Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The ER All-Stars

Frack it! Sprains, breaks, and tears have delayed or significantly hindered the season debuts of numerous All-Star caliber players. Injuries happen every season; indeed, a year ago some thought the number of injuries –- to stars including Zach Randolph, Al Horford, Derrick Rose, Steph Curry, Eric Gordon, and Andrea Bargnani –- was higher than normal after the lockout, though the statistics were typical of any season. But with at least 12 top guys out in 2012-13’s first month, NBA fans have good reason to feel antsy. Below, a review of the most prominent denizens of the disabled list:

STEVE NASH Nash played just six quarters for the Lakers before breaking a bone in his leg in a collision with Portland’s rookie phenomenon Damien Lillard. He has missed three weeks thus far and the Lakers have declined to offer a specific timeline on his recovery. With the recent recruitment of Mike D’Antoni as the new Lakers head coach, Nash’s signature ball-on-a-string, feinting, looping offensive attack will find full bloom in the Staples Center -– in contrast to the planned offensive system of Mike Brown, who wanted Nash to stand in a corner and occasionally receive skip passes from Pau Gasol. With Dwight Howard returning to full health, Kobe Bryant healed from the knee and wrist injuries of the past two seasons, Ron Artest (er, M. World Peace) lurking in the corner, and Gasol able to play any offensive role asked of him, the Lakers should be unstoppable in half-court sets with Nash.

KEVIN LOVE Minnesota has missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, dating to the MVP season of Minny's last great Kevin in 2003-04. Following that year’s foray to the conference finals, Garnett captained three straight lottery teams, culminating in his trade to Boston in 2007. After a year of ignominy, Love, the nephew of a Beach Boy and the son of an NBAer, arrived via the draft, but the Timberwolves have still stubbornly stayed playoff-free in Love’s four seasons.

Love first showed the utmost of his abilities in the 2010 FIBA world championship, pairing with Kevin Durant to bring home the top prize for the US men’s team. This past summer at the London Olympics, Love overcame early skepticism from his coaching staff to earn more PT as the tournament progressed, tallying 9 points and 9 rebounds in the successful gold-medal game against EspaƱa. With a refurbished roster including Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko, Minnesota looked poised to finally nab a playoff spot this season, but Love broke bones in his hand in October while doing knuckle pushups and will be out until sometime in December. Without him, the Wolves have started the season 5-4. (UPDATE: Love surprisingly made his season debut on November 21st, several weeks ahead of schedule. Love posted 34 points and 14 rebounds, but Minnesota lost to the well-rounded Nuggets.)

ERIC GORDON Dating to the second half of the 2010-11 season, Gordon has missed 93 of his last 117 possible regular-season games on the Clippers and Hornets. Nonetheless, Phoenix presented him this past July with a $58 million contract offer over four years, and New Orleans exercised its right to match the deal (despite Gordon’s plaintive bleats that he really, really wanted to play in Phoenix). The Hornets’ reward? No Gordon, as he still is rehabilitating the knee injury that sidelined him for nearly all of 2011-12. A young core of Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis could combine deadly shooting with insuperable paint defense, but right now the backcourt in New Orleans consists of Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers.

JOHN WALL The top draft pick from 2010, Wall has so far failed to distinguish himself among the NBA’s point guards, posting a terrible field goal percentage of 42% (and nailing only 3 total three-pointers) during his second season. This is the third season after the Wizards jettisoned nearly every decent player from their 2009-10 pseudo-contender, including Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, and Gilbert Arenas. The third season is when rebuilding projects normally show sparks of vigor -– see Oklahoma City challenging the eventual NBA champion Lakers in 2010’s playoffs –- but Washington is still terrible, and Wall has yet to play this fall with a knee problem. Wall, surprisingly, has been outplayed in his NBA career thus far by his old Kentucky teammate Eric Bledsoe.

ANDREW BOGUT Another former #1 overall pick, Bogut came to Golden State last March in a trade for GSW’s best scorer, Monta Ellis. Warriors management hoped to improve the team’s defensive play after approximately 30 years of run-and-gun futility. Unfortunately, Bogut was still recovering from a horrible arm injury suffered in April of 2010, and he suffered an ankle injury late last season that necessitated surgery. He continued to rehabilitate both injuries during the summer, but thus far in the 2012-13 campaign, Bogut has played only twice due to his ankle problem. The Warriors are presently 6-5, a respectable mark for a young team, but Bogut's low-post play on both ends could help them solidify a playoff spot.

AMARE STOUDEMIRE Stoudemire practiced with Hakeem Olajuwon this past summer (incidentally, I was slightly surprised when I read that Olajuwon, who has tutored numerous stars over the past few years, charges $50,000 per week; perhaps I naively believed that the Dream gave these lessons for free out of love for the game) and reportedly showed up to training camp in excellent shape. Unfortunately, he ruptured a cyst in his knee towards the end of October, requiring surgery that will put him out of action until sometime in December. In the meantime, the Knicks have started strong with Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith supplying most of the team's needed offense; Stoudemire may return to the club to find that he is expected to anchor the bench unit.

RICKY RUBIO The 2011 draft class largely did not impress last season (the absence of summer-league ball or training camp following the draft were certainly hampering factors), and only Kyrie Irving looked like a budding superstar. However, Irving faced real competition for the honor of best rookie, as Rubio -– originally drafted by Minnesota in 2009 -– finally left Barcelona and joined the world’s best basketball league. Rubio consistently passed the ball to teammates like it were a trained falcon:

While Rubio shot the ball terribly, he did average 8 assists and over 2 steals, very strong numbers for a rookie. Unfortunately, Rubio ripped his ACL (the same injury that befell Derrick Rose, mentioned immediately below) last March, and the Timberwolves promptly lost 20 of their final 25 games, ruining a strong (for them) 21-20 start. Rubio is still recovering from the ligament tear and may return next month. When the Timberwolves finally get back Love and Rubio together, they should be as good as several other lower-tier playoff aspirants like Utah, Dallas, and Golden State. (They also will have an unusually high quotient of players with European ancestry: 10 of 15, by my count.)

