Give-and-Go: Examining the implications of the league’s knee injury epidemic
Give-and-Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
We’re just a week and change into the NBA season, but the deluge of injuries is well underway. Teams across the league are scrambling to account for stars and role players lost to surgery and rehabilitation, and, in a strange bit of coincidence, the lion’s share of the wounded are currently suffering from knee-related injuries. Today we discuss the players and teams affected by those ailments, including: Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Danny Granger, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum, John Wall, Amar’e Stoudemire, Brandon Rush, Iman Shumpert, Ricky Rubio and Grant Hill.
1. Derrick Rose aside, which player’s absence will have the biggest impact on his team’s playoff chances?
Rob Mahoney: In a vacuum, Dirk Nowitzki would seem to be the easy pick. Dallas teams have historically fared miserably with Nowitzki out of the lineup, and though the Mavs’ current roster has little in common with those of years past, the overall talent level still suggests some serious reason for offensive concern.
But with those same, limited Mavs currently boasting a top-three mark in offensive efficiency, I’d say they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. There still isn’t enough firepower for Dallas to maintain its current output, but the early-season schedule is kind enough that Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo — both of whom have been outstanding — can manage an early-season run without detonating Dallas’ playoff hopes.
That leaves us with Danny Granger. The off-screen challengers in the Eastern Conference may not be all that formidable, and in all honesty, the notion of the Pacers falling out of the playoff picture altogether is pretty unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean Granger’s three-month absence won’t have a significant bearing on the Pacers’ hopes; a team previously pegged for the second or third seed in the East is now in legitimate danger of slipping into the seventh or eighth slot. That kind of freefall wouldn’t be just an inconvenience; it would create a gauntlet of mid-to-upper-tier opponents that Indiana would have virtually no hope of surviving.
Ben Golliver: I’m mildly surprised you didn’t go with Andrew Bynum, a true franchise center who hasn’t yet made an appearance for the Sixers after this summer’s four-team blockbuster trade. Granger’s known timeline of three months guarantees that his absence will require meaningful adjustments for the Pacers; Bynum’s hazy outlook — injections, indefinite timetables, etc. — leaves Philadelphia in purgatory. Back-to-back ugly losses to the Knicks seemed to render an early verdict on how the Sixers will fare without him. Their replacements — Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Kwame Brown — are inadequate and the retooled perimeter group doesn’t pack enough punch because Evan Turner still hasn’t made the leap. I don’t think Philly’s trade for Bynum deserves to be second-guessed — the Iguodala-led squad had gone as far as it could and he’s able to opt out next summer — but the last four months have unfolded along a worst case scenario path.
2. Which of these do you see as the most career-altering for the player?
BG: I worry a lot about the Warriors’ Brandon Rush, perhaps because of just how gruesome that knee injury looked and because it’s so fresh in the mind. I think, though, the answer is Amar’e Stoudemire, whose knees have long been seen as ticking time bombs since he underwent microfracture surgeries earlier in his career. If the Knicks continue to play at a high level without him, Mike Woodson will find himself in a position where it’s incredibly difficult to justify reinserting Stoudemire back into the starting lineup and playing him big minutes until he’s 100 percent. Carmelo Anthony at the 4 — surrounded by three shooters — has just worked too well and produced heights of offensive efficiency that are virtually impossible for an Anthony/Stoudemire duo to produce. The looming issue, of course, is that Stoudemire has $65 million coming to him over this season and the next two, and the Knicks have already used their amnesty clause. If the Knicks’ play turns average or worse, it’s possible that Stoudemire’s contract and star power push him back into a major role. If the Knicks remain among the East’s top teams, though, his return, especially to the starting lineup, offers more risks than rewards. It’s too early to say whether that calculus will remain the same next year and beyond, but I only see his numbers tumbling after he turns 30, which will happen next week.
RM: There’s no question that Stoudemire’s career has and will continue to be shaped by what his knees allow him to do. But I want to go back to Rush for a moment, because that brutal ACL tear will ultimately rob a solid player of the prime of his career.
Rush has neither an immense body of work nor the benefit of youth on his side, and he will face a long recovery without all that much hope of rediscovering the player he once was. Though we often take notice of a player’s diminished post-op vertical, not much is said about how these kinds of injuries affect lateral movement. That’s where Rush figures to be hit particularly hard. As a mediocre NBA athlete, Rush doesn’t have a half-step to spare in his efforts to defend the perimeter. All it takes to strip a strong wing defender of his power is the slightest of hesitations, and if this injury and recovery make Rush any less mobile, then his value as a role player is greatly diminished. That fall may not be as stark as the one that Stoudemire has experienced over the last few seasons, but it significantly alters Rush’s capacity to earn minutes and a subsequent contract.
3. Which team has handled the player’s absence the best? The worst?
RM: Dallas deserves the nod. It’s not at all surprising that this season’s Mavs are impeccably coached and working hard, but the fairly instant offensive chemistry has been quite a surprise. Rick Carlisle has allowed Dallas’ best players to dictate the flow of the offense, but ceding that control to new Mavericks like Collison and Mayo is hardly the same as trusting in the likes of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. It’s taken a substantial leap of faith for the Mavs to get where they are now, and Carlisle’s willingness to make that leap has paid off handsomely.
