The Stages of Injury

Snapshots of an NBA career through Injury

By Ishaan Mishra

October 29, 2015

Injuries happen. They evoke gut wrenching visceral responses in viewers, cause front office’s to rethink entire season’s worth of strategies, and they make players think twice about how they play. That’s the harsh reality of the NBA. Injuries are inevitable, and unfortunately, it often seems as if these injury situations are progressively becoming more prevalent as more and more major stars go down with injuries that have completely reshaped the playoff pictures, draft odds, and fan sentiment. 

One way to examine the differences player's face in coming back from an injury, is to compare and contrast snapshots of currently injured players and how they are making a comeback from their respective injuries. Each situation is unique, and the recovery for each of these injuries is dependent on some very different things. On one end of the spectrum you have the youngbloods like Jabari Parker and Julius Randle just looking to make their mark on the NBA, and on the other you have players like Kobe Bryant attempting to write a swan song amidst the looming threat of a career ending injury. These examples illustrate the different stages of injury, and bring to light just how unique each situation is for each of these players. 

It seems counterintuitive, with improving medical technology, and recovery techniques that speed up how quickly a player can get back to contributing for a team, one would assume that the incidence of injuries would go down, but just in the past year, we have witnessed so many players go down, that the injuries span the length of an entire NBA career. That is to say, for pretty much every stage in an NBA career, there was an injured NBA player or two that corresponded to it, from the early rookie stages of a basketball life, to the bittersweet twilight of an NBA storyline. 

The truth is that an NBA career is usually pretty short, and an injury can tragically end the story of a promising prospect before they even get a chance to prove themselves. These athletes are fragile, just like us, and understanding this can be tough when all of our perceptions of these athletes are based upon performing superhuman feats of athleticism, when in reality, at the end of the day, they are just as human as we are. 

The complexity of any given injury is often understated, and the litany of factors that go towards successfully from an injury differ for different players, at different times during their careers. The the environment in which we are hurt, and the environment in which we heal are both interconnected with each other. The expectations, the psychological pressures, the internal struggles that come along with any injury are just as huge roadblocks in a player's career as anything else. The expectations surrounding a comeback can create a multitude of factors that not only affect the length of your recovery, but also the efficiency and confidence with which you make your return. 

At the end of the day, it is all about context, and successfully recovering from any injury requires a very nuanced understanding of all the factors that are in play during the recovery process. At different stages during your career, these factors are going to differ based on physical, as well as psychological and sociological pressures. 

Every comeback story from injury is a multifaceted journey that requires facing various setbacks and coming to terms with them in the context of your NBA career. As you mature, you develop new understandings of what the impact of an injury is, and how to deal with it. Within the context of a larger NBA career, injuries can be the end all be all, or they can just be another bump in the road. What determines whether you end up as a bust or make an inspirational comeback is how you tackle the unique, subjective, and treacherous monster that is injury.


Could your story be over, before it has even begun? For players just entering the NBA, the pressure to perform is often times overwhelming and at this stage of your career, an injury can become a reputation defining factor for your legacy. At a time where you are developing your core identity and figuring out who you are, there are few things that can derail the evolution of your game and the maturing of your personality like an injury. 

For the youngbloods who have gone down this past season like Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, the looming legacies of rookie busts like Greg Oden and Sam Bowie may raise the specter of doubt within them. Young players carry with them the label of potential and expectations that they have to live up to and when they suffer an injury this early in their career, all of these expectations are put under further scrutiny. Any shortcomings in your game are magnified as the fan base and the front office have a newfound chance to examine the future repercussions of this injury. 

Randle and Parker face the constant struggle of living up to their draft status, fan expectations to rehabilitate a franchise, huge multinational endorsement deals for sneakers and sports drinks, not to mention the pressure of finally providing for their friends and family now that they are given their first multi-million dollar deal. 

When you talk about expectations it doesn’t get too much bigger than being a lottery pick, especially in a class as vaunted and highly praised as the 2014 draft. Furthermore, when you come from a university program as vaunted as Duke or Kentucky, you carry their banner on your back. No one wants to be the next Christian Laettner with an illustrious college career, and a lackluster NBA showing.

During this period of an NBA career, all eyes are pointed toward the future, and that is why any injury at this stage is magnified tenfold and it is up to the youngbloods to figure out whether his story is going to be more like Kevin Durant, or more like Greg Oden, more like Sam Bowie, or more like Michael Jordan. There are success stories of young players overcoming injury in the NBA and living up to the expectations. Just look at Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, or even the reigning MVP Steph Curry who all dealt with health struggles early in their careers. Overcoming the physical and mental roadblocks of an injury this early in their careers is a struggle, but not impossible. 


An injury in the prime of your career is perhaps the worst possible scenario in terms of fueling fan nightmares and derailing your team’s shot at capitalizing on that oh so devilishly short championship window. At this stage of your career, fans have glimpsed what a player is capable of and have seen just how good of a performer they can be, so the possibility of that being snatched from your on the precipice of a championship run can be devastating. That is why the injuries suffered by guys like Kevin Durant and Paul George evoke such uneasiness amongst fans. We have seen the damage they can do, and just how integral a piece of the puzzle these guys are, so seeing them go down and losing such a vital and important part of your team can have catastrophic consequences.

Look no further than the roller coaster ride fans of the Chicago Bulls have been subjected to by the repeated injury scares to their hometown superstar Derrick Rose for how an injury during the prime of a player’s career can change the entire trajectory of a franchise. For most of these players, this time period is right as they stand at the precipice of superstardom, or right in the prime years of their career. A player’s prime will mark the short window in which they are truly at the top of their game, and in a league where the average career length is a mere 4.8 years, the window to win a championship while dominating the league can come and go quite quickly. 

