RJ Barrett is playing too many minutes

The topic of load management has recently divided Knicks fans more than any other topic that does not relate to Frank Ntilikina’s ability to play basketball.

Some see the practice as players being soft while some see the benefit of ensuring a healthy and refreshed player when the playoffs role around. The playoffs might be just out of realistic expectations for the Knicks this season, but we still need to address the topic of load management as it relates to our potential perennial All-Star, RJ Barrett.

Throughout the first seven games of the season, RJ has averaged an impressive 18.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and many would consider him a front runner for Rookie of the Year following the injury to Zion Williamson. RJ’s play is positively impacting the Knicks play as well: the Knicks average 10.81 more free throws per 100 possessions, play at a higher pace (99.514/96.926) and are scoring 7.61 points per 100 possessions more with RJ on the floor.

These numbers are fantastic, especially coming from the 5th youngest player in the NBA, but do they justify RJ averaging 37.1 minutes per game on a team that is likely to miss the playoffs and is only in the second year of a rebuild? I don’t believe so.

The evolution of the game is resulting in more injuries

As game density and intensity has increased league-wide, we are seeing a correlation to muscular strains and bone-related injuries sustained. For four years straight, muscle-related injuries accounted for the highest percentage of games lost with a big uptick in tendon injuries. Bone-related injuries have accounted for 22 percent of total games lost so far this season. This is shown in Figure 1 below, which displays the normalized importance of each variable as it relates to injuries sustained within the NBA.

As shown, the strongest correlations to injuries sustained are average game speed, total games played in a season, average distance run, average minutes played and average field goals attempted. RJ currently leads the league in average distance run (2.83 miles per game) and is 5th in minutes per game (37.1 mpg).

Figure 1: a ranked list of all variables normalized. The  x-axis shows the normalized importance of each variable.

Youth does not make players any less susceptible to injury

Contrary to popular belief, there is no strong correlation between injury rate and age or years of NBA experience. This can be seen in Figure 2 below, which shows reported injuries collected directly from NBA trainers and team physicians over a 17-year period.

Jeff Stotts is an injury analyst for SMART/Rotowire and a certified athletic trainer who, using statistics he has compiled on injuries across the NBA, has been able to show that the four seasons with the highest number of games missed by young players have come in – wait for it – the last four seasons.

Again, this comes down largely to the increased speed of the modern NBA game, but also comes down to young players coming into the league from AAU and college with undiagnosed repetitive strain injuries and fractures. Player specialization in one sport (at the exclusion of other sports) and year-round play has been shown to increase the risk of serious overuse injuries, such as bone and cartilage injuries and ligament injuries by approximately 125%.

Figure 2a/2b: Injury rate by player age (left) and NBA Experience (right)

An ‘NBA Body’ does not make you invulnerable

One NBA General manager was quoted by Baxter Holmes at ESPN as saying the following:

Its a grave, It’s very sad, where a kid has an NBA body, he’s got NBA talent, he’s got even an NBA mentality, but he doesn’t have a body that can withstand the rigors of the training and the actual games, whether it’s to get to the NBA or just to hold up. It’s a tough deal. 

This quote is especially interesting as it relates to RJ Barrett, who had an ‘NBA body’ coming into college at Duke. It does not necessarily guarantee durability and issues can linger under the surface.

It has long been considered that ankle sprains were the most common injury in professional basketball. Ankle sprains occur where a foot rolls or twists unexpectedly forcing the ankle joint out of its normal position, indicating it is not caused by repetitive strain and rather is an injury that can happen in an isolated moment. 

However, recent studies have shown that, in professional basketball, muscular strains are not only more prevalent but result in a longer amount of time lost for players. This can be seen in Figures 3a and 3b below. Muscle strains are where muscle fibers tear due to excessive mechanical stress. Load management can theoretically reduce the rate of which these injuries occur as the body is under less stress and has more time to recover between strenuous bursts of play and training.

Figure 3a/3b: I Incidence rates by season according to type of injury (left) and Incidence rates of time loss (TL) and medical attention (MA) according to ankle sprains and muscle strains by season (right)

Scientific Study on the impact of drives to the basket and the resulting increase (or lack thereof) in injury rate is non-existent. However, it makes logical sense that RJ’s slashing play style (RJ is currently averaging 3.2 shots off drives per game including preseason) would only increase the chance of repetitive strain injuries.

Driving involves hard cuts to the basket, jumps and often times contact, which involves high pressure being exerted on players bodies (players regularly push off the ground with 1400 lbs of pressure to dunk) and can lead to players losing balance, footing or falling from height.

Sudden change of momentum from contact and crash to the ground

Wins should not be the priority

The Knicks are one year removed from a season that equalled their worst in the history of the franchise and are in year two of a rebuild. They were tipped by Vegas to win about 27.5 wins.

Even if RJ does increase the likelihood that the Knicks win an extra couple of games, it doesn’t make sense to the long-term goals of the team to risk an injury to the franchise cornerstone. In fact, it is arguably beneficial to limit his minutes as a higher draft position could be the difference in drafting or missing out on a lead guard which would be a huge step in the right direction towards building a sustainable long-term winning team.

Conclusion

RJ Barrett at 19 years old is averaging an excessive number of minutes and has the highest usage rate on the team (23.4%) for good reason, he is arguably the team’s best player and helps them win games. He is a joy to watch play basketball and is a bright spot in an otherwise dark and depressing start to the Knicks season.

However, his physical style of play coupled with the increased chance of suffering a repetitive strain injury or bone-related injury, such as a stress fracture, is not worth the extra couple of wins that the team may, or may not accumulate by the end of the season. The Knicks are currently in the second year of a rebuild and should be prioritizing collecting assets (via the draft or by other means) and ensuring the long-term health and development of their young core moving forward.

RJ may be fine playing 40 minutes a game for the remainder of the season. It is not unheard of for players to play 35 plus minutes a game for 75 plus games in a season, but these players are the outlier and the Knicks should be smart, play it safe and not risk the health of their 19 year old budding superstar.