The NBA playoffs are one of the best shows in sports. In more normal times, they’re a two-month marathon featuring a handful of the most athletic people in the world performing at the top of their games, with a lot of money—and a lot of legacy—on the line.
The 2021 playoffs have been a great show, but they’ve also become a brutal war of attrition. Many of the league’s best players have sustained all kinds of injuries after an unprecedented condensed season—which itself followed an unprecedented season interrupted by COVID-19.
This year, the postseason isn’t just about which team will win the NBA Finals. It’s also raising questions about how to run a sports league in a pandemic, why so many players are dropping, and how long it might take them to heal.
The NBA playoffs feel especially marred by the injury bug.
Injuries are a part of every sport, and they’ve affected the NBA playoffs just as much as any other competition. In 2019, the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in the finals, and we’ll never know if the outcome would have been different had Golden State’s stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson not been injured in the latter games of the series.
But injuries in 2021 feel more pervasive. Anthony Davis injured his groin in the fourth game of the first round against the Phoenix Suns, robbing the Los Angeles Lakers of effective play from their superstar center. The Lakers might have been able to overcome that if LeBron James hadn’t been dealing with a bad ankle that made him look like a shell of himself in that same series. For their part, the Suns were able to overcome Chris Paul’s bad shoulder to win that series; Paul has toughed it out and delivered what might be the defining postseason run of his career.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ MVP-caliber center, Joel Embiid, tore his meniscus in the Sixers’ first-round win over the Washington Wizards. The Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic had a serious nerve issue in his neck and played through it as the Mavs fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in a seven-game first-round series. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, another one of the game’s great rising stars, has had to work through an ankle sprain.
By the end of the first round, many of the league’s most important players had sustained injuries. Then the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA’s superteam of the moment, lost two of their Big Three future Hall of Famers, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, to health issues. Now only Kevin Durant remains healthy as the Nets try to find a way around the Milwaukee Bucks in their second-round series. (Harden appeared in Game 5 but does not appear to be at full strength.)
The data shows this postseason has been especially brutal. An ESPN analysis found that even excluding COVID-related absences, more players missed time to injury this year than in any season since at least 2009–10. All-Star players missed 19 percent of possible games this season, the highest rate ever. NBA players, especially the best of them, really are getting hurt more.
Could the NBA’s pandemic-altered schedule be the cause?
The NBA usually finishes its playoffs in mid- or late June. In 2020, the playoffs lasted way beyond that—until Oct. 11—because the league paused from March until the end of July while COVID-19 raged.
The league had no choice but to push back the start of the following season. But it didn’t delay much, and teams were back playing preseason games by mid-December. Teams played a 72-game regular season in less than five months, as opposed to the typical 82-game season in about seven months.
That condensed schedule put an enormous physical burden on the league’s players. They had a shorter offseason, and they had much less recovery time between games than they would get in a normal season. Given the intense schedule, it’s hard to see the increased injuries as just a coincidence.
Money made it happen.
It’s tempting to blame the NBA team owners and commissioner Adam Silver for subjecting players to a meat grinder of a season in order to chase as much profit as possible. But the league’s players wanted to play as much of the 2020-21 season as possible. They viewed it as their best path to protect their own financial well-being.
The players’ union agreed to the 72-game season on the timeline the NBA laid out after the league claimed it would lose between $500 million and $1 billion if it waited until January to start play—losses the players would share along with the owners.
This weird, painful NBA season happened for pretty much the same reason everything in professional sports happens: money. The league wanted to play a compressed schedule to make money. The players agreed to play a compressed schedule, also to make money.
As a result, the 2021 NBA playoffs have turned into a war of attrition. Like every year, the last team standing will win it all. But now it’s not just a sports cliché—it’s a statement of every remaining playoff team’s actual path to victory.
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