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How injuries have influenced the 2019 WNBA playoffs, and may also influence future playoffs

During the first-round of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs, Brittney Griner became the latest victim of the league’s injury epidemic.

Early in the second quarter of Wednesday night’s game between the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky, Griner knocked knees with Allie Quigley, causing her to fall to the floor and rock in pain. She soon was assisted to the locker room by the already-injured Diana Taurasi. DT was ruled out for the game because of a lingering hamstring injury, the secondary effect of a preseason back surgery from which she struggled to fully heal.

Griner attempted to return to action at the beginning of the third quarter, but, after visibly laboring, her 2019 playoffs soon ended. As did the Mercury’s.

Unfortunately, Griner’s injury served as a reminder of how injuries have and will impact the outcome of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs.

However, it is important not to dismiss the increasing incidence of injuries as an extended run of bad luck. Sports science studies provide a more comprehensive understanding as to why injuries are happening with greater frequency. The only question is how the WNBA, and women’s basketball more broadly, will use this data to improve their practices and prevent the accumulation of injuries as much as possible.

Why a knocked knee knocked out BG

Because Phoenix entered the playoffs with the opposite of momentum, a fully healthy Griner may not have influenced the outcome of their first-round playoff game: a rather resounding Chicago victory. Nevertheless, the Mercury initially remained in contact with Sky. If Griner only experienced temporary knee soreness, she could have returned in the second half and powered her squad as the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.

Yet, from another perspective, it is not surprising that Griner suffered a somewhat serious injury. Griner averaged 32.8 minutes per game this season, the third-highest in the league behind teammate DeWanna Bonner and the Minnesota Lynx’s All-Star rookie Napheesa Collier.

Last season, Griner played 32.6 minutes per game. Between then and now, she not only played overseas, but was MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four as she led her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to the EuroLeague title. During EuroLeague play, she averaged 28.4 minutes per game. This data does not include the minutes she tallied in Russian League in action.

In short, Griner has played a lot of ball over the last 18 months. And to do so, she has had to repeatedly fold her 6-foot-9 frame into cramped, commercial airplane seats, while also almost constantly managing the ways in which travel disrupts one’s bodily rhythms.

In recent years, NBA writer Tom Haberstroh has analyzed how modern basketball has resulted in rising injuries among NBA players, using data to highlight how susceptibility to injury increases due to significant travel, disturbed sleep, high-minute play and frequency of games.

Because of her year-round basketball schedule, Griner was clearly more susceptible to injury. Based on her accumulated miles, both on and off the court, an innocuous knock to the knee possibly became a more serious knee injury.

Of course, it is hard to blame Griner’s coaches for over-relying on her. Her presence in the paint can fundamentally shift the strategy of a game, serving as a deterrent on defense and automatic bucket on offense when at her best. In particular, with her squad already struggling without Taurasi, it made sense that Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello would go to BG repeatedly.

Likewise, it is unproductive to blame Griner for choosing to play overseas during the WNBA offseason (or, as she might put it, also choosing to play in the WNBA during UMMC’s offseason). Nearly year-round basketball offers generational economic security for the Texan from a working-class family.

Breanna Stewart also fell prey to the burdens of basketball

Breanna Stewart’s circumstances resemble those of Griner’s, albeit she suffered a more consequential injury. Ironically, it was a collision with Griner in the EuroLeague championship game that resulted in Stewart rupturing her Achilles. But, just as Quigley deserves no blame for Griner’s injury, Griner is not at fault for Stewart’s; rather, as with Griner, it is the burdens of elite women’s basketball that should be blamed.

Over her first three years with the Seattle Storm, Stewart averaged 33.1 minutes per game. These seasons of significant minutes followed her four National Championship runs at the University of Connecticut. Stewart also has played overseas following each of her WNBA seasons, first with Shanghai Baoshan Dahua and then Dynamo Kursk.

That Stewart suffered an Achilles injury, an injury that often results from years of wear and tear, indicates that, while over-work may not have been the direct cause of her injury, it made her more vulnerable to suffering a serious injury.

The stalling of SuperStorm Seattle

Without Stewart, or Sue Bird, the Storm outperformed expectations and earned a playoff berth. They then put together an impressive performance in Wednesday night’s single-elimination game against the Lynx.

But even as the 2019 Seattle squad deserves credit for adapting and achieving, it is disappointing that the arrival of SuperStorm Seattle, a squad that appeared poised to rain their dominance over the rest of the WNBA, has been stalled. While Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada may not have had the opportunity to raise their games to the levels they did if Stewart and Bird had been healthy, it is imaginable that those two still would have improved, especially defensively, making a fully-loaded 2019 Storm more dominant than the 2018 version.

