Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The playoff run is heating up. It's a fan's dream, with top teams in both conferences jockeying for position with the postseason looming.
And yet ... as Stephon Marbury (a player deemed unsuitable to be a New York Knick for most of this season) starts a major home game for the defending champions, does it seem just a little compromised?
An awful lot of teams in the playoff mix are missing an awful lot of key players.
Which makes an old idea as fresh as ever: Would a shorter NBA season be better?
It came up again this weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. When Brian Burke, president and general manager of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs said that the current NBA and NHL schedules simply taxed players bodies too much, he drew nods and seconds from a panel that featured the likes of Jeff Van Gundy and Daryl Morey.
The conversation-ender, however, is the case that a shorter season would mean less revenue, and lower salaries. But ... Might a bad economy change all that? For some teams -- presumably more in a slow economy, although that's not obvious -- staging an NBA game is a money-losing event, and a shorter season with lower salaries could presumably mean reduced losses.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that the season is too taxing on bodies. Look no further than one of the NBA's best coaches, Gregg Popovich, recently resting his stars for a big game against a Western rival.
Fewer games would mean more rest, fresher bodies, and also reduced opportunities for major injuries.
So, with that in mind, how healthy is the league? Here's a spin through the league: What injury situations are keeping teams and their fans up at night?
Los Angeles Lakers
Of course, since January 31 the Laker story this season is once again: "Had Bynum been healthy."
Kurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold says the pain of last year is still fresh. "The thing to remember is that Game 6 of last year's Finals left a psychological scar on Lakers fans, and all these little things going wrong just picks at the scab a little."
Whether you characterize it as toughness or mental fortitude, the difference on defense is Bynum, says Helin. "The Lakers went with a more aggressive defensive system this season, focused on early help from a big, all of it designed to slow penetration. Bynum, with his big body and long arms, is the kind of shot blocker that the system needs to really work."
Bynum is at least three weeks away from returning. However, the Lakers have flourished without him. "The key change, says Helin, "is the ball goes inside to Pau Gasol now, maybe the best passing big man in the league. So, players are cutting and moving without the ball when Gasol has it, because they know they will rewarded for their efforts. With Bynum, the ball sticks a little more. However, the Lakers don't really lose much offensive efficiency because Bynum shoots such a high percentage and gets so close to the rim. The offense isn't much better with Bynum out, it's just prettier."
San Antonio Spurs
There isn't a team in the NBA more fixated on the health of its team headed into the postseason than the Spurs. If it means holding out relatively healthy veterans for a road game, and pissing off the entire city of Denver, so be it.
48 Minutes of Hell's Timothy Varner describes Popovich's mindset: "Gregg Popovich organizes each championship run around a few abiding principles, one of which is the need to have everyone healthy in time for the postseason. He's a realist. If the Spurs aren't healthy, they won't win a title; if healthy, they're as good as anyone. People might not like it, but he's willing to squander regular season wins in exchange for healthy bodies. In other words, he'd rather play on the road in the postseason with a healthy team than at home bruised and gimpy. In some scenarios, a 4 seed is more attractive to him than a 2 seed."
Right now, things are precarious on the injury front for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili is out with a stress reaction in his right ankle. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan continues to nurse right quad tendonosis. Even newcomer Drew Gooden won't join the fold entirely healthy.
So what's the solution for the Spurs?
"Coach Popovich is committed to pushing his team to peak late, and to ride that peak through the postseason ... Popovich must find a way for his team to gel without overextending his ailing stars. He must find a way for Gooden and Ginobili to share court time without exasperating their current injuries ... So does Pop let his stars rest for as long as possible, preferring good health to shared minutes? Or does he push his core to come back quickly, preferring cohesion to complete recovery?" wonders Varner. "Hopefully, he doesn't have to choose. But right now, he's in a pinch. He must play Batman to the Injury Joker's ethical conundrum."
The Nuggets weathered Carmelo Anthony's fractured right hand, going 6-4 during his ten-game absence. Anthony has a few other aches and pains -- an elbow contusion, for one -- but his production has been solid.
Denver got another scare when Nene was carried off the floor on February 22 in Milwaukee with a bruised knee. Fortunately for the Nuggets, Nene missed only two games, and hasn't seemed to suffered any ill effects since his return.