These are the years that define legacies and build brands. It’s the time when players have a signature shoe line, their own commercials, their jerseys fly off store shelves, and the all-star votes pour in. An injury at this stage is devastating, and can quite frankly divert the entire trajectory of your entire NBA experience. Stunting growth and development at this stage with injury can hinder many avenues for a player, whether they are on the court, in their personal lives, or even within the domains of sponsorships and brand endorsements. In its most sinister incarnation, an injury at this stage of a career can reveal itself to be a reoccurring issue and linger around not just for the rest of your career, but for the rest of your life.

The question for T-Mac, for Penny, Brandon Roy, Grant Hill, or even for Derrick Rose was always whether or not they will ever be the same player they were before injury.  These players tantalized us with glimpses of greatness and we were forever left wondering how much they lost of themselves once they got injured. Their legacies are left feeling incomplete because we knew from what they showed us early on in their career that these players were destined for greatness. Just look at the resumes of some of these players; youngest ever MVPs, all-star starters, international superstars, and players who even had their own series of commercial’s based around a talking action figure. These were guys who were on the track to become huge, only to be derailed by injuries that made them shell’s of the players they once were.


Guys like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh have made their reputations in the NBA. Fans know what to expect from them year in and year out, but when they went down with two very different injuries our expectations of them did change.

Bosh went through a horrifying medical ordeal involving blood clots in his lungs that many wouldn’t define as a true injury, but pretty much anything that keeps you bedridden and introduces the possibility of harm can be construed as just as much. Meanwhile, Carmelo underwent debridement surgery to remove dead tissue in his knee that had been nagging him for the past couple of years, indicative not of a run of the mill precautionary procedure, but rather a sign of impending compounded issues that continue to impede his ability to play at the top of his game. 

Age 30 is around the time for an NBA player when they begin to look back at their earlier years in the league and realize just how quickly it all goes by. It is at this point of an NBA career when you finally go over the proverbial hill into being labelled a bonafide veteran player and elder statesmen of the NBA. Time keeps moving, and a player's prime can flash by in just a couple of years, and you are left not knowing where the seasons went and how you ended up with so many games gone by and so many lost opportunities and unexplored possibilities. As the years stretch on, injury begins to loom as a very real threat. 

For the first time in many of these players careers, the aura of invincibility present for so long, begins to fade as the physical struggles and become much more pressing and the tiny issues that plagued you throughout your career metamorphose into persistent strains. The human body begins to feel less and less like it used to and you can’t rely on it to recover like it used to after years of wear and tear. This is the midlife crisis of the NBA, and it is when the existential questions about legacy, meaning, and defining your identity truly come to the forefront of a player’s mind. 

Some players have a few rings at this point and are simply looking to see how they can round out their career but for others like Melo, they have gotten this far in their careers without a ring, and an injury is the exact thing that puts things into perspective and shows how much time is of the essence. Injury at this stage of a career leads to doubt about yourself and your body for the first time in a career, because when can you no longer trust your body to keep up with the wear and tear of the NBA you begin to question whether it is too late to win a ring, are your best years behind you.


Perhaps the most unique stage of a player's career is the end of the road, a time where they look to perpetuate the weight of their legacy and define the enduring images that people will forever associate with their story. By then, injury is an inevitability—recovery is not. The hope is to be able to go go out on your own terms as gracefully as possible, even if your body is about to give way. 

There’s a point in the Showtime documentary series ‘Muse’ where Kobe Bryant details the laundry list of major and minor injuries that plague him in old-age (for an elite athlete). He’s basically spent the past two seasons in perpetual rehab, beginning with torn achilles in the 2013 playoffs, a bone fracture in his left knee early the next season, then a rotator cuff tear in right shoulder this past season. Every road to recovery fraught with the same morbid questions of “Can I do this?”...“Is this it?”

Kobe Bryant finds himself pretty much alone at this stage after being forced to miss a bulk of the previous three seasons with debilitating season ending injuries to his shoulder, knee, and achilles and asking himself when to hang it up, call it quits and pen the final chapter of his story. Lakernation stands still as their legendary battle commander clings to life, ravaged by injury and doubt leaving the future of their franchise hanging in the balance. This isn’t just the end of your everyday NBA story, it is the penultimate chapter of one of the most epic, inspiring, tumultuous, scrutinized, and polarizing basketball sagas in recent history.. 

While the Black Mamba struggles to even stay on the court, many of his contemporaries have left the league. Guys like Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Steve Nash have retired, while guys like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter, and Dirk Nowitzki are pretty much on their last legs. Kobe’s most recent injury, a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, left him on the sidelines for the rest of the Lakers dismal 2014-2015 campaign and fueled further questions about whether or not he could last on the court for a full season ever again.

Any one of these upcoming seasons could very well could be Kobe’s swan song, the perfect storybook ending to an illustrious career. Whether that storybook ends itself with a sixth ring looks pretty unlikely at this point, but with an exciting young core of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D’Angelo Russell it may finally be time for Kobe to pass the torch. Everyone wants to go out on top, just like Jordan seemingly did with his iconic game winning shot against the Jazz, but even he couldn’t resist the allure of one final run with the Wizards. Other players like former Laker teammate Steve Nash, hung on so long, that their injuries defined the end of their career instead of themselves choosing how to end their legacy. Kobe needs to accept that this could be the end, and he needs to figure out whether he is going to go out on his own terms, or if he will let injury define the end of his career.