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NBA Daily: Injuries Are Disrupting The Contenders

Almost every team bound for the playoffs has been impacted by injuries this season.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting something that’s almost unthinkable. At the trade deadline, the team turned over nearly half its roster in the midst of a title chase. Incorporating all those new pieces midstream was challenge enough. Now think about how Kevin Love’s extended injury absence complicated things even further.

The Cavaliers are just one contending team that has dealt with untimely injury issues this season. Injuries are never timely, but they’re an inescapable part of the NBA ecosystem. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s ankle injury forced Magic Johnson to play out of position at center on his way to becoming the only rookie to win NBA Finals MVP. Willis Reed famously limped onto the floor of Madison Square Garden to jump center against Wilt Chamberlain in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, despite a torn thigh muscle.

Injuries are a ubiquitous part of NBA postseason lore. But this season, it seems like an epidemic of injuries to key players on contending teams could alter the playoff landscape. Love appeared Tuesday in his fifth game after a 21-game absence due to a fractured hand, only to take an elbow to the face from Miami’s Jordan Mickey. He did not return and finished the game with one point and still more questions about his availability with the playoffs approaching rapidly.

James spoke after the loss in Miami about the challenge of trying to dial in rotations with Love in and out of the lineup.

“What hurt us more is that now our rotations were [in] disarray,” said James. “We had a great rotation thing down the last few games. For a guy to go down that early, it kind of messed that up.”

James was solemn about the challenge of preparing for the next night’s game in Charlotte and closing out the season with so much still up in the air.

“We’re already kind of behind the eight-ball,” said James. “We’ve been so in and out with different lineups, different rotations, guys getting injured, guys coming back. The system that we want to put in place, it has to be on the fly. We’re trying to fast-track it.”

Cleveland bounced back with a 118-105 win in Charlotte in which James scored 41 points, tied Michael Jordan for an NBA record with 866 consecutive double-digit scoring games (he can take sole possession tonight against the visiting Pelicans) and left Charlotte’s floor amidst MVP chants. It was a big individual night for one of the NBA’s transcendent stars, but a freak accident on the same night has thrown doubt on the availability of another of its biggest names.

In the second quarter of the 76ers’ conference-best eighth consecutive win over the visiting New York Knicks, center Joel Embiid suffered a concussion and a fractured orbital in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. He will have facial surgery in the coming days and stands in danger of missing at least the first round of the playoffs.

“When Joel is on the floor, everybody grabbed their heads,” said 76ers forward Dario Saric after the game. “Of course [the] players were in shock, staff was in shock.”

While the Cavaliers must deal with incorporating many new pieces after the trade deadline, the 76ers are staring at a first-round playoff series without the team’s cornerstone player. Unlike the Cavaliers, however, Philadelphia can’t draw on the sort of veteran leadership and playoff experience that Cleveland can.

“You’d be lying to say it’s a good thing to have no playoff experience and then go to the playoffs,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown after the Knicks win. “If you gave me a choice, I’d prefer to have a team that was really used to the playoffs. But I love this team. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”

The 76ers have the league’s easiest remaining schedule and could still overtake the Cavaliers for the third seed in the East, even without Embiid. In such a scenario, Philadelphia could end up facing a veteran team in the first round such as the Washington Wizards, currently sixth in the East.

The Wizards are anticipating the imminent return of starting point guard John Wall, who has been out since before the All-Star break after knee surgery. Wall could play as soon as Saturday against the visiting Hornets, which would give the Wizards an opportunity to re-incorporate him ahead of the postseason.

“He’s getting closer,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks after a Wednesday practice. “He’s been through all of our practices and shootarounds at home. The next step is to get him on court for a game.”

The Wizards went 10-3 after losing Wall as several players stepped up in playmaking roles. Since then, however, Washington is just 5-9. The Wizards are only four games behind the third-seed Cavaliers, so an upward move into home court advantage in the first round is not out of the question.

Wall’s imminent return is a big advantage for the veteran Wizards. It’s an advantage that’s unlikely to be shared by the Boston Celtics, which has been hit by the injury bug early and often. Star small forward Gordon Hayward was lost for the season on opening night. A week ago, starting point guard Kyrie Irving had a procedure to alleviate soreness in his knee. The timetable for his return is three to six weeks, which places him likewise in doubt for the opening round of the playoffs.

“The timeline will be determined on how he feels and how quickly he can get back on the court,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. “There’s still a process after that too, to be ready to play in a game.”

The Celtics are somehow seven games ahead of the Cavaliers in second in the East and only three games behind the Raptors. That’s despite numerous injuries in addition to Irving and Gordon. Key defensive contributor Marcus Smart was lost to thumb surgery and is questionable to return and contribute in the playoffs. Forward Jaylen Brown also missed a series of games after a scary fall and, more recently, center Al Horford has missed time due to an ankle injury.

That’s four of the top six teams in the East missing extended time from central players. The Western Conference isn’t in any better shape, with the Golden State Warriors rocked by injuries to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. For the Rockets, Chris Paul (sore hamstring) and Luc Mbah a Moute (sore knee) have missed time and James Harden appeared to suffer a sprained ankle last week against the Pistons. Harden previously missed time due to a sore left knee.

But it’s not just the top two teams in the West that have struggled with injuries. Portland lost Mo Harkless to knee surgery and has endured nagging injuries to Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier. The Thunder lost defensive centerpiece Andre Roberson to season-ending knee surgery. The Pelicans, of course, lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season after an Achilles injury.

Throw in the Timberwolves’ loss of star Jimmy Butler and — even before you count the unfathomable saga of Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs — that’s six of the top seven teams in the West that have had to play through health issues. That leaves little doubt that this season’s playoffs will be heavily impacted by injuries, even if the rest of the season is free of further catastrophes. The team that limps across the finish line in the NBA Finals may need some Willis Reed-style inspiration to get there.

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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