Denver's Ailment of the Week is currently Kenyon Martin's strained lower back. He missed Saturday night's game against Sacramento. His status is day-to-day. The Nuggets are in a dog fight with Portland for the Northwest Division crown -- and the first-round home court advantage that comes with it. Roundball Mining Company's Jeremy Wagner hopes that George Karl will handle Martin with care. "The Nuggets need Kenyon healthy so they should hold him out until he is fully healthy so it does not drag on into the playoffs."
Backup point guard Anthony Carter has missed the past three games due to a hip injury. Like Martin
, Carter is exercising caution, with an eye toward the postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers
Any discussion of Portland's injury situation begins and ends with Greg Oden. The #1 pick in the 2007 draft is currently sidelined with a chipped kneecap -- another in a lengthy series of injuries.
"He's not 100% because there's a two-year recovery from the microfracture he had on one knee. He's not 100% because he has a chipped kneecap on the other knee. He's not 100% because he's adjusting to the NBA. Everybody who loves the Blazers wants that guy to be 100%," says Henry Abbott, the principal of this fair blog.
If Oden can't be effective, the Blazers will have to count on Joel Przybilla to hold down the middle. Przybilla is a classic lunch-pail guy, but he hasn't been entirely healthy either, playing with a broken wrist for a fair amount of the season.
Less discussed is Martell Webster. The talented, young wingman has played only five minutes all season with a stress fracture in his left foot. Official word came down Tuesday that Webster is out for the season.
"While Portland gets good minutes from Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Travis Outlaw, if Webster were back, he'd probably be the starting wing -- and at his age, you'd expect him to begin peeking ... So that lingers," says Henry.
With the emergence of Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw at small forward, Portland hasn't missed Webster, but you have to wonder how much Webster could've helped out when the Blazers go cold from the outside.
When the oft-injured Tracy McGrady announced on his website that he was shutting it down for the season to have microfracture surgery on his left knee, conventional wisdom said that the Rockets had fallen out of contention. They traded starting point guard Rafer Alston the next day, which some took as indication that the Rockets were packing it in. Theoretically, losing your superstar for the season should be a death knell, but the Rockets have coalesced in McGrady's absence and have stifled opponents with their aggressive defense. As Rockets Buzz's Brody Rollins puts it, "If there is a team capable of dealing with significant injuries, it would be this one."
Reserve forward Carl Landry returned March 1 after sitting out five games with an ankle injury. Judging from his season-high 22-point performance two nights later, Landry is ready for the stretch drive. Aaron Brooks collided with Shaquille O'Neal on Friday -- never a good thing -- but was able to rest his sore thigh by playing only 24 minutes in the Rockets' win over Memphis on Sunday, and isn't worried in the long-term.
New Orleans Hornets
sprained right ankle turf toe might be the most notorious injury of the year, as it nullified the trade between the Hornets and the Oklahoma City Thunder that would've shipped Chris Paul's alley-oop partner out of the Big Easy. Chandler will remain with the Hornets for the duration of the season, but his production has fallen off measurably, and he's evidently not 100%.
Not all is well with Peja Stojakovic either. The sharpshooter's back tightened up during the Hornets game on Monday night, and he sat out games Thursday and Saturday. In addition, Mo Peterson has missed 17 games due to a left foot injury. Peterson is one of the team's better wing defenders. Given that there's been some slippage in the Hornets' defensive efficiency this season, a healthy Peterson could come in very handy in the playoffs.
The Jazz have been beset by injuries all season. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Andrei Kirilenko have been sidelined for long stretches of the season, but the Jazz are getting healthy at just the right time. Boozer's game was a little creaky his first week back, but the Jazz' man on the low block had a breakout effort Wednesday night -- 20 points and 17 rebounds against a strong Houston Rockets defense -- before spraining an ankle Friday night against Denver. He sat out Sunday's game against Toronto as a precaution. He hopes to return to the floor Tuesday.
It would've sounded crazy as recently as six weeks ago, but the Jazz, winners of 11 straight, appears to be one of the West's healthiest squads headed into the playoff drive, which makes them very, very dangerous.
