How “Loose Bodies” Have Defined The NBA Season
A seemingly innocuous medical term has introduced uncertainty into a topsy-turvy NBA campaign
It’s been a roller-coaster season in the NBA, and at the controls is a vague, unscientific medical term that we’re all seemingly content to take at face value: “loose bodies”.
ACL or Achilles injuries — those we understand. Those gut-punch incidents end seasons, no questions asked. “Loose bodies”, on the other hand, introduce nothing but uncertainty. Arthroscopic surgery seems to be the remedy, the timetable of recovery is guesstimated but largely unknown, and the level of required caution changes depending on who you ask.
How were these loose bodies developed? Will the bodies become looser if the player attempts to compete? Are there additional bodies that could join their compatriots in looseness? What will happen if the surgery course of action isn’t pursued? Just how loose can these bodies get before we have a real problem on our hands? If surgery is elected, when can we be sure that the player isn’t at risk of incurring further looseness?
In any NBA season, incidents are bound to occur that introduce unforeseen variables and uncertainty into the race for a title. It just so happens that this year, a vague term that nobody really understands has changed the course of the season repeatedly.
Nobody knows what it means! It’s provocative! Gets the people goin’!
Okay, okay, doctors probably know what they’re talking about when referring to loose bodies — but the layman? Players? Coaches? Fans? I don’t think so.
Just ask Ty Lue — it’s cool to play a player suffering from loose bodies on the second night of a back-to-back knowing he’s bound for surgery, right Ty? Apparently, the answer is yes.
Counter-intuitive, I know.
If you asked me to explain loose bodies — their causes, implications, and degrees of severity — I’d sound like Kramer trying to explain write-offs to Jerry.
Kramer: Jerry, all these players, they have loose bodies!
Jerry: You don’t even know what loose bodies are.
Kramer: Do you?
Jerry: No, I don’t.
Kramer: But they do, and they’re the ones with the loose bodies.
The ramifications of loose bodies on the 2016–2017 NBA season have been significant and widespread. Let’s take a look at the timeline.
December 19, 2016 : It was announced by the Clippers that Blake Griffin would “undergo a routine arthroscopic procedure on Tuesday, Dec. 20 to remove loose bodies from his right knee.”
Having struggled with knee soreness for weeks, Griffin opted for a clean-up operation, with a recovery timetable of three-to-six weeks. He ultimately missed 18 games over the course of about four and a half weeks, a stretch over which the Clippers went 10–8, losing six straight games towards the beginning of his absence.
Before Griffin’s surgery, the Clippers were fourth in the conference at 20–8, just a game behind Houston and 2.5 games back of San Antonio. By the time he returned, they were tied for fourth with Utah (over whom they previously held a two game advantage), and the gaps had widened to a borderline insurmountable four and six games, before even considering Chris Paul’s own injury woes.
I’m not a Clippers believer — I shudder whenever I hear someone say, “when healthy, they’re one of the top teams in the league.” It may be true, but it’s also akin to saying that “when impervious to gravity, I could play in the NBA”, because both things are never going to happen. That said, it’s because of loose bodies that the Clippers are resigned to the fate of a likely early round matchup with Golden State if the standings hold and if they can get past Utah.
February 14, 2017: Kevin Love undergoes arthroscopic surgery to remove “a loose body” in his left knee.
By far the most bizarre “loose bodies” incident of the season. Kevin Love’s story is the one that assures me that I have absolutely no clue about the implications of loose bodies.
The bizarreness of the situation is best summed up by Lue’s quote in the wake of the news that Love would need surgery:
He was already heading for surgery. It was already (hurt), loose bodies were already in there so he just played through it and then after it got to a certain point he got the MRI and he found out it was loose bodies floating around
Let me see if I can appropriately reconstruct the timeline here. Kevin Love, in the midst of a renaissance, hurts his knee. It is assumed (taking a leap here) that the cause of said pain is loose bodies, which, apparently, is no big deal at all because hey, they’re just loose bodies — go ahead and play through ‘em! Then, it turned out that the loose bodies actually were a big deal, because he underwent an MRI, which confirmed that loose bodies were indeed the culprit.
In fairness, maybe it just wasn’t a great quote. What we know is that Love had swelling and soreness in his knee that he played through for three straight games. He told Lue that he felt fine and trainers didn’t feel that the situation was serious enough to warrant alerting the coach. If that’s true though, how was it clear that he was already heading for surgery and how did Lue know that to be the case?
