A common refrain watching Nerlens Noel play for the 76ers in Summer League was that it was like looking after a delicate child, one continually prodding at electrical outlets at that. It was hard not to think of his knee injury when he barreled into opponents, to rid my head of the notion that his health may always be a concern.
Another injury was the spark for major conversation around the hoops campfire over the weekend. Paul George's gruesome leg break, suffered in a scrimmage put on by USA Basketball last Friday, renewed debate over the use of NBA players in international play and conjured discussions on the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
As much as I love general chatter about the league, my mind is wired to drift back to the Sixers no matter how many degrees of separation stand in the way. Watching the horrified reactions of George's NBA brethren, Noel and Joel Embiid jumped to my mind. In one corner stands a thicket of lanky limbs that seeks to pluck shots out of the sky, an African import with a rapidly improving post game in another. Each was seen as the crown jewel of their draft class, only slipping due to injury concerns.
Philadelphia has come under fire on their journey to the bottom of the league standings, amplified by their insistence on using two top selections to acquire these bench-ridden big men. Significant injuries appearing on the medical sheets for Noel and Embiid this early were enough to scare other teams away. Because we're unable to predict the future, our only option is to look to the past to inform us on what may be coming. Long-accepted logic reasons that big men carry more risk, betrayed by the same gifts that make them coveted to begin with. The injury-prone big man is an archetype that instills the same fear in NBA circles that Voldemort's name does in the wizarding world, and Sam Hinkie's gamble is portrayed as significant.
The trouble with that thinking is that it simply isn't true. A study spanning 17 NBA seasons found that there was no connection between player characteristics and injury rate, concluding that injuries are beholden to the same randomness of the sport itself.
Randomness in sports is not tolerated as an excuse -- see: the average shelf life for a head coach -- but it is prevalent in every facet of the league. NBA teams are frenetic jam bands led by musclebound giants, adapting pre-planned strategies on the fly with different harmonic results. Hiccups and accidents occur when performance art is left to chance, doubly so when the activity entails running and jumping and colliding with other human beings. The infinite possibilities draw us in, but they also leave participants susceptible to catastrophe.
George's collapse in Las Vegas was a harsh reminder of that fact. A previously clean medical sheet was nuked by an action that he has attempted (and succeeded at) countless times in the past. For every Embiid that enters the league with medical "questions", there's someone like George.
Derek's musings on Embiid from before the draft remain instructive here.
Injuries are scary because we lose the illusion of control. We like control. But I think we undersell the risk in the other prospects as well, because those risks are not as scary.
The bold clip of that sentence is pivotal. People desire concrete information whenever they can get it; the statistical movement is proof of that. But when it comes time to extrapolate data (advanced or otherwise) to get a head start on the future, we're chasing ghosts. Injuries are no different. There's no way to know whether injuries will have a domino effect, or if players you think are a lock to stay healthy are ticking time bombs, even if you had every medical detail possible.
We can't possibly know if Joel Embiid is doomed with a frail bone structure, or if Nerlens Noel's high-flying nature will be his unraveling. What is known, that Paul George's injury serves to remind us of, is that the only guarantee is uncertainty. Knee deep in the gambling process that is building an NBA contender, at least the Sixers have the requisite talent with which to make bets.