Injury Crisis Weighs Down Star-Driven NBA

If the NBA is built on starpower, endorsement appeal and the telegenic freedom of faces and bodies unmummified by helmets and padding, then we must ask this: What good is up-close personalization when so many major names aren’t playing?

Not a day passes, it seems, without another significant injury to another marquee player. This is becoming a dominant issue for the league, if not a crisis, because pro basketball is nothing when its marketing machines are breaking down. Three of the sport’s top players and prime jersey-sellers — Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook — are sidelined again for extended periods after being derailed by injuries last season. Another big name and merch magnet, Dwyane Wade, strategically sits out games in what could be a futile attempt to protect his chronically ailing knees for the postseason. Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Al Horford — where are they?

And here’s the one that really scares commissioner David Stern and his successor-in-waiting, Adam Silver: The biggest name in American sports, LeBron James, already has dealt with back, ankle and groin problems this season. Need I remind you that if James, Wade and the Miami Heat are to win a third consecutive NBA championship, they have to survive the injury gauntlet for almost six more months? This after relentless wear and tear on their bodies, including three Olympic Games appearances over the last 10 years, that has left both vulnerable to erosion.

“If it’s not one injury, it’s the next one,” said James, who sat out Miami’s victory in Portland with an aggravated left ankle sprain and strained right groin. “So hopefully, I can get through this one.”

The league’s spin doctors say it’s foolish to panic, citing advancements in pre-emptive medical diagnostics that detect injuries at an earlier stage and prevent bigger problems. But there’s no softening the fact that fallen megastars mean less interest in the league, yanked commercials from TV and a diluted product. The absence of Rose and Bryant is devastating, particularly when they play in two of the league’s three largest markets. Westbrook, just 25 and one of the sport’s dynamic players, has had three surgeries on his right knee in eight months. With a healthy Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder are capable of winning the NBA title — this season, they were averaging 108 points and shooting 47.5 percent with him in the lineup. Without him, they won’t survive the formidable Western Conference even with Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, emerging Westbrook backup Reggie Jackson and a talented group, dropping radically to 92.3 points per game and 41.7 percent shooting.

“He will be missed,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He was playing great basketball, probably some of the best basketball in the entire league. We’re looking forward to him coming back and getting back to the level that he has played at — and he will.”

That could be wishful thinking concerning a player who tore his lateral meniscus in April. “Russell has been playing pain free but recently had experienced increased swelling,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs. On the most recent MRI, it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place. We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate.”

All of which has led to suggestions the league pare back its current 82-game regular season. While many fans would cheer such a move, just as baseball fans would applaud a reduction from 162 games, there’s a better chance of Stern twerking on Fifth Avenue than NBA owners giving back a penny in revenues. Sure, the league missed a chance to create precedent by not punishing Houston guard Patrick Beverley, who caused the original injury by ignoring that Westbrook had stopped and signaled for a timeout, kept trying to steal the ball and knocked knees with him. If Westbrook continues to have injury issues, it could be recalled as the misdeed that cost the Thunder a dynasty.

Bryant held a news conference on Christmas Day and says he expects to return by Valentine’s Day, though you wonder why. He should be preserving his body for the next two seasons, when the Lakers have committed $48.5 million to him, and the front office should trade Pau Gasol, immerse itself as deep in the draft lottery as possible and prepare its recruiting pitches for James and other major free agents available next July. But Bryant’s ego makes him stubborn. He hears Charles Barkley and others say the end is near, and he burns to prove them wrong, even against sound logic. “It’s funny hearing all the comments and things like that. It can’t help but enhance my focus,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not something I wanted to have happen, but there’s nothing you can do about it. From that standpoint, you have to look at an injury for exactly what it is, which is something that’s going to heal, and be as strong as it ever was. I was fortunate it wasn’t a meniscus or anything else. There’s nothing I really have to do from a recovery standpoint other than letting the bones heal and letting the fracture heal. You kind of just have to look at the injury in a vacuum.”

The question isn’t whether Bryant will return. It’s whether he’s finished as a reliable elite performer. The same doubts dog Rose, who is rehabbing after tearing the medial meniscus in his right knee last month and now has had major surgeries on both knees. They aren’t even asking anymore in Chicago when Rose, also just 25, will return to the court.

They want to know when he’ll be able to sit on the bench during games, in street clothes. “Yeah, probably in the next few weeks,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters. “He’s still on a crutch and he’s got his brace, so I don’t want him sitting there when he’s like that.”

What has Rose been doing with his idle time? “He can lift with his upper body and do all his rehab stuff,” Thibodeau said. “He’s starting to move around a little bit more now. He can go in the pool and things like that.”

He can go in the pool. Wow. It’s all very sad.

And disturbing.