Friday, February 15, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust (Part II)

Let's say your max-contract, perennial-MVP contender, mega-star player dislocates his finger in a game and comes out, grimacing in obvious pain. You've invested over $100M in this guy, and you hope to make a championship run not only this year but for the next 3-5 years to come. You're the medical trainer. You're on a long road trip and won't be home for another week. What do you do? Do you:

(A) Play it safe, and fly him home to get an MRI and see a hand specialist.
(B) Keep him with the team, but hold him out of games until he gets an MRI and an X-Ray that clear him to play.
(C) Tape up his finger and send him back in right away, then let him play four more NBA games before you run an MRI.

If you're Gary Vitti and the Lakers, you choose (C). How is that possible? At the least, shouldn't you go with (B), and get an MRI as soon as possible? This is Kobe Bryant!

While the Lakers have had a rash of injuries this season, they were also derailed by injuries last season. Each injury alone seems like a case of bad luck, but taken together I start to wonder about the medical people helping the players train. Maybe there is something wrong with the preventative medicine being practiced. In the past two years alone, counting ONLY injuries that caused missed games, the Lakers' injury roster looks like this:
  • Kwame Brown (knee, ankle)
  • Lamar Odom (shoulder)
  • Kobe Bryant (finger, ankle, shoulder, knee)
  • Trevor Ariza (foot)
  • Chris Mihm (ankle, ankle, ankle, ankle, heel, ankle...)
  • Andrew Bynum (knee)
  • Luke Walton (ankle)
  • Vladimir Radmanovich (ankle, shoulder while being an idiot and snowboarding)
  • Rony Turiaf (heart, ankle)
EVERY LAKERS STARTER,* AND MOST ROTATION PLAYERS, HAVE MISSED GAMES. Most rotation players have as well. Granted, Vlad's snowboarding and Rony's heart aren't the trainer's fault. But is this really to be expected? Do other teams have the same number of injuries to core players?

*Smush Parker never had a major injury. However, that's easily explained by the fact that he never expended any effort on the court. He's not really an NBA starter either. Just ask the Heat.

After the Suns traded for Shaq, a crop of stories were written about how the Suns had the best medical staff in the league. Apparently, their medical prowess is widely known and acknowledged. If the Suns medical guys could nurse Nash's bad back and Amare's reconstructed knee, the thinking went, then why couldn't they get Shaq in shape? The interesting thing isn't that some teams have better medical staffs than others. The question is why teams aren't assessing their own trainers, and trying to poach the best people from other teams.

After all, couldn't the Lakers just offer to double the salary of the Suns training staff and poach them to LA? A few million dollars invested to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in your players surely seems smart. And are teams conducting studies to benchmark their trainers against the league? With plenty of data on player injuries, rehab time, etc. corrected for personal injury history, position, and age, some econometrician should be able to come up with a pretty good model to compare medical staffs. If you owned a team, wouldn't you want to know this data, and start mimicking best practices of other teams if you couldn't steal their trainers? Or does this make too much sense?

Now, Kobe has a torn ligament that requires surgery to heal. He plans to try to play through it, and put off surgery until the offseason. Kobe's decision shows what sets him apart from other superstars in the NBA. His willingness and ability to play through pain - he scored 29 points last game with a finger that is falling off his shooting hand! - is nothing short of amazing. It's also a form of leadership that I don't think is discussed enough. Leading by example is underrated in the NBA. When LeBron sits out multiple games with a sprained finger, what is that telling the Cavs about toughness? Certainly not the same thing Kobe is telling his teammates. The rest of the Lakers better be getting the message - this is our time now. Nothing short of a championship is acceptable, even if you have to play on one leg to get there.

Even so, I'm not convinced that Kobe should wait on the surgery. With their new team, the Lakers are in this for the long haul. Maybe it's better to operate on Kobe now, let Bynum take his time to rehab his knee, and reload for a title run in 2008-09. It pains me to say that, but risking long-term damage to Kobe's hand is simply not worth it. He's already aggravated the injury by playing 4 more games, and hands are certainly an area that get hit a lot in basketball.

The saddest part about the injury is that the Lakers actually had a chance to make a legitimate title run this season. Maybe it's time to stop scrutinizing GMs and start taking a closer look at team trainers. Gary Vitti, you're on the hot seat now...

EDIT: to keep Rakesh from murdering me in my sleep, it should be pointed out that LeBron takes a beating and is one of the toughest players in the league. In no way does sitting out with a sprained finger imply that he is on the Vince Carter level of manliness.

EDIT 2: Hollinger wrote a nice piece calling for Kobe to get surgery now and return for a title run in the playoffs, with Andrew Bynum. Personally I think it is tough to get a team to readjust to two big pieces like Kobe and Bynum, but I think Hollinger makes an interesting point.

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