The Mavs have dodged landmines on the injury front for the better part of the season. Jason Terry underwent successful surgery on his left hand and missed several weeks, but is back on the court, wearing a protective glove. Unfortunately for the Mavs and their fans, Jet and his handwear clearly aren't at 100%. Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game offers this grim impression of the gloved Terry: "Terry has yet to truly return to form. Under most circumstances, Terry's injury would be an unfortunate accident, but in light of the ultra-tight playoff race in the West, Dallas needs Terry to be in top-form. Any complications in Terry's status could prove fatal, not just for the Mavs' playoff chances, but for the roster as we know it."
Josh Howard's nagging ankle issue may be the most pivotal injury factor for the Mavs. Has it been a problem? Sometimes yes [seven points in 18 minutes vs. New Orleans on March 5], sometimes no [29 points on 10-15 shooting vs. San Antonio the previous night], sometimes he gets to rest the ankle against a lesser opponent [Saturday vs. Washington]. Either way, the Mavs can't compete without him. "The Mavs have had their struggles with Howard in the lineup, and certainly can'
t afford to play many games without him. He may not be perfect, but the declarations that Howard is the Mavs' most important player (read: x-factor) are no lie," says Mahoney.
Amare Stoudemire's partially detached retina on February 18 wins the award for "Most Discussed NBA Injury in Non-Sports Publications." Sitting ninth in the Western Conference, the Suns had plenty of work to do before Stoudemire went on the shelf. Steve Nash is day-to-day with a "purple and sore" ankle, and veteran swingman Grant Hill is battling a neuroma -- a bundling of nerves -- near the ball of his left foot. Meanwhile, Shaquille O'Neal is battling father time.
Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns is on pins and needles. "I'm petrified that something bad will happen any time Nash hits the deck, because this team is one more lengthy injury away from 'wait 'til next year.' ... When you consider Hill's injury history and the good fortune he's had playing in every game this season as well as Shaq no longer resting on back-to-backs, you have to wonder how much longer the Suns' veteran trio of Nash, Shaq and Hill will be able to hold up."
The eighth slot in the West is looking more and more remote for the Suns, who don't seem to have enough healthy bodies to leap-frog their rivals in the conference.
The fate of the world hangs in the balance, as New England awaits Kevin Garnett's clean bill of health. Garnett has been sidelined since February 19 with a posterior muscle strain of the right knee. The Celtics have been extremely cautious with Garnett. Head coach Doc Rivers has said that he'd rather the C's be the number seven seed with Garnett at 100% than secure the top seed with a less-than-healthy version of his superstar.
How fixated are Celtics fans? Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "We are obsessing about Kevin Garnett. We're interviewing surgeons, tracking how much time he spends on treadmills and pumping our fists when Doc says KG is walking without a limp for the first time. We all know the Celtics cannot win the title again without KG at or very near 100 percent -- and I'm not really even comfortable with that "very near" qualification. He needs to be able to slide, rotate and rush out on shooters like a maniac for the C's defense to be at its havoc-creating best. Even in a small sample size (which has grown larger with his injury), the C's defense is a full five points better per 100 possessions with KG on the floor."
Boston lost another two bodies this weekend. Rajon Rondo sprained his right angle in the Celtics' big Friday night win over Cleveland. His energy, defense, and mastery of the offense were sorely missed in Sunday's sluggish loss to Orlando, as Doc Rivers was forced to start Stephon Marbury. Glen Davis joined the Celtics' crowded training room. He sprained his right ankle in the third quarter Sunday, and left the Garden on crutches.
Depth has been an issue all season for the Celtics, a problem exacerbated by Brian Scalabrine's postconcussion syndrome, which will keep him out of action for a month. Tony Allen will miss the remainder of the regular season after he had surgery to repair ligaments in his left thumb. The Celtics fortified their bench by adding Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury, but Allen's skill set -- especially his ability to defend athletic wing players -- hasn't been accounted for in the pickups.
Allen is a mercurial offensive player, but Lowe says Celtics diehards will gladly accept those shortcomings if Allen is healthy enough to shut down the opposition. "I think astute C's fans are worried about Allen being rusty when the playoffs start. The Celtics are going to need him to play well during a few key stretches in order to repeat."
