Secret to NBA success? Able bodies

How the Heat manage Dwyane Wade's playing time when he comes back will be a key this season. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It took little more than an hour of Week 1 of the NFL regular season to determine definitively that unprecedented offense, offense unchecked and unabated, would be the theme of the fall and winter. Remember? Drew Brees threw for 419 yards in a 42-34 shootout loss to Green Bay in the opener, followed that weekend by a 517-yard passing performance by Tom Brady and a 422-yard outing by Cam Newton?

It hasn't taken much more time than that to figure out the theme of the 2012 NBA season:


It's one thing to suspect injuries might have a big impact on the season, which we began to do the moment the labor lockout led to a shortened training camp, a barely existent preseason and a severely compressed regular season. But it's another to realize it, to see three-quarters of the teams scrambling already to cover for players of consequence missing in action, to see sprains and tears become such a dominant storyline that the team trainer is some nights better equipped than the coach to fill out the starting lineup.

Already, less than a dozen games in for some teams, the NBA could trot out an All-Injury Team of Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose at guard, Carmelo Anthony and Zach Randolph at forward and Brook Lopez at center that could absolutely reach the NBA Finals. There's even a pretty good All-Injured International Team of Steve Nash and Manu Ginobili, Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani and Luc Mbah a Moute that could finish fairly high up in the standings.

So here's the only prediction I'll boldly make for the rest of the regular season: The coach and staff that best manage their team's injuries will win the NBA championship in late June. Talent ultimately will matter less than health.

Consider a continued list of impact players/former All-Stars who already have missed multiple games because of some injury or another: Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Al Horford, Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Eric Gordon, Jason Richardson and Steph Curry. The 76ers started wonderfully but now have reason to worry about center Spencer Hawes' Achilles tendon.

That doesn't take into account the Chicago Bulls, despite having the NBA's best record, playing a game last week without their top three guards: Rose, Hamilton and C.J. Watson. Or that Oklahoma City will be without its calming influence, backup point guard Eric Maynor, for the rest of the season. Or that Memphis, in addition to losing Randolph for several more weeks, lost backup center/forward Darrell Arthur for the season before it even started.

Or that Kobe Bryant perhaps should be sitting out with that injured wrist instead of taking cortisone shots to keep playing. Kobe's minutes, alarmingly since he's in his 16th season, are up over last season, something coach Mike Brown said Tuesday must change in the coming days.

Never has the phrase "next man up" had more meaning to NBA teams. Even coaches notorious for ignoring their bench players have no choice but to use them. And not just use them, but trust them, plan their game around them, understand that there's no such thing as, "We don't have a deep bench." If you're paying 'em, you'd better have a deep bench. Even Mike D'Antoni, who during his days coaching the Phoenix Suns would rather have drunk arsenic than play more than two subs, is using 10 of his Knicks now. Just the other night, in a loss, D'Antoni played his ninth man, Jared Jeffries, 25 minutes. Eighth man Toney Douglas played 22 minutes.

Guess what? It ain't a luxury.

When the schedule makers went to work after the end of the lockout, much was made of every team having at least one back-to-back-to-back, three-games-in-three-nights sprint, which hadn't happened since the last lockout in 1999. But more destructive, probably, are the longer, grueling stretches. The Bulls, for example, just played 10 games in 14 days. They follow that in short order with seven games in 10 days.

In retrospect, the NBPA should probably have insisted on something between 50 and 55 regular-season games this year, although that surely would have precipitated another schedule-wrecking fight with the owners. As is, coaches have to be more creative than ever before to protect their greatest assets, even if that means sitting them for big home games and angering season-ticket holders. Rose wanted to play Tuesday night in Chicago against Phoenix, but the coaches/staff persuaded him not to. And of course that was the only wise course of action. (I would tell Rose that every time the team wins a game without him, he automatically has to sit the next game.)

The Bulls can beat the Wizards and Suns without Rose, but they couldn't possibly win a playoff series against any team of any consequence without him. Chances are, his sprained toe is going to bother Rose for most of, if not all of, the entire season. That could wipe out the Bulls' depth, which figured to really be an advantage over just about any other team in the league. The temptation is to say that Chicago will need every bit of it, with the Pacers and 76ers coming on strong in the Eastern Conference, but it's entirely possible those teams simply haven't hit the hard part of their injury patch yet.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who prefers to play pedal to the metal, probably will have to pick his spots with Rose for the foreseeable future. Same with D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony. Same with Vinny Del Negro and CP3 and Billups. Yes, 66 games sounds like a spring compared to 82, and most of the players were jacked up to start the season, and there were dopes (OK, me) who went around predicting Miami would win 58 or 60 games when the truth is even the best teams are going to have to sacrifice games here and there for the greater good. No team can afford to go after every single game with every ounce of energy and expect to have the required health and strength to negotiate the playoffs. Coaches will need to exercise more restraint than ever. Play your star 41 minutes on a Friday night at your own risk, especially if you have a game Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Part of me looks at the Celtics, appearing old and feeble here lately, and wonders whether Doc Rivers and the Sunshine Boys know exactly what they're doing, which is to say maybe they're biding their time until, oh, March 1, when every other team is in sick bay, making it the perfect time for the Celtics to jump out of the bushes and scream, "Gotcha, you morons!"

Already, two of the biggest losers because of this injury bug are Atlanta and New Jersey. Not that the Nets were going to seriously contend this season, but New Jersey and Orlando might have consummated the Lopez-and-others-for-Dwight Howard trade had Lopez been healthy and on the court to show Orlando what he can do. And the poor Hawks ... just as Larry Drew (with big help from assistant Lester Conner) started to get Atlanta to play with greater tenacity and intelligence, Horford goes out for several months with a torn pectoral muscle. Meanwhile, does Curry almost immediately reinjure his surgically repaired ankle if he can wade into the preseason/season after a training camp of regular length?

Anyone who says all this is a coincidence and couldn't be anticipated is, well, fooling himself. Physicians and trainers anticipated just this scenario. One trainer told me during the preseason that injuries would have an unprecedented impact on the 2012 season, and it looks, sadly, like he's going to be right. Eventually, teams likely will play themselves into midseason form and shed these 74-70 scores that keep showing up. Yes, the Bulls have a wonderful defense, but don't tell me that under normal circumstances they'd be holding opponents under 70 every night at home. The same conditions that have produced some pretty lousy basketball in the first three weeks of the compacted season are leading to bum ankles and feet and wrists and shoulders.

Was it worth that risk to settle the labor dispute and get the season started, damn the consequences? Probably, yes, especially for the league and its television partners. But that opinion might have to be revised if the most attractive teams miss the playoffs because their stars are injured or go into the playoffs too reduced to mount any kind of threat.

In the meantime, the management of minutes played, of rest, of playing time for the reserves, of developing players who in other seasons would be afterthoughts has never been more important ... or so worth keeping track of over the course of an NBA season.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.