January 4, 2020, was an interesting day for the Brooklyn Nets organization.
Speaking before a Saturday night tilt against the Toronto Raptors, Kenny Aktinson was asked about Kyrie Irving’s injury status. He indicated that he had no update.
Then, out of the blue, Kyrie held his own press conference, where he provided an update on his status. According to Kyrie, the shoulder is impinging with “some bursitis” in there. Later, in discussing injuries generally, Kyrie mentioned injuries, “such as bursitis in your shoulder.” Turning to his prognosis, Kyrie advised that he was presented an ultimatum: either take a cortisone shot or undergo surgery. He elected cortisone on December 24, and stated that he would see what he can do on the court after sufficient rehab, rest, and recovery. After a few months, his status will be reevaluated, as related to possible arthroscopic surgery. As for when he will return to the court, Kyrie did not say, but he indicated having, “such a significant feeling in my shoulder where … I cannot get up in that jump shot position.” Kyrie finally noted that he went to Phoenix to see a shoulder specialist.
When considering the history of Kyrie’s shoulder injury, and the history of how the Nets have updated the media on injuries, Kyrie’s conference raises two issues. First, the conference portrayed the Nets injury reporting practices in a negative light. Second, the conference reflected that Kyrie has power to make his own rules, in away previous Nets under this regime have not.
Injury Reporting Practices
The Kyrie saga, and his comments on January 4, cast the Nets in a negative light. Overall, the flaw in the Nets “say little to nothing’ injury reporting practice was exposed, and Kyrie’s comments either reflected that he prefers the opinion of his handpicked specialist to that of the performance team, or reflected that the Nets were less than candid about Kyrie’s injury.
Without question, the Nets have understated the severity of Kyrie’s injury, in what has been a continuing pattern for the franchise. Kyrie was originally listed as day-to-day with his injury, and Atkinson expressed confidence the issue was not a long term one. Such statements convey a clear belief that the injury is minor, and not expected to persist; you do not call an injury day-day when a player misses nearly two months and surgery is possible. The phrasing is misleading. From there, updates have been intentionally vague and misleading. At one point, Kyrie was ramping up his on court activity – no person can say what that phrase means. On December 8, the Nets stated an expectation that Kyrie would be cleared for contact within one or two weeks; at the four week mark, Kyrie expressed struggles lifting his arm to shoot. On December 27, Kyrie went through a “pretty intense workout” and simply had not been integrated into contact yet. Kenny neglected to say, as we know now, that Kyrie had a cortisone shot three days prior, in part due to inability to lift his arm to shoot.
Such is how the Nets have always treated injury reporting under this regime: say as little as possible, deny outside reports, attempt to classify injuries as minor, and provide no timelines. Last year, the Nets listed Treveon Graham as out with a hamstring strain, but Shams Charania reported a tear and two month timeline. Atkinson denied the report. Graham ultimately missed over two months with the injury – as Charania reported. In addition, last year, the Nets listed Allen Crabbe as out day-to-day with a sore knee, that was not believed serious. Crabbe missed two months of action before a one month return, and then underwent knee surgery. Furthermore, last year, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sustained an adductor strain on August 8, 2018, that was not believed serious. Yet, the injury caused him to miss the start of last season, over two months post injury, and, per Greg Logan of Newsday, Atkinson admitted when the Nets played the Raptors in December that the injury slowed Hollis-Jefferson last season.
The history dates back further and includes this year, sans Kyrie. Jeremy Lin missed seventeen games early in 2016-2017 with a hamstring injury. He then sustained a second hamstring injury the Nets classified as “less severe”, yet caused him to miss 26 games. The following season, D’Angelo Russell was listed out as day-to day with a knee contusion; four days later Russell underwent knee surgery. Just this year, Nic Claxton has been out nearly a month with a hamstring injury that Atkinson classified as mere soreness from adjusting to the NBA. Rookies, however, do not miss a month with an injury as a standard practice.
Prior to Kyrie, the Nets have largely avoided criticism for their lack of transparency on injuries. With due respect to the players before him, the Nets were losing a lot of games, rendering them irrelevant nationally, and the players at issue — a pre breakthrough Russell and the others — lacked relevance as well. However, the Nets, now, are relevant, and Kyrie is one of the league’s platform stars. From the outside looking in, national reporters see the Nets classifying Kyrie’s injury as a day-to-day ailment, and yet also see Kyrie missing games in droves. Naturally, this bred a question among media: why, exactly, is Kyrie taking so long to recover from what his own team said was a day-to-day ailment? It started with accusations that he ducked a potential return game in Boston. Kevin O’Connor – a prominent reporter – wondered if Kyrie was essentially taking a break, waiting on Kevin Durant’s return. While easy to blame media members for speculating, the Nets opened the door, and invited that speculation, by saying nothing about Kyrie’s status. Release a timeline under which Kyrie is out for a certain duration of time, and nobody questions what Kyrie is doing during that duration of time.
The Nets “say little to nothing” practice, simply, does not work with stars. Unlike with lesser players on irrelevant teams, the media pushes for more information and questions developments, rather than the developments being inconsequential.
