When we try to look into our crystal balls and project how the NBA season will turn out, injuries are the biggest variable -- especially for a sport in which only five players are on the court at one time and one star can have a massive impact on his team's fortunes. This weekend there were two huge injuries, as ankle sprains will keep Tony Parker and Josh Smith off their respective teams for about a month.
Smith has been the defensive key for the unbeaten Atlanta Hawks (yes, I just wrote "unbeaten Atlanta Hawks"), and while they survived in Oklahoma City Sunday night 89-85, the timing isn't great. The Hawks' thin bench was already going to be stressed by the five back-to-backs they play between now and the end of the month, and the schedule overall has a lot of games in the next four weeks -- 15, to be exact, including the much-anticipated first round playoff rematch in Boston on Wednesday.
Additionally, I have to wonder if Smith will be out longer than the stated two to four weeks. His injury was termed a high ankle sprain, while Parker's was described as a "moderate" sprain, but Smith's stated time frame is slightly less than Parker's. Either the two teams aren't using the same terminology, or Smith has a worse injury than Parker and will be out for longer. Stephania Bell, I'm beggin' ya, help us out here.
Parker's loss is even more devastating to the Spurs than Smith's absence is to the Hawks. The French speedster was leading the league in PER as he tried to keep the Spurs afloat during an early-season rough patch, one that suddenly looks a whole lot rougher now that he'll be out for about 15 games.
In his absence, San Antonio has two problems. The first is that the Spurs are losing their leading scorer and have little offense in reserve. Manu Ginobili isn't slated to return until mid-December -- around the same time Parker is supposed to return -- and San Antonio's secondary offensive players are mostly spot-up role players unable to create offense for themselves. That means we'll be seeing a steady diet of Tim Duncan, obviously, and we shouldn't be surprised if he plays closer to 40 minutes a game than his usual 30-32 over the next month.
However, there's a second problem that I mentioned last week. For reasons that escape me, the Spurs can't guard anybody -- they're last in defensive efficiency, and even before Parker went out Friday they were losing at home by 14 to a middling Heat team. One exec I talked to pointed out that the Spurs now play small for most of the game, where in the past it was a rarity, and that's changed their ability to dominate at the defensive end. Fair enough, but by any measure this is a staggering decline -- San Antonio was third in defensive efficiency a year ago, and this was about the last team you'd expect to suddenly lose its focus.
In the meantime, one has to wonder how much ground the Spurs will have to make up once Parker and Ginobili return. If we presume they'll each miss 14 games and return for the Dec. 9 game in Dallas, it's vital for the Spurs to scratch out a few wins since they're already in a hole at 1-4. Given that the upcoming schedule includes several toughies (two each against Denver and Houston, one each against Utah and Detroit), it's entirely possible the Spurs could be something like 6-13 when Parker returns. If so, San Antonio will need to play quite well over the final three-quarters of the season just to make its customary playoff trip.
It's a testament to San Antonio's success during the past decade that not one exec I talked to the past few days would even consider the idea of this team's failing. But it's fair to say that, as much as you can conclude anything from five games, you can conclude that this team might be in some serious trouble.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.