Nowitzki, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Shawn Marion, and Rodrigue Beaubois have all missed games due to injury. But on roll the Mavs, unencumbered by heavy expectations or even basketball logic. This team probably shouldn’t be as good as it currently is, but unselfish play, productive offensive concepts and a wholly cohesive roster has allowed a team outmatched on paper to jump off the page.
As for the worst of the bunch: woe be the Wizards. These first few games have been an exercise in John Wall appreciation, as the alternative of having an offense initiated by A.J. Price has resulted in some miserable play (even by Wizards standards). Washington has certainly had its moments, and every game is filled with teaching points. But boy is this team fairly unwatchable without Wall, competitive point margins be damned.
The Mavericks have been amazing but I’ll also tip my cap to the Timberwolves, who are 3-1 without Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love (down for a bit with broken bones in his hand). Dallas’ success looks more sustainable but Minnesota, under Rick Adelman, has been fun to watch and pleasantly surprising. Their dramatic comeback to top the Nets has probably been the signature performance so far but there’s plenty to like all-around. Nikola Pekovic is blossoming (at least if someone that rugged can “blossom”), Andrei Kirilenko hasn’t skipped a beat in his return to the NBA and Luke Ridnour has done just fine holding down the fort. Brandon Roy’s been a bit of a disappointment and yet his shooting struggles and limited mobility have been accompanied by a new-found willingness to serve as a distributor. If the entertainment factor is already there with this team, imagine what it could be once Rubio and Love return.
BG: Co-sign on the Wizards being the team most shell-shocked by the loss of Wall. There was clearly no contingency plan in place and a winless first week was the result. I also haven’t been totally enamored with the Hornets’ approach to Eric Gordon’s complicated situation. Too many contradictions and too much muddled talk from GM Dell Demps, coach Monty Williams and Gordon himself. The decision for Gordon to pursue his rehabilitation outside of New Orleans only adds another layer of confusion. The injury seemed too big for the franchise at times, with leaked reports of possible microfracture surgery, conflicting assessments from Gordon and the doctor and a fan base anxious to see its new max player take the court after virtually an entire season off. Maybe the time away will be a good thing, maybe not. Either way, they need to get their story straighter once he gets back in town.
4. Is the “Knicks are better off without Amare’ Stoudemire” talk fair or unfair?
BG: Totally fair, as discussed above. It’s not totally Stoudemire’s fault that he doesn’t work well with Anthony, but there’s absolutely no question which of the two players you would prefer if you were forced to pick one. It would take a remarkable return to health or a completely new approach to defense, passing and shot selection for Stoudemire to work well with the new Knicks in anything other than a reduced role.
RM: I’m inclined to agree. The Knicks should never have put these two players in this position to begin with, but these things tend to happen in a league with such unpredictable trade and free-agent markets. New York overspent to get Stoudemire and then gave up too much to get Anthony — effectively capping and trapping themselves into the current core, and giving themselves no room to maneuver in case things didn’t work out. With that in mind, it really does boil down to a with-or-without Stoudemire binary; we’ve seen enough of both scenarios to begin drawing legitimate conclusions, and the data is fairly one-sided. Were Stoudemire either a passable defender or a more versatile offensive player, then this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. But Amar’e's game hinges on a few select bits of spacing and play action that simply aren’t available to him in an offense dominated by Anthony, thus making things far too complicated when both players share the court.
5. Rose aside, which player’s comeback are you most anticipating?
RM: Oddly enough: Eric Gordon. Given the subtext of quotes from both Gordon and Hornets head coach Monty Williams on the subject of this particular injury, it’s safe to say that we don’t yet have the entire story. Maybe we never will. But the parallel anxieties on part of both player and coach have been communicated with long pauses and clear contradictions, and the intrigue spins ’round and ’round with Gordon’s in-scrum circumvention.
But regardless of what strange things are afoot with the Hornets’ internal politics, Gordon is the piece that could give this roster the balance it so badly needs. New Orleans is already playing some pretty impressive D, but Greivis Vasquez simply doesn’t draw enough attention on his drives to really open things up for an entire offense. A successful offense is predicated as much on projected threats as actual ones, and with a roster of role players and rookies, the Hornets just don’t have the necessary pull to score efficiently sans Gordon.
He won’t solve all of New Orleans’ problems; Vasquez’s lack of gravity will still be an issue, and the deficit in shot-creating talent remains glaring. But a healthy Gordon would be a substantial help in all of the Hornets’ offensive efforts, and it would allow an entertaining, engaged team to take a big step forward.
BG: As much as I want to see Bynum, Nowitzki, Wall and Rubio all do what they do, I’m going with a total sleeper here in Iman Shumpert. I admit up front this is probably more of an emotional pick than a basketball pick but there’s a very good chance that circumstances fall together just right so that he could have an electric impact on the Knicks’ season. His aggressive defense as a rookie deserved, and received, praise; his hustle and personality established him as a Madison Square Garden favorite early on. (The box cut hairdo is the icing on that cake.) Should the Knicks continue to find themselves solidly in the playoff picture, Shumpert’s return could be a powder keg moment for the Knicks and their fans. We saw how special Linsanity was last season; here’s hoping Shumpert’s return brings a solid piece back into the rotation plus a sequel to 2012′s Big Apple hoops excitement.