Of course, fans of the Washington Mystics likely take umbrage with this assessment, suggesting not only that their team could mystify the hypothetical 2019 SuperStorm but also that the 2018 Mystics would have prevented this SuperStorm from forming had Elena Delle Donne been fully healthy during the 2018 Finals. Without injuries, we may well be in the process of crowning Storm-Mystics the WNBA’s next great rivalry, with Stewie and EDD vying for claim over the league.

This unfulfilled possibility reinforces the need for the WNBA to respond to a rising injury crisis.

Bird and Taurasi fight Father Time

The injuries suffered by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi should not be dismissed in this analysis. The two legends left a lacuna, a cruel preview of what the league might look like when they retire.

But, in contrast to their teammates who are entering or in the primes of their careers, injuries to two players in their late 30s are not surprising, even though they are unfortunate. In fact, the late career fates of their NBA doppelgängers, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, remind of the inevitability of Father Time. Despite their obsessive attention to preparation, both Nash and Bryant suffered injuries of overuse as they approached their mid-to-late 30s, suggesting, despite their determination, there is only so much Bird and Taurasi can do to avoid injury-marred ends to their careers.

So while Taurasi’s back and hamstring issues and Bird’s knee soreness are part of the WNBA’s injury crisis, they are not the crux of it, as their advanced basketball ages makes their health struggles more understandable. It is because so many younger players are missing significant time that the WNBA must act.

Addressing the injury crisis by expanding WNBA rosters

After Stewart suffered her injury, both Swish Appeal and the Seattle Times argued that such an injury could have been (possibly) prevented if WNBA players were paid more equitably, making their yearly sojourns to Russia, China, Australia or other international outposts unnecessary because of much more generous WNBA paychecks.

Equitable pay for WNBA players would be ideal. So would first-class travel accommodations, ensuring that airport delays would not exacerbate the ways in which flying from Phoenix to Connecticut to Seattle already alters one’s ability to prepare and perform at one’s peak. However, the WNBA could implement other organizational reforms, slightly shifting the infrastructure of women’s basketball to make a more sustainable future for the sport and its players.

As has been well-documented, the WNBA provides an opportunity for only 144 women, a number that results in impressive collegians, as well as established veterans, finding themselves outside the league. If the WNBA expanded rosters, all teams could normalize load management, following the example of not only the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard but also that of professional soccer, including the NWSL. For instance, Sue Bird’s other half, Megan Rapinoe, returned to the field on her own terms following her World Cup rampage, fully recovering from a sore Achilles before suiting up for the Seattle Reign. With the Olympics occurring next summer, it is reasonable to believe that WNBA Olympians may require extra rest, underscoring the need for expanded rosters.

Addressing the injury crisis by extending the WNBA season

An extended season should also accompany expanded rosters. Yes, extending the season may seem counterintuitive to ameliorating the problem of overwork. However, a longer season would decrease the importance of each game. A 34-game season makes every game a must-win. A playoff system that substantially rewards teams for securing a top-four, or, better yet, top-two, seed, further intensifies the stakes of every game.

A slightly longer season would not turn the WNBA into the NBA, where the 82-game slate results in teams obviously pacing themselves in ways that often decrease the quality of regular-season basketball. Rather, extending the schedule would somewhat reduce the pressures of each game, allowing teams to be assured that they could occasionally rest their players without jeopardizing their place in the standings.

Teams and players could follow the recommendations of sport scientists, proactively resting players when metrics indicate that the vagaries of travel, sleep, training or diet combine to make one more susceptible to injury, both physical and mental. To their credit, the Las Vegas Aces respected the mental health needs of Liz Cambage, permitting her to take the time needed to recalibrate her mental and emotional states. Yet, one can imagine, even with the support of her organization, Cambage felt some pressure to return as soon as possible, knowing her services could help her squad secure the valued third or fourth seed.

A longer schedule could marginally, but still materially, reorient the attitudes of organizations and athletes, creating increased rest opportunities for women’s basketball’s most burdened stars. At the same time, it would create more playing opportunities for women basketball players who currently find themselves outside the WNBA.

A more proactive present, a more promising future

As mentioned above, Napheesa Collier led the league in minutes played. Her more than 33 minutes per game followed a fourth straight trip to the Final Four as a UConn Husky. Collier’s significant playing time is a sign of how essential she became to the Lynx’s success.

It also raises some concerns.

Her circumstance and status recall that of Breanna Stewart. No one wants Collier to replicate Stewart’s injury fate.

Injuries cannot be entirely avoided, no matter how proactive a team or player chooses to be. But the epidemic of injuries that has struck the WNBA requires redress, with economic or infrastructural reforms needed to best situate Collier, as well as the WNBA’s other rising stars, for uninterrupted successes.