Loose bodies are a mysterious bunch.
Regardless of when the looseness of the bodies was determined, the surgery is expected to sideline Love for at least six weeks, and the early word is that his recovery is going well. While the ultimate ramifications on Love’s postseason availability and performance are unclear, what is clear is that the setback made the trade deadline infinitely more interesting.
All of a sudden, the Cavaliers were vulnerable, and Eastern Conference rivals were lining up to figure out if they could find the pieces to deliver a weakened Cavaliers team a knockout punch come spring. What was once a certainty — the Cavaliers emerging from the Eastern Conference — became far less assured, all because of a few loose bodies.
Which brings us to:
February 27, 2017: Kyle Lowry to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right wrist to — say it with me now — remove loose bodies.
Sensing the Cavaliers loose-body-induced vulnerability, the Raptors seized the opportunity to be the most active team around the trade deadline. With the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Toronto quickly surrounded it’s All-Star guards with battle-tested pieces worthy of a championship contender. The praise was nearly universal: the roster had the potential to climb as high as the East’s two seed, and at the very least, it could pose problems for Cleveland.
All the while, though, in the background, Kyle Lowry was experiencing wrist pain. He ignored it in the three-point contest. He played through it in the All-Star Game. Yet, the pain, soreness, and swelling failed to subside. Naturally, the diagnosis is loose bodies, the solution is arthroscopic surgery, and the recovery timeline will keep Lowry sidelined until the dying stages of the regular season.
Without Lowry, ascending the conference standings or remaining in the top half will be difficult. The Raptors currently sit tied for third, but in all likelihood, they’re on a crash course for a second round matchup with Cleveland where a recovering Lowry and a recovering Love will battle to see whose formerly loose bodies are tightest.
February 27, 2017: The Knicks announce Joakim Noah underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee.
Noah will be evaluated in a few weeks’ time, but the odds are that he’s done for the season. This is sad for Noah, who has been consistently injury plagued. This is sad for the Knicks, who had hoped to rejuvenate Noah’s career. This is sad for Knicks fans, who can’t catch a break.
Damn you, loose bodies!
No, a healthy Noah wouldn’t have charted New York on a course for the postseason, but the premature conclusion to his year emphasizes what a disaster the Knicks have been and begs the question: how much worse can it get?
And finally, here’s one from the near future. I‘m crossing my fingers and knocking on wood in hopes that it doesn’t come true…
February 28, 2017: The 76ers announce Joel Embiid will undergo season-ending arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his left knee.
I sincerely hope nothing sidelines Embiid for longer than a few more games. He’s been so much fun to watch, and Sixers fans deserve reason for Process optimism after Ben Simmons was ruled out for the season and Nerlens Noel was dealt for a pittance.
That said, in my completely unqualified and nonsensical medical opinion, this feels like a situation in which loose bodies may be present. Embiid was initially day-to-day with what was believed to be a bone bruise. Then, after an MRI, that bone bruise became a slightly torn meniscus that didn’t require surgery. A few weeks have passed, and swelling has returned to Embiid’s knee, prompting the scheduling of another MRI.
If the MRI finds loose bodies, it won’t be a surprise — not in this NBA season. If it does, though, it won’t be the end of the world. It will mean his season is over, yes, but it will also mean that his trajectory towards a career replete with All-Star appearances is intact. Still, the disappointment will be difficult to stomach in Philadelphia, where disappointments are again becoming a weekly occurrence after unfamiliar optimism pervaded in the early stages of the year.
A real diagnosis will come in what could be minutes, hours, or days, and with any luck, a couple of weeks of additional rest will have Embiid on the floor again this year.
If you’re keeping score at home, here’s what loose bodies have done so far this season. These pesky issues, which typically start with seemingly innocuous soreness, have:
- Derailed a Western Conference contender’s title challenge before it even got started (we all know it was never going to happen, but shhh, let the Clippers fans dream)
- Ignited the previously non-existent title hopes of Eastern Conference teams not located in Cleveland
- Poured cold water on those very same hopes in Toronto, where the pursuit of contention was most urgent
- Sunk an already depressed franchise to depths previously unfathomable, and etched another dent in the armor of a fierce but battered competitor
NBA players across the league, I implore you: hold your bodies (whether in your wrists, knees, ankles, or elbows) tight this evening. You never know when they’ll loosen and turn the NBA on its head again.