The latest indications from Jazz Management is that George Hill may return on Thursday when the Jazz face the 76ers and that Alec Burks may also be back in the line-up soon. The Jazz have enjoyed their projected starting lineup a grand total of 12 minutes this season. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Alec Burks have all missed significant time this season due to a variety of injuries. Is it bad luck, are today’s players soft compared to players of the past, or is it something entirely different? Jazz fans seem especially impatient with injuries and especially eager to label players as “injury prone” because we remember and revere two of the most durable players ever to play in the league. Karl Malone played 1434 games in a Jazz uniform. He missed 9 games (some due to funerals and suspensions). That’s 99.3 percent of possible games. John Stockton played all 1504 of his career games in a Jazz uniform. He missed just 22 games, (four for a severely sprained ankle and 18 when he had his knee scoped) playing in 98.5 percent of the possible games. It just wasn’t a Jazz game unless we saw both 32 and 12 in the line-up.
First, the good: Gordon Hayward has played in 468 of the possible 508 games (92.2 percent), not bad by today’s standards. Hayward is loved by Jazz fans partially because he comes back quickly from injuries. For example, he missed only 6 games with his broken finger, when he was expected to miss 6 weeks. Rudy Gobert is the only projected Jazz starter to play in all 32 Jazz games this season. Not counting his rookie season, where he bounced back and forth from the D-League, he has played in 175 of a possible 196 games (89.3 percent). All of those games were missed when he sprained his MCL last season. Ironically, this was the same injury that knocked the Mailman out of the Finals in his lone season with the Lakers.
Now, the bad: George Hill has been wildly effective as a Jazzman and appears to be a perfect fit in the Jazz’s system. However, he has played in only 11 of the Jazz’s 32 games (34.4 percent) due to a sprained wrist and a sprained big toe. Derrick Favors has played 390 of a possible 448 games (87 percent) as a Jazzman. Favors has missed the majority of his time to a bone bruise on his knee and various back issues. Rodney Hood has played 156 of a possible 196 games (79.5 percent) as a Jazzman. Hood’s injuries include sickness, hamstring, and foot injuries. Alec Burks has played 259 of a possible 426 games (60.8 percent) as a Jazzman. Burks has missed time from knee, shoulder, and ankle injuries, all which required surgery.
So, is this just bad luck for current Jazz players or is there something fundamentally different with today’s players and the game itself compared to the glory days of Stockton and Malone? While Stockton and Malone were in the lineup more than 98 percent of the time, on today’s Jazz only Hayward tops 90 percent participation in possible games. Why is this the case?
Athletes are Bigger.
In the glory days of Stockton-and-Malone, this duo was in the small minority of supreme athletes. I don’t mean great athletes, I mean supreme. Malone especially was viewed as a freak of nature (though I would argue that Stockton and his resting heart rate in the 30’s was equally freakish). Malone was built like a tank and constantly had the benefit of taking advantage of smaller, weaker defenders like Kevin McHale, Cliff Robinson, Otis Thorpe, Chris Webber, Dennis Rodman, and A.C. Green. Even Charles Barkely was shorter and smaller than the Mailman. In today’s NBA, Malone and his 6’9″ 250 athletic frame would be kind of normal. Lebron James is listed at 6’8″ 250. Roughly Malone’s size only Lebron is leading fast breaks, jumping over people, and shooting threes. Anthony Davis is 6’10” 253 and has a similar ability to run and jump and shoot. I’ve heard people refer to LaMarcus Aldridge as “slight” despite his 6’11” 260 pound frame. Even former Jazzman, Paul Millsap, at 6’8″ 246 was considered “undersized” coming out of college. These guys are All Stars. In Malone’s days the “big guys” like Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Brian Grant, Anthony Davis, and Antoine Carr, were more enforcers, than stars. Malone’s secret of weight training is out and players today all lift weights as part of a comprehensive off-season and in-season training regimen.
Stockton was 6’1″ 170 pounds of solid muscle. He was known as a “little man”. He’d match up against Mark Price, Rod Strickland, Sam Cassell, and Terry Porter. Other than Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd was the nightmare match up at 6’3″ 200 pounds. By today’s standards Stockton is a total shrimp. Now George Hill is considered a small guard and he is 6’3″ 188 pounds. He’s matching up against Russell Westbrook (6’3″, 200), James Harden (6’5″, 220), Damian Lillard (6’3″, 195), John Wall (6’4″, 195), and Kyrie Irving (6’3″, 193). If you want to count Giannis Antekuonmpo in the discussion, he’s 6’11”, 222. The point guards in the NBA today are just bigger. Bigger bodies means bigger impact in collisions, both with other bodies and the floor, which means bigger injuries.
