That sound you heard echoing across Basketball Nation on November 22nd wasn’t just the tearing of Derrick Rose’s right meniscus. If you listened closely, you could also hear the shattering of a thousand hearts from Chicago to the NBA’s front office. And that crackling noise? That was the fire engulfing the Bulls organization once news broke that – for the second straight year – Rose’s knee injury was of the season-ending variety, sending their title hopes up in smoke yet again.
While there haven’t (yet) been many similarly devastating setbacks for teams in title contention or even for those newbies getting primed for this year’s Playoffs, there are a handful that might want to start rounding up the rabbits feet, hording the horseshoes, and polishing the pennies as they lower their heads and plow forward, crossing their fingers as they pray that their best players don’t start attracting the attention of G.Q. Magazine for modeling their version of “business casual” on the bench.
As some NBA alpha-dogs move closer to shaking off their own injury exiles to return to largely subpar versions of the teams they left (Rajon Rondo’s Celtics and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, for instance. You didn’t really think I was talking about Danilo Gallinari and the Nuggets, did you?!?), there are a handful of hopefuls already playing the waiting game with key contributors suffering the early-season stings of the injury bug.
With the players they’re currently putting on the floor, the Indiana Pacers are the most formidable threat to dethrone the Miami Heat from their two-year reign over the NBA and three-year dominion over the Eastern Conference. The impressive thing? They’re crushing their opponents without even deploying the major weapon sitting at the end of their bench, a weapon that could prove to be the final piece of the Championship puzzle, if only it can get healthy enough to take the court. Danny Granger, once an indispensable player averaging 18-plus points over his career has in recent years become an afterthought, left sitting on the trainers’ table as superstar Paul George and Roy Hibbert joined with strongman David West and others to lift the Pacers to contender status. The rumor is that he’ll begin practicing with the team within the week, which would be a bonus to a team that doesn’t desperately need him. The only question is, can he suddenly become durable and stop playing the role of “Brand X” in those side-by-side comparison commercials featuring the name brand paper towel?
And, speaking of the Heat, we know that Dwyane Wade sat out a recent game with (what else?) knee pain. What we don’t know is how much longer Wade’s luck can hold out before his creaky knees (and shoulder, and back, and…) give out, crumbling like Rob Ford’s reelection prospects. Back woes are now becoming a recurring concern for LeBron James as well, and, well…if anything were to happen to him long-term, I wouldn’t even mention the word “Playoffs” in the same sentence as “Heat” unless I were talking about how the latter missed the former because of his absence.
Sitting in a far more precarious position are the Brooklyn Nets, with three key players who have been alive since the start of Jimmy Carter’s Presidential administration, and a point guard that has almost as many “INJ.’s” next to his name as “AST’s.” As I’m sure every NBA fan is well aware, the Nets – following the blockbuster trade that netted (pun most certainly intended) Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry – were almost immediately anointed as Eastern Conference Champions based on the sheer volume of talent on their roster. Along with Terry, Pierce, Garnett and Deron Williams, the Nets boast one of the deeper teams in the league with starters Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, and a bench of Andray Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Reggie Evans and Alan Anderson, among others. Obviously, with a 5-13 record heading into their tilt against the similarly underperforming New York Knicks (a team that has experienced its own troubles running a less than sturdy ship), things haven’t panned out the way they would have liked so far, but some of their problems can be attributed to a revolving door of injured players shuttling in and out of the lineup. As of this posting, the list of injured Brooklyn players still included Pierce, Kirilenko, Terry, and Williams, who has a body that is apparently even more fragile than Kanye West’s ego.
Another team with lofty goals and an equally high ranking on the fragility meter is the Golden State Warriors. Already without their significant offseason signee, Andre Iguodala, for a number of games, the Warriors rely on a bunch of guys whose health can be shakier than a pan of Jello in a rowboat during a typhoon. Leading the Emergency Room All-Star team is center Andrew Bogut, who played just 32 games last season and a whopping 12 the year before. Bogut’s record of injury is so extensive that perhaps only “King of Pain” Jermaine O’Neal himself could eclipse it. Ironically, O’Neal also happens to be playing backup center to Bogut for the Warriors this year. Wonder guard Stephen Curry may have logged a remarkable 78 games last year, but having played only 26 games the previous season – lockout shortened though it was – Curry has suffered through such an assortment of ankle twists, turns and manglings that fans can’t tell whether they’re watching basketball or a murder mystery. In fact, Curry’s ankles are so loose, John Mayer and Charlie Sheen once tried to double-date them.
Other teams pushed onto the Playoff bubble in the face of injury include the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets.
For the Pelicans, second-year phenom Anthony Davis and his broken hand had shared the floor with Eric Gordon, a man who went from being injury-prone the first few years of his career to just plane prone the last couple. The Pelicans are going to need these two and their other comrades at (broken?) arms Tyreke Evans, Anthony Morrow and Austin Rivers in good health to make a real push for the postseason.
The Grizzlies are awaiting the return of Marc Gasol, who is out with a knee sprain, but management should be at least as concerned about the health of their oft-injured forward Zach Randolph if they want to get anywhere near the vicinity of last year’s success.
Three players attempting to shoulder the heavy expectations of an extended Playoff run, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic – the man often mistaken for original Superman II arch nemesis Non – have each in the past shown a physical resiliency reminiscent of the son of Jor-El strapped to a pile of Kryptonite. Their health will have to be super, indeed, to get to and through the first round.
While there are those who seek to downplay Linsanity, particularly since its creator has been moved in and out of the starting lineup as coach Kevin McHale has attempted to find the best combination of players to put into the first five around superstar James Harden and homerun acquisition Dwight Howard. Not only will the Houston Rockets need to have the services of Jeremy Lin as they try and make it to the Western Conference Finals, they surely won’t get there without the talents of rising star Chandler Parsons.
Fighting for a chance to crash the Playoffs with injured and at-risk players are: the Washington Wizards’ John Wall, Nene and Bradley Beal; the Detroit Pistons’ Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, Andre Drummond, Will Bynum, Chauncey Billups and the rest; and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum, the only player in the NBA who is actually jealous of Derrick Rose’s glass knees.