Paul Pierce is coping with a fussy thumb he dislocated in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on February 25, but it doesn't appear to be anything major.
If Friday night's loss to Boston is any indication, the Cavaliers are sorely missing Ben Wallace's defensive presence inside. The big man broke his leg on February 26, and the Cavs have been making do with Anderson Varejao in his place. Though Varejao represents an offensive upgrade, he can't do what Wallace does on the other end of the floor.
It's not all bad news for the Cavs. Guard Delonte West has looked solid since returning from a fractured wrist. Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed four weeks in January with a left ankle fracture. Despite a dip in his field goal percentage, Z has been fairly sturdy since his return. Sasha Pavlovic was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain on February 9, an injury that kept him out of action for three weeks. He returned last week, but has tallied only 25 minutes of action in three games.
Backcourt depth has been a periodic issue for the Cavs this season, as both Wally Szczerbiak and Tarance Kinsey picked up starts at shooting guard during February. A dominant team like Cleveland can fill holes and not miss a beat in the dead of winter, but the Cavs will need a full rotation of productive guards to win the title this spring.
The Magic don't have a long list of casualties, but their one major injury was costly. Starting point guard Jameer Nelson, in the midst of an All-Star season, suffered a torn labrum of his right shoulder that requi
red season-ending surgery on February 19. The Magic filled the hole at the 1 by acquiring Rafer Alston from Houston at the trade deadline. Though Alston hasn't shot the ball well, the Magic are 7-2 since he joined the team.
Apart from Nelson, the Magic appear fit for the postseason, which will be vital in a second-round matchup against Boston or Cleveland.
Josh Smith missed a dozen games in November due to a high ankle sprain. Has the injury had a lasting effect? Hoopinion's Bret LaGree noticed something unsettling, namely that Smith's blocked shot rate dropped sharply upon his return -- though that trend has leveled off recently.
More than specific injuries, Hawks fans worry about fatigue among the team's key players. LaGree says, "The main concern is that Mike Woodson will wear out the starters (especially Joe Johnson since Woodson was willing to play him a lot just so Johnson could make the All-Star team) in an effort to remain the fourth-seed in the East."
Marvin Williams left the Hawks' Saturday win over Detroit in the fourth quarter with a strained back and didn't return to action. He's considered day-to-day.
The Hawks gave Boston a real test in the first round of last season's playoffs. If a hobbled Celtics team met up with a healthy, young, athletic Atlanta squad in the Eastern Conference Semis, the C's could be in for another exhausting series.
Rooting for a player to get injured is bad karma plain and simple, but Pistons fans have to wonder if the basketball gods haven't blessed them by sidelining Allen Iverson for two weeks with a sore back. When Iverson went down on February 25, the Pistons got well, chalking up wins over division leaders in their last three games. Dan Feldman of Piston Powered isn't karmically inclined: "Iverson's back injury has made them a better team."
Iverson released a statement through the Pistons on Thursday. "I'm disappointed that the soreness I'm feeling in my back is going to force me to miss two weeks of action," Iverson said. "After talking with the doctors at Georgetown yesterday they have told me that treatment and rest is the best course of action right now. Hopefully my back with heal and I'll be ready to go following this two-week period."
Upon Iverson's return, the Pistons' fortunes might be a matter of mental -- not physical -- health, one based largely on whether the superstar will accept a bench role.
Heat fans will hold their collective breath with the news that Dwyane Wade has been undergoing treatment for his left knee. Wade told Ira Winderman on Tuesday that it's nothing more than the usual wear-and-tear of the long NBA season. "Just 60 games into the season, you get typical soreness from playing a lot of minutes and pounding, doing a lot of things on the court, trying to get wins ... I'm just trying to take care of my body and do everything I can."
Michael Beasley left Satuday night's game briefly with an apparent ankle injury, but soon returned to the floor. Otherwise, the Heat are a fit bunch headed into spring.
The Sixers' costliest injury, Elton Brand, feels a lot like Detroit's Iverson predicament. Brand is a valuable post presence, but ever since he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, the Sixers have been picking up the tempo and moving up the Eastern Conference standings.
Starting shooting guard Willie Green has been nursing a strained tendon in his right foot and missed Wednesday's practice, but returned on Thursday to run with the team.