Franchises Protect their Investments.
Do you think players miss more games because the athletes have inferior shoe technology, braces, tape jobs, and pads, or training regimens? Do you think it’s because today’s players are less athletic or just more accident prone? It’s the same 82 games. Players are averaging roughly the same number of minutes per game. One difference is that teams are more cautious in protecting their multi-million dollar investments than they were in the 90’s. I could see Karl Malone playing through a bone bruise or Stockton playing through a sprained toe. But, players today are held out of games regardless of their desire to play. I have to believe that Hayward and Favors and Hood would play through some of these injuries if team management would let them.
Just how big of an investment are these players? Over their first six seasons, Karl Malone made $7,226,000 and played in 489 games for the Jazz. That is $14,777.10 per game. John Stockton made $7,028,000 and played 488 games in his first six seasons. That is $14,401.64 per game. Gordon Hayward has made $41,206,570 and played in 443 games his first six seasons as a Jazz player. That’s $93,017.09 per game. That’s more than six times what Malone or Stockton made per game. That’s not because Stockton and Malone weren’t as big of a stars as Hayward. Through six seasons, Stockton had made two All-Star teams and lead the league in assists 3 times and steals once. Malone had already made four All-Star teams. Gordon is a fine player, but is yet to make his first All-Star team.
To further illustrate how NBA basketball has turned into big business, Rudy Gobert, with lifetime averages of just 8 points and 9 rebounds per game, just signed a 102 million dollar contract that will earn him as much in the next four seasons, as the Mailman made in his 18 seasons Hall of Fame seasons with the Jazz. Not only are players earning more, but the teams are worth more. According to Forbes, the Utah Jazz franchise is worth $875M which ranks only 20th of the 30 NBA teams. Larry H. Miller paid $26.8M for the franchise in two separate transactions in 1985 and 1986. The big business of NBA franchises have much more at stake today than ever before when it comes to protecting players’ health and safety.
The Style and Speed of the Game.
I submit more players miss more games because the game itself has gotten more physical. Now when I say more physical, I do not necessarily mean that the players engage in more physical contact (read pushing, shoving, and hand-checking), but rather the game is more physically demanding because of the rules. The explosiveness, spacing, speed, and jumping ability we see in the NBA today is greater than anything we have ever seen in decades past. The concept of the “stretch-big” didn’t even exist 20 years ago and now a stretch-big pulls out paint-protecting defenders to the perimeter allowing guards to penetrate with speed and explosion, old-school guards couldn’t imagine.
It’s true that during the hand-check era there was more pushing and holding (though I believe this is overblown and the difference of physical contact is negligible). There also seemed to be more slapping matches, and after all, what better measure of how physical the game is than how many “brawls” there are where 7-foot men try to punch each other (remember Shaq and Oakley and Barkley). It is also true that players were not as free to go to the basket when Gary Payton is hanging on their arms–it slowed the offensive players down. It is also common knowledge that playing defense with your feet is much harder work than using your hands to slow someone down, which explains why Kawhi Leonard has won Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. It is for that reason that I would argue that the game has gotten more physically demanding since the hand check rule was changed in 2004-05. Players are running faster, jumping higher, driving harder and less impeded to the rim, and hitting the floor harder than ever before.
The Jazz and NBA fans across the country are paying more than ever before to watch NBA basketball and the players are earning that money. Because of this huge investment, teams are not allowing players to play through injuries that perhaps players would have played through in previous generations. In addition, league rules and sports science have made players faster, stronger, and more explosive than ever before and defenders can do less within the rules to stop offensive players from reaching max speed. As a result, players are getting hurt more and are missing more games than ever before. While this is a league-wide problem, why shouldn’t Jazz fans (who for nearly two decades enjoyed living and dying with two of the most durable players in league history) experience an acute awareness of how many games Jazz players are missing. Yes Jazz fans, we were spoiled by the Stockton-to-Malone express, and that’s okay, so long as we don’t hold it against our current Jazzmen. With a little luck, our horses will soon all be back in the line-up and we’ll be marching to a long awaited Division Title. In the meantime, let’s not condemn these players as “soft” or “injury-prone”, rather we should let go of the past and support them in this new era of NBA basketball.