Conference is hard enough at playoff time, and going in without a major player like Nurkic only will make the task even harder for Portland now.
No one wanted it. No one could have predicted it. And there is no surefire way to avoid it.