Green and Iguodala are one of the best defensive wing tandems in the game. Needless to say, Green's health will be a pivotal factor when the Sixers have to account for either Ray Allen or Delonte West in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bucks are this year's designated M*A*S*H* unit, having lost their best perimeter player, Michael Redd, and their starting center, Andrew Bogut. Redd tore his ACL and MCL on January 24, and will miss the remainder of the season, while the stress fracture in Bogut's back makes his return to the court this season highly questionable.
Point guard Luke Ridnour fractured his right thumb on February 5, but missed only five games. Unfortunately for the Bucks, Ridnour has shot below 30% from the field since his return.
Through it all, Milwaukee has remained competitive for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. But can the healthy trio of Charlie Villanueva, Richard Jefferson, and Ramon Sessions hold off the rest of the Eastern Conference's also-rans?
Small forward Luol Deng is the Bulls' only major casualty. Wednesday, the team released a statement describing Deng's injury, which he suffered on February 28, as an "early anterior tibial stress fracture." The Bulls are listing Deng as day-to-day, but how long Deng will be on the shelf remains a mystery.
Less devastating, but still a concern, is Kirk Hinrich's bruised right quad. Chicago's most notable backcourt defender missed Sunday practice, but is expected to play Monday night against Miami at less than 100%.
Can the Bulls sneak into the postseason without Deng? Newly-acquired John Salmons has filled in for Deng at the smal
l forward to mixed results. Salmons and Deng have similar efficiency numbers this season, as Deng has missed batches of game this season to a groin injury and a sprained ankle. But Deng's absence hurts the Bulls' depth on the wing down the stretch in a crowded field for the eighth slot.
New Jersey Nets
If the scrum from the eighth spot in the East is decided by the relative health of the contenders, then the Nets might be sitting in the best position. Devin Harris is coping with a strained hamstring tendon, and spent much of Friday morning with an icebag on his knee. If you watched Harris on the court Friday night in Orlando, you'd never know it. Harris finished with 25 points and nine assists in a losing effort.
The Nets' only other major injury belongs to Eduardo Najera, but he hasn't been a factor all season.
In the 12 games prior to January 27 when, in the words of Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops, "Andrew Bynum re-arranging Gerald Wallace's rib cage," the Bobcats went 8-4. Wallace's absence slowed their momentum, but the team has improved upon since Wallace's return -- they're currently riding a six-game winning streak -- and Wallace's bruised right heel is clearly a manageable ailment.
In addition to Wallace, both Emeka Okafor and Raja Bell are suffering from injuries. In Okafor's case, a minor ankle sprain, but Bell is nursing a right shoulder strain, a somewhat more debilitating condition that's keeping him day-to-day. Bell's injury worries Hainline: "Losing Bell for any games would deal a likely death blow to the Bobcats playoff hopes. The Augustin/Felton backcourt works well in spurts, but due to their size-deficiency, it is not something the Bobcats can rely on for major minutes every night."
If these three Bobcat starters can work through their aches and pains, Charlotte could emerge as a strong contender for the coveted eighth spot over the final month of the season.
Few individual players have been more indispensable to their teams than Danny Granger. When the All-Star went down with a partially torn tendon in his right foot on February 18, hope seemed lost for the Pacers. To make matters worse, one of the Pacers' other scoring threats, forward Mike Dunleavy, may be undergo knee surgery, and is out for the season. The timetable for Granger's return is uncertain, and it's hard to see Indiana vaulting four or more teams to claim the last spot in East without him.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are a comparatively healthy squad in the race for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. Guard Nate Robinson suffered a sprained ankle on Febuary 28 and missed Wednesday night's game against Atlanta, before returning Saturday night against Charlotte. Jared Jeffries is dealing with a bruised knee. Neither injury is believed to be serious. The vertical cartilage tear in Eddy Curry's right knee, while a serious injury, is inconsequential to a team that moved on without him long ago.
As a long shot for the playoffs, "they need to remain healthy to stay in the hunt," says Knickerblogger's Mike Kurylo. We asked Knickerblogger to name the last player the Knicks could afford to lose to injury. "It's Chris Duhon. Duhon is not the team's best player, but New York is paper thin at point guard."