In­juries Re­veal Shal­low Depth

Once the League Ex­panded to 30 Teams, the Tal­ent Pool Got Wa­tered Down

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Michael Lee

Three days be­fore los­ing Gil­bert Are­nas to sea­son- end­ing knee surgery, Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards Coach Ed­die Jor­dan tried to keep in per­spec­tive the ob­sta­cle fac­ing his team with Caron But­ler also out with a sea­so­nend­ing hand in­jury.

“ We’ve seen worse,” Jor­dan said, speak­ing of the un­der­manned op­po­nents the Wiz­ards re­peat­edly have faced through­out a sea­son that has been filled with de­bil­i­tat­ing in­juries to star play­ers.

The Wiz­ards played all the way into April — and all but en­sured a play­off spot — be­fore crush­ing in­juries to their all­stars im­me­di­ately turned the fo­cus to next sea­son. But sev­eral teams’ sea­sons were deemed ir­rel­e­vant months ago, af­ter their stars went down.

The teams with the three worst records in the NBA — Mem­phis, Bos­ton and Mil­wau­kee — can all at­tribute their falls into lot­tery abyss to the ab­sence of all- star per­form­ers. Pau Ga­sol missed the first 22 games be­cause of a foot in­jury suf­fered last Septem­ber in the World Cham­pi­onships in Ja­pan, and when he re­turned the Griz­zlies al­ready were mak­ing sum­mer vacation plans. The Celtics started an 18- game los­ing streak with Paul Pierce on the shelf be­cause of foot and el­bow woes. And the Bucks made a dra­matic shift from play­off con­tender to chal­leng­ing for No. 1 over­all pick when Michael Redd’s knee buck­led on a mean­ing­less dunk.

On the night Char­lotte Bob­cats for­ward Ger­ald Wal­lace crashed into Are­nas’s left knee and es­sen­tially knocked out the Wiz­ards’ play­off hopes, the Celtics and Bucks hit the court in Mil­wau­kee in a war of at­tri­tion, or as Coach Doc Rivers put it, “ the bat­tle of the un­fittest.”

The Celtics not only were miss­