Was Chris Paul’s hamstring injury avoidable?

Posted on May 30, 2018

(Last Updated On: May 30, 2018)

“Bad luck.”

That’s how the Rockets experience against the Warriors has been summed up. Namely because of Chris Paul’s hamstring strain in game five.

Let’s look at the injury,

So that’s not like he stepped on a guy’s foot, had someone fall on him or slipped. There’s no “shit happens” kind of play there.

Furthermore, hamstring injuries are notoriously an overexertion injury. It’s common for football players to strain a hamstring when holding out during training camp. While the player may have been working out on their own, they can’t replicate the intensity of practice. Inevitably, they come into training camp a few weeks behind everybody else, yet try to go at everybody else’s intensity, and pop, there goes the hamstring.

Also, notice when Paul gets hurt- at the end of the game. We have obvious grounds for looking at fatigue.


Chris Paul’s minutes

A training effect starts to dissipate after a couple weeks of not using it. Let’s look at Paul’s last few months of basketball before playing the Warriors in the conference finals:

Up until the last two games of the Utah series, Paul’s average minutes per game was 31:52. The same as his season average- 31.8.

And it’s not like he’d been sporadically playing higher minute games here or there to maintain that ability. He’s very consistently around his average.

The last two games of Utah he’s at 35:16 and 37:41, and then Golden State starts,

From the last two games of Utah to his injury on May 24th, Paul averages 36:38 minutes.

However, notice the score differentials with the last two Utah and first three Golden State games. They’re all blowouts.

The last two Golden State games he not only increases his minutes well above his season average, 10 minutes more than average in one of the games!, but those games are undoubtedly more intense. Let’s lowball it and say they’re only 5% more intense. Let’s say that simply equates to,

36.5 minutes *1.05 = 38.4 minutes

-> In my experience, a small increase in intensity equals an exponential increase in tissue stress.

Compared to his regular season and early playoff run, Paul is,

38.4 / 31.8 = 1.2

Playing 20% more minutes.

This doesn’t account for how much more intense the playoffs are either. When accounting for intensity, you could easily say Paul was playing 30% more minutes against Golden State than he was in the regular season.


Playing a lot of minutes in the regular season has ADvantages too

Lebron’s playoff and regular season minutes has been incessantly talked about.

Lebron James strength is his weakness (Don’t avoid Lebron. Go at him.)

It’s always in a negative light. Most obviously because the more a player plays the more you worry about them breaking down.

This gets extra attention towards the end of the regular season. You’ll often see teams whose seeding is set rest their guys before the playoffs begin, so they enter the playoffs fresh.

This can have drawbacks.

First, again, playoff minutes are more intense than regular season minutes. It’s true you, on average, get more rest between playoff games than regular season, but the extra intensity more than makes up for this rest. (You see players get progressively tired in an intense series; not progressively refreshed.)

Second, the games matter more, and, at some point, are unlikely blowouts, meaning the best players tend to play more.

We have a double whammy here. Star players play harder and more minutes in the playoffs. You can’t thrust a guy into that without risk.

It’s like football. Ideally, you’d have nobody ever practice hitting each other, to avoid injury risk…but if you do that, your team has no idea how to play in a game, because hitting is a necessity!

It’s a very hard balance, but the obvious flaw to avoid is a sudden ramp up in intensity and duration. With the playoffs, there is no avoiding the ramp up in intensity. That’s part of the deal. Thus, the best you can, you want to have your guys used to playing longer minutes. This is where Lebron has an advantage with all those minutes. Playing a lot of time in the playoffs is nothing new to his body. It’s also where having too easy of a first round series -where you don’t need to play your guys as much- can come back to bite you.

-> Even if it is a lot of work, you would rather continue a lot of work than be rested yet suddenly exposed to a significantly new stimulus. For instance, the marathoner who is a bit worn down is still better prepared for a marathon than the runner who hasn’t even run 20 miles in training.

Or, the 400 lb squatter who has been training hard is better prepared for a 400 lb squat than the person who has not gone heavier than 300 lbs in a few months. While the tired person is in a riskier situation than we’d like, going 33% heavier -from 300 lbs to 400 lbs- too quickly, is a catastrophe waiting to happen.


Of course, this is easier said than done. Let’s use an example.

  • Games 1, 2, 3, are blowouts by the home team. So the series is 2 -1.
    • Naturally, in blowouts, starters play less minutes. The coach saves his guys for the next game.
  • Game 4 is huge for the team who is down. Go down 3-1 and the series is, mathematically, basically over.
    • Game 4 the team down plays even harder, and plays the starters more minutes
  • Series is tied 2-2.
  • Game 5 is huge. It’s something like a game 5 winner wins the series 80% of the time.
    • Game 5 is close. The natural inclination is play your best players more in the most important games. The team that was down 2-1 has now played its star players more intensely with more minutes in back to back games

That’s more or less what happened with the Rockets (and a lot of series), and boom, Chris Paul gets hurt.


There are a few avenues to avoid this.

1. Don’t play someone like Chris Paul those extra minutes in the bigger games.

Tough to pull this off. The star player will be irate; you are going to get questioned as the coach.

2. Play your star players even in the blowout scenario, so they stay used to the higher minutes.

That’s also tough. You look like you’re running up the score; if a guy gets hurt in garbage time you could very well get fired.

3. The avenue I’d pick is after the game, do a scrimmage where it’s known you are extra cautious about e.g. not landing under another guy’s feet. If you feel that’s too risky, do some conditioning drills where you don’t have to worry about “shit happens” plays.

(You don’t want to do this on days between games, because you want a full recovery day.)

By the way, that’s not to say the Rockets didn’t do this. (But I HIGHLY doubt they did.) I can’t remember exactly where, but I’ve read of team’s having their backups scrimmage the day after a game (again, not ideal) for this very reason. You don’t want a backup who has barely played for two months suddenly needing to play 20 minutes. In soccer, this is routine. When you’re talking needing to play 70+ minutes, the need to be in game shape is even more obvious. Football it is non-existent. Basketball, I don’t believe it is common, at all. For instance, where do the away teams scrimmage? You clearly never see them back on the floor. (The announcers are often around the court for a while after a game. You rarely see teams or players out there too.) They’re instead on their way to the airport.


Chris Paul has some specifics that make this all the more important. His age (33), his general susceptibility to injury -one reason his average minutes were so low in the regular season to begin with- and his history of hamstring issues. (The biggest predictor of future hamstrings issues is past ones.) Where a sudden ramp in minutes and intensity will be even riskier to him.


Luck aka staying healthy is always key to winning a championship, but luck is not the only factor in staying healthy.

Kevin Durant’s, Klay Thompson’s and Draymond Green’s minutes didn’t change at all in the entire 2018 playoffs. (Though Steph Curry’s did. However, he was coming off an injury and doesn’t have the hamstring history or age that Paul does. You worry about fatigue with a hamstring much more than a MCL sprain.) They played upwards of 40 minutes, even in the first round.

I can’t say for sure the Warriors took this i.e. physiology into consideration, but it’s plausible they started playing their big players more minutes in the first round, a fairly easy round for them, in preparation for the latter rounds. And they do look to handle some of these issues better than others.

Steve Kerr deserves major props for how he handles his players’ health

Regardless, it is a clear advantage their players had over the way Chris Paul was handled.

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