The Lakers found a scapegoat. It is Nina Hsieh, the team’s head athletic trainer, who did not have her contract renewed after this season, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, after a season that was dragged down by injuries that ultimately cost the Lakers a chance at repeating as NBA champions.
Injuries were not the only reason, though. Some poor offseason decisions by team VP Rob Pelinka were at least as much to blame.
LeBron James missed 27 games this season with a high ankle sprain that he suffered in March, and even after returning from the injury for two games in late April, sat out again because the ankle was not quite right. James played the final two regular-season games before gutting it out in the playoffs, when averaged 23.0 points, 8.0 assists and 7.2 rebounds as L.A. lost to Phoenix.
The bigger injury problem was Anthony Davis, who suffered a calf injury that also involved an injury to his Achilles tendon. The Lakers were extremely careful with that injury, which he first suffered in early February.
Davis returned in mid-April and rounded into form by the end of the season, but suffered a groin strain that kept him out for all but five minutes of the final two games against the Suns, both losses.
In all, Davis missed 36 games. Little-used bench cheerleader Jared Dudley missed 49 games. So Davis, James and Dudley account for 112 of the Lakers’ missed games because of injuries. The rest of the rotation—10 players—missed 57 games total.
Lakers Actually Were Fairly Healthy This Season
That total is deceiving, though, as it includes 11 games missed by Dennis Schroder because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols in February and May, plus nine missed by Marc Gasol, five missed by Alex Caruso and one by Alfonzo McKinnie for the same reason. Those are not games for which an athletic trainer can be held responsible.
That leaves 31 games. The Lakers had injuries to James and Davis, but other than those two, the other 10 rotation players missed just 31 games because of injuries. According to data from ManGamesLost.com, the Lakers lost a total of 196 games this season (including two-way players Kostas Antetokounmpo and Davonte Cacok). That ranks as 14th fewest, putting the Lakers in the top half of the NBA despite just 72 games between the end of the 2020 Finals and the start of the 2020-21 season.
Sure, it felt like an injury-riddled season for the Lakers, but that’s only because the team’s two stars were the ones who were forced to sit out the most. Now, take a moment to consider that one of those stars, James, is 36 years old and refused to sit out games because of load management. Strategic rest might have gone a long way toward injury prevention for James.
Consider that the other star, Davis, is arguably the most fragile superstar in the league, having missed 21.3% of his possible games in his career. The calf injury was one of the worst of his career in terms of lost games, but generally, it cannot be taken as a surprise when Davis gets injured.
Lakers Will Hire Third Trainer Since LeBron’s Arrival
But Hsieh will take the fall for the Lakers’ failures. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, she was well-liked by members of the team. Lakers fans will remember Hsieh from her often funny interactions with JaVale McGee last year.
Still, the fact that James was injured on her watch might have done in Hsieh.
“You have to read between the lines a little,” the source said. “Look at what happened the last time LeBron got hurt. You know, teams like to have stability with trainers and equipment people, things like that. That’s not been the case since LeBron got there. Not to say it is his fault, but they’re obviously struggling with that issue.”
Indeed, the Lakers had the same trainer, Gary Vitti, from 1984 through 2016, replaced by Vitti’s longtime assistant Marco Nunez. But the team fired Nunez in 2019, after James’s first season in Los Angeles—a season in which James suffered a groin injury and missed a career-high 27 games.
That could just be a coincidence, that James happened to get hurt and in both seasons that a Lakers trainer was fired. James does, after all, work a lot with his own trainer and has not had issues with trainers in the past during stops in Cleveland and Miami.
The bigger issue is that the organization appears to be putting the fallout of this season on Hsieh despite its own blatant blunders—the disappointing acquisition of Dennis Schroder, the still-inexplicable signing of Montrezl Harrell, the loss of contributors like Dwight Howard, Danny Green and JaVale McGee.
Those decisions created the problems that most likely sank this team. Changing trainers won’t help much.