Transparency for injuries, for that matter, is important, as the Kyrie saga has exposed. Nobody is saying that the Nets need to release medical reports and private details of players’ lives. However, fans pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for tickets, and arrange personal time with their family and friends around NBA games. The NBA needs that investment as well; NBA ratings are down. Fans are the life blood of any sport — a league cannot survive without fans. Teams owe it to their fans — their customers — to be transparent about the injury status of players. If a player will be out 6-10 weeks, say it. If you cannot say this, but can say the player’s injury will be reevaluated in six weeks, say that. It is simply not fair to string fans along with purposely vague, and purposely understated, injury updates, to keep them in the dark about the product they are to invest time and money in. Fans should have an idea, when purchasing tickets and planning their evenings, who may or may not be playing.
Alas, the Kyrie saga exposed more than the Nets’ injury reporting practices — it exposed that either Kyrie prefers his own specialist to the Nets performance team, or that the Nets were less than candid about Kyrie’s actual injury.
In this regard, the Nets have listed Kyrie as probable or out with shoulder impingement since November 13, with no mention of bursitis. However, on December 24, Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson reported that per a source within the Nets organization, Kyrie was out with thoracic bursitis, not shoulder impingement. Atkinson denied this report, but then Kyrie said that, actually, he does have bursitis. On top of this, Kyrie saw a shoulder specialist in Phoenix, rather than relying solely on the Nets’ performance team.
If Atkinson was truthful about the believed lack of bursitis, this means that Kyrie’s own specialist (diagnosing bursitis) disagrees with the performance team (diagnosing impingement), and that Kyrie prefers the opinion of his own specialist, as he said he has bursitis. If Atkinson was not fully candid about the lack of bursitis, such that the Nets diagnosed the same, then it means the organization was not fully candid about its diagnosis. Neither reflects well on the organization. The former seems more likely — why would the Nets hesitate to put bursitis on an injury report?
It is true that bursitis can be thoracic or sub-acromial. As such, it may appear technically possible Atkinson was not less than candid when he denied the report of “thoracic bursitis,” because Kyrie only referenced bursitis. Perhaps he has sub-acromial bursitis, and Atkinson, in denying a report of thoracic bursitis, was candid. However, if the Nets’ stance was that Kyrie had bursitis, just in a different area, than the Nets would have put bursitis on their injury report, and it would have been easy for Atkinson to clarify this in his interview. Instead, Atkinson denied the report outright, and the Nets continued to list Kyrie as out with impingement – NOT bursitis.
In addition, while it is true that impingement and bursitis are closely related, they are not identical. As such, the Nets cannot get a pass here on the basis of the terms being interchangeable (plus, if they were, Atkinson could say this upon performance team confirmation). Impingement refers to tendon on bone contact which causes pain when the bone impinges on the tendon. Bursitis refers to when said impingement causes the bursa of the shoulder to become inflamed.
Overall, there is no getting around Kyrie’s injury saga, and press conference reflecting poorly on the Nets. Either Kyrie prefers his shoulder specialist to the Nets performance team and chose their bursitis of diagnosis over the Nets diagnosis of impingement, or the Nets were not candid about Kyrie’s injury, and denied bursitis despite diagnosing it.
The last point here? Kyrie’s press conference reflects that he has power in the Nets organization that other players do not have. We are in the middle of the fourth year of the Atkinson regime. Sans Kyrie, a multitude of players have played for the Nets, and gotten injured. In all of those cases, updates on injuries came from the Nets – not from the player. At times, the player has discussed his injury (particularly when close to a return) in concert with the organization, but there has never been a situation where the organization had nothing to say, and the player did his own interview where he provided the details of his injury.
That changed on January 4, with Kyrie’s tell all interview concerning his injury. Atkinson, immediately before Kyrie spoke, had no update on Kyrie. Kyrie was the only party with an update. He had a story to tell, and he told it. And he provided, in telling it, substantially more detail on his condition, and the care he has received, than any injury update the Nets have given under the Markinson regime. Kyrie went into detail on a cortisone shot he took, the date he took it, his range of motion, his rejection of anti-inflammatories, that surgery was presented to him as an option, and that there is currently an ongoing evaluation of whether surgery will be indicated at a later date. Kyrie’s update, clearly, differed in character than any given by this regime prior — it came from him, and it came with a level of detail that the Nets always keep private.
Remember occam’s razor – the simple explanation is the likely one. Kyrie’s update was not different, and driven by Kyrie, because the Nets suddenly changed their entire philosophy on how they report player injuries. Rather, Kyrie’s update was different, and driven by Kyrie, because Kyrie, as a NBA superstar, has the power to do things his way, and decided to do this his way. This was Kyrie’s choice – not the choice of the Nets. As a result, they cannot get credit here for being transparent.
This reflects that Kyrie has power within the Nets organization, akin to that of the front office. He is not a mere player who takes instruction from the front office and coaching staff on how things work with the Nets, and what protocols to follow. He decides the protocols.
Kyrie having power is not a bad thing. This is standard for superstars in the “player empowerment” era we are in. The Nets may prefer to present as an organization where management manages and stars play. But such is not the reality.
Such is the opportunity cost of acquiring superstars. You have to make some decisions — like caving on power, and signing DeAndre Jordan for $40 million — that, in a vacuum, appear to be suboptimal.
Nevertheless, that opportunity cost is well worth the benefit — having those superstars on your roster.