The NBA playoffs are often defined by an injury that alters the fate of a championship contender. Derrick Rose’ ACL in 2012. Kevin Garnett’s knee in 2009. On Sunday, the first significant injury of the 2015 NBA playoffs occurred when Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love became entangled with Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk as the two grappled for a rebound. As Olynyk pulled away, he took Love’s arm with him and the Cleveland forward instantly reacted in pain. Love headed straight to the locker room where he was diagnosed with a shoulder dislocation. His availability moving forward is now in question, as he will return to Cleveland for further evaluation.
Shoulder injuries aren’t uncommon in the NBA and come in a wide variety of degrees with an assortment of associated problems. An injury classified as a dislocation generally refers to an injury to the alignment of the glenohumeral joint. The glenohumeral is the ball and socket joint of the shoulder and loosely resembles a golf ball sitting on a tee. The joint is made up of the head of the humerus (the golf ball) articulating in a groove of the shoulder blade known as the glenoid cavity (the tee). The ball (head of the humerus) can freely pivot on the tee (glenoid) allowing for a large degree of motion. A fibrocartilaginous ring known as the labrum widens the glenoid to insure stability of the ball on the tee. Additional muscles, ligaments, and soft tissue reinforce the glenohumeral joint and helped keep the shoulder in place.
However, excessive force, like the arm being pulled violently downward, can displace the humerus from the glenoid. If the surrounding structures are able to naturally realign the joint, the injury is referred to as a subluxation or partial dislocation. A true dislocation occurs when the displacement of the joint is complete. Following an injury of this magnitude, the joint must often be realigned by medical personnel and is considered a much more serious injury.
The return to play time following shoulder dislocation appears to be dependent on the amount of damage to the surrounding tissues, particularly the labrum. If the tear is small and the instability is minimal, general rehab can improve the area with a focus on improving the musculature surrounding the joint. Surgery may still be warranted down the road but it can be delayed. Still the associated pain and swelling often requires time to heal. Additionally, even if this ends up being an option for Love, the risk for re-injury would be considerable for the remainder of the postseason. A significant labrum tear would likely require immediate surgery and force Love to miss a substantial amount of time.
As previously mentioned, pinning down the specifics surrounding a potential return to play is largely dependent on what Love’s future evaluation reveals. However the numbers do not paint a particularly promising picture for Cavaliers fans. Looking through the InStreetClothes.com injury database, there have been 18 in-season injuries classified as complete dislocations. It does not include shoulder subluxations, even if the injury involved labrum damage (ie. Eric Gordon earlier this season). Only two players, Glen Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, suffered an injury reported as a dislocation and did not miss any subsequent games. After that, the best-case scenario is Channing Frye, who missed five games over a 14-day stretch of the 2010-11 season. However even that appears a bit misleading as Frye would sublux the shoulder the following season and undergo surgery on the troublesome joint in the summer of 2012.
More information will surface over the next 48 hours and Love’s availability for the second round hinges on the results of his impending MRI. In the meantime, the Cavaliers and their fans may want to start cheering for the Bucks as a prolonged matchup with the Bulls would at least buy their starting forward some time.