There is little question that today’s NBA players are remarkably more athletic than their counterparts of generations past. Big men are no longer the lumbering hulks who hang around the rim waiting to dunk, and guards are no longer earth-bound creators who get most of their points from outside. Unfortunately, for all of the amazing physical advances we’ve seen in professional athletes over the years, there is one constant that remains, perhaps with even more frequency: The Almighty Injury.
Injuries are the equalizers in professional sports, and can make even the best teams on paper struggle to win games in reality. This is especially true in the NBA, where one player can make or break a team’s season in a way that is much rarer in other team sports. With that in mind, we take a look at some early season injuries that have derailed a number of NBA teams already this season. As a qualifier, we’ll only be looking at players who were not expected to be out when the season began, so Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Washington’s John Wall, for example, don’t count. The Bulls and Wizards knew they had their work cut out for them coming in.
1) Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks – As the Dallas Mavericks were busy with another round of major roster changes last summer, they counted on one thing to assure them of yet another 50-win season. They knew that as long as former MVP Dirk Nowitzki was in place that they would have a fighting chance to be among the league’s elite, even with an almost entirely different supporting cast around him. But Nowitzki didn’t look quite right as training camp got underway and he struggled as the preseason schedule came around. Soreness in his knee sidelined him first, and the team hoped that rest would cure the problem, but when that didn’t work, surgery meant that Nowitzki would miss the first six weeks or so of the regular season. The Mavs held their own through a very light early schedule, but now that the games are getting a little tougher they have fallen on hard times. They have lost seven of their last ten games and currently sit in the West’s tenth seed. That will most likely change once Nowitzki is back and up to full speed, but it’s crystal clear that without a fully-healthy Nowitzki, the Mavs aren’t going anywhere this season.
2) Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers - Coming into the 2012-13 NBA season, the Indiana Pacers were supposed to be one of the league’s elite teams. They came very close to upsetting the eventual-champion Miami HEAT in postseason play and brought back many of the core components from that team to help push them to new heights. Unfortunately, tendonitis in Danny Granger’s left knee sidelined the team’s leading scorer for three months, and without him they have struggled to regain the form they had at last season’s end. Many Pacers fans were ready to trade Granger in favor of the up-and-coming Paul George, but while George has played well, he has not provided the consistent scoring threat that Granger represents. There are other problems in Indiana, from Roy Hibbert’s terrible start to the lack of great leadership at point guard, but at the heart of the team’s struggles is the absence of Granger.
3) The Minnesota Timberwolves - The Timberwolves knew they would be without starting point guard Ricky Rubio as they prepared for the start of the 2012-13 season, but they could never have predicted that Kevin Love, J.J. Barea, Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy and Nikola Pekovic would all sustain injuries that would sabotage the team’s hopes of a strong start. Head coach Rick Adelman is no stranger to injuries, of course, and he wizarded some wins even in the face of devastating personnel losses, but the team is just 6-7 on the season and that’s due to the ridiculous number of injuries they’ve sustained.
4) Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers - Some will argue that Steve Nash should be higher on this list, but the bottom line is that the Lakers were absolutely dismal even with Nash in the lineup through preseason and up until a leg fracture took him out of the lineup. Now that former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni has taken the helm in Los Angeles, it becomes even more imperative that Nash return to run the offense that was essentially created for him. The Lakers have very little margin for error, and they are in a precarious position with regards to injuries because they have very little depth behind their All-Star-laden starting lineup. Nash’s injury, which was originally only supposed to keep him out for a week, is most certainly the biggest issue facing the 7-8 Lakers. If they continue to lose once he returns, that will be another, bigger, story. Nash is scheduled for an MRI on the leg later today, so hopefully there is some good news coming for the Lakers.
5) Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers – Expectations for the Sixers haven’t been this high since Dr. J wore their jersey, as the arrival of Andrew Bynum seemed to usher in a new era of contention for the team. Unfortunately, the Sixers have already begun to experience something the Los Angeles Lakers dealt with for years, which is the oft-injured status of their starting center. When Bynum is healthy, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA. A more dynamic scorer than Dwight Howard and a serviceable defender, Bynum is capable of being the franchise cornerstone for a championship-caliber team. As the Sixers are learning the hard way, however, health is not something to be taken for granted when it comes to Bynum. It’s a credit to head coach Doug Collins and his team that they are off to a 9-6 start even without Bynum, but they have almost no chance of getting out of the first round of the playoffs if he can’t return, and then they have a difficult decision to make about his future next summer. For more on that, be sure and check out HOOPSWORLD TV, where Yannis Koutroupis and I discuss this situation.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors – See Below
Warriors Banking on Bogut
One of the longest-suffering fan bases in the NBA belongs to the Golden State Warriors, where the team has made the playoffs just once since the 1994-95 season. The new management team has gone to work quickly in an effort to change the team’s lack of postseason play, and forward David Lee likes what he’s seen so far.
“We’ve got a real good group of guys this year,” Lee tells HOOPSWORLD. “Coach [Mark Jackson] has done a real good job. We had a full training camp this year to implement stuff that he wants to get in. Eighty percent of our training camp was defense and our defensive numbers have improved a lot from last season. This year, once we get [Andrew] Bogut back, I think it’ll be even better. I’m just happy with our team so far; I think we’ve done some good things.”
Andrew Bogut, of course, is supposed to be the missing piece of the Warriors’ playoff puzzle. Acquired in a trade that sent Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks last season, Bogut has been nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of games last season and has cost him all but five games this season. Lee hasn’t spent a great deal of time playing with Bogut, but he saw enough to make him believe the two can be very effective together.
“Yeah, I’m very confident the two of us will play great together, it’s just a matter of getting the big fella back and getting him a part of what we’re doing right now,” says Lee. “Our front office has been very aggressive not only with making that big blockbuster trade, but also to add depth to this team. Carl [Landry] has played great this year, Jarrett Jack has played great, we had the injury to Brandon Rush, but because of our depth, we’ve been able to stay above water. It’s a big job from our front office and our coaching staff to put us in a good position, now we just need to follow through and play well.”
With that stated goal of improving on the defensive end, the Warriors are making marked progress in that area. Last season they allowed 101.2 points per game, ranking them 28th of 30 NBA teams in that category. This season they are allowing just 98.79 points per game, good enough for 13th in the league. They are also third in the league in rebounding, despite the absence of Bogut. Where the team is struggling most is in turnovers, where they are fifth-worst in the league with 16.43 giveaways per game. Lee says part of the reason for the high turnover rate is the number of new faces on the team.
“I think that’s part of it, yeah,” says Lee. “I think that’s something, as the season goes along, will work itself out. I’ve been on plenty of teams that try to outscore. The last two years here we’ve tried to outscore the other team and when you’re on the road, that’s when you’re really going to see a dip in your winning percentage because you’re just not going to shoot the ball well every night. I’m really happy with what our team has done defensively and we can get a lot better.”
One way in which the Warriors are likely to continue to improve defensively is on the wing, where Harrison Barnes is adept at scoring, but still finding his way on the defensive end.
“Yeah, no question, athletically, he’s got all the gifts to be a great defender and he’s a smart player, he’s got a good basketball I.Q,” says Lee of Barnes. “The biggest thing, I think, is just gaining experience. Just like any other rookie, you got to learn some lessons on how to play different guys around the league. The most difficult part is some nights you’re going to play great defense and the other guy is just going to play better offense. He’s figuring it out and figuring out ways to get better, but the most important thing is that he wants to be great at it and he’s continuing to get better each game.”
The Warriors have made measurable improvements this season, even with Bogut essentially out of the picture. They are better defensively, they’re still scoring better than 98 points per game and they currently sit in the Western Conference’s fourth seed. However, make no mistake: the only way the Warriors can expect to compete with the best teams in the NBA is with a healthy and productive Bogut in the mix. Given that he is struggling to get through full practices, it’s hard to predict how long it might take for him to actually become the cornerstone the Warriors hope he will be.