DERRICK ROSE After his spectacular 2010-11 MVP work, Rose was hobbled by numerous injuries in the post-lockout season, missing nearly half the season's 66 games and averaging only 22 points (down from 25 in the previous season) and seeing a dip in all his shooting percentages. Despite his problems, Chicago still compiled the East’s best record and expected another conference finals battle with Miami. Unfortunately, Rose tore a knee ligament in the first game of Chicago’s first-round series against #8 Philadelphia and dropped that frame in front of a stunned Madison St. crowd. Joakim Noah subsequently injured his ankle, and without their two best players, the Bulls succumbed to the Sixers in six. Rose had surgery to repair the ligament a couple weeks later and has been recovering for the past six months. Rose will likely return to the league around March of this season. In the meantime, Bulls management declined a 2012-13 contract option on Ronnie Brewer; traded Kyle Korver; and allowed Omer Asik to sign with Houston, where he is a strong candidate for Most Improved Player. Shorn of Rose and their excellent bench, the Bulls have started this season playing only .500 ball.

ANDREW BYNUM The precocious Bynum was drafted at age 17 to be the Lakers’ savior and won two championships before the age of 22. One of the largest men in the league, he likes to do everything big: nights at the Playboy Mansion, summer vacation in South Africa, a blown-out Afro haircut, a devastating clothesline to J.J. Barea. Unfortunately, his injury woes are also big: he missed half of 2007-08 and 2008-09 due to separate knee injuries, and then he played with severe limitations in the 2010 NBA Finals due to meniscus and Achilles’ problems. Bynum also missed the beginning of the 2010-11 season recovering from offseason surgery to the meniscus. Bynum was able to return to the Lakers in December of 2010 in top form, and he avoided injuries during the balance of that season and the next one. This past August, after over 12 months of trade rumors, Los Angeles finally exercised a chance to upgrade from the NBA’s second-best center to its greatest, trading Bynum in a complicated four-team deal for Dwight Howard. The trade routed Bynum to Philadelphia, which, while giving away Andre Iguodala, hoped to combine the giant with its talented youngsters like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner to build a juggernaut. Unfortunately, Bynum suffered another knee injury in training camp last month, and recently divulged that he also injured his other knee while bowling. Good luck, Sixers fans.

DANNY GRANGER Indiana is the league’s most disappointing team thus far; after pounding on Miami in a tough six-game second-round series last May, the Pacers shuffled their roster and expected to challenge the Heat as their young stars like George and Hibbert continued to grow. Unfortunately, Hibbert has played terribly thus far after signing a new contract in July, shooting under 40% from the field, under 60% from the line, and posting only 10 points per game. Indiana's lone advantage over Miami is the strength of its big men, but David West is an old 32 years old, and without a top-flight center, the Pacers will combust in the presence of too much Heat. Granger is the Pacers' best player, and he does not quite fit in a starting lineup that also boasts 6'10" Paul George, a smooth-moving natural small forward. Granger's absence might give George the space he needs to grow, but he, too, has played like a putz thus far, averaging just 40% from the field and scoring only 15 points each night. The Pacers, 5-7 entering tonight and reeling from losses to the Bobcats and Raptors, badly miss Granger.

DIRK NOWITZKI Nowitzki had knee problems last season, requiring him to take a week off from game play in January to rest and strengthen his joint. The same problem recurred in this season's training camp, leading Nowitzki to open up his knee for arthroscopic surgery. Dallas's G.O.A.T. Maverick will likely return sometime in December. In the meantime, former #3 overall draft pick O.J. Mayo has emerged as Dallas's leading scorer in Nowitzki's absence; while the Mavs failed to acquire Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, Mayo may blossom into the star they need to attack foes next to Nowitzki in his final seasons.

CHAUNCEY BILLUPS Mr. Big Shot may not be quite as agile as he used to be, but this five-time All-Star and former Finals MVP steadied the Clippers early last season after their former wings, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu, departed to New Orleans via trade. Unfortunately, Billups tore his Achilles’ (shouldn’t that be Achilles’s ?) tendon after just 20 games last February, forcing the Clippers to trade a draft pick to Washington for Nick Young to fill the hole in long-range artillery. The Clippers have started strong this season and are starting Willie Green at shooting guard, but Billups will strengthen the squad's passing acumen, leadership, and marksmanship when he returns, likely in December.

Meanwhile, second-year stud KYRIE IRVING has started the season strong, but broke his finger a few days ago and will miss one month of action. Oy!

1 comment:

Haytham Abu Zayd said...

Of those listed, Nash and Nowitzki (in my opinion) are the only two notables given their teams and conferences. Rose's abilities are undeniable, his presence and production are massive but doesn't alter his team's fate. Ibidem Irving/Cavs, Love/Wolves, Granger/Pacers, Bynum/Sixers and so on. The Knicks appear better without Stoudemire, Clippers are potentially better with Billups yet formidable without (what an embarrassment of riches), Gordon, Rubio hardly affect their teams' playoff odds.

On the other hand, Nash is a major element in the LA experiment and essential for on court chemistry. The compiled talent in LaLa land achieves little without D'Antoni/Nash reviving their pick and roll magic of years past. Nowitzki is the best player on a dark horse team in an enigmatic conference with a handful of potential conference champions. These are the only two (of those listed) that potentially tip the scales in favor of their respective squads.