Injuries, accountability, and unpredictability


Collapsed on the floor, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant knew immediately his season was over. His Achilles torn, his leg unable to bare his weight, Bryant somehow managed to bring himself to the free throw line for two points that would ultimately be the deciding margin. 

Most would say this isn't the way a legend of Bryant's stature should go out, I would argue it's the only possible way he will go, even if he returns from this. The last few weeks had been fitting, watching Bryant literally leave everything on the floor until his body simply couldn't sustain it anymore, and even then, defiantly pushing a little further after with the free throws. 

In the aftermath of the Bryant's injury there was a lot of discussion regarding the blame for Bryant's injury. In the game before the injury Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes of a narrow Lakers win over a depleted Portland Trail Blazers. The heavy load was hardly an outlier for Bryant this season, as the Lakers have needed him for nearly every available minute to keep their playoffs hopes alive. 

Many were quick to turn to Lakers' coach Mike D'Antoni, noting between Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, and Steve Nash that D'Antoni has a history of needlessly wearing down star players with heavy minutes. 

Sunday night's game between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers  was supposed to display a contrast in philosophies and the benefits of rest. Except it wasn't. Watching the Spurs lose to the Lakers, it was impossible to tell which team had their minutes carefully managed all season and which one had thrown caution to the win. 

D'Antoni had pushed his aged superstar hard all season, which some attribute to Bryant's eventual injury. It sounds plausible in theory until you consider that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has rested his players all season, and one of his stars, Manu Ginobili, is currently out with an injury. The Spurs star point guard, Tony Parker, was available, but his legs were noticeably absent. 

Few head coaches manage minutes as impeccably as the Spurs Gregg Popovich, and while it appears to have helped franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan bet back in touch with USA Today Sportsdepths of his game long thought lost, tragically the rest of the team appears to be crumbling around him despite all the precautions taken. 

Injuries happen, often for reasons beyond control. This is why no NBA championship has ever been won without a measure of good fortune. During any given NBA season there are thousands of steps taken like the one that cost Bryant his season, and it only takes one  wrong step to end a playoff run. 

D'Antoni's heavy reliance on Bryant should not be directly blamed for Bryant's injury. Sometimes bad luck is simply that. 

But that doesn't mean D'Antoni should escape accountability for the way he has managed minutes throughout his NBA coaching career. Similarly, just because the Spurs find themselves physically ailing at the worst possible time doesn't mean that Popovich's tactics are inherently wrong or useless.

In basketball, as in life, you control what you can and adapt to the things that you can't. Just because an injury can occur at any moment for any reason does not mean a team shouldn't try to shift the percentages in their favor. 

Fatigued athletes are athletes in less control of their bodies, and therefore in less control of their steps. Reactions slow, muscles don't stabilize as well, and odds of injuries increase. 

As this recent Spurs run can attest to, rest doesn't necessarily ensure success. But to some degree success is out of a coach's hands. It isn't necessarily a coach's job to win NBA championships, but to put his team in the best possible position to

Popovich and the Spurs have taken the load less traveled in doing this, and they've paid the price in terms of money and games lost, as well as some fans' ire. 

Meanwhile, it would be unfair to say D'Antonio set the Lakers up to fail, and blaming him for Bryant's injury is foolish. But the recent heavy usage, combined with insane mileage Bryant has accumulated over the years, did introduce some percentages of risk that would have made any number of injuries more likely if not the Achilles tear. 

The correlations between rest and fatigue and injuries may be hard to quantify in exact terms, but if injuries are out of a team's control, at least rest and fatigue are something a coach can definitely manage. Control what you can, adapt to what you can't. This is how teams build for success, even when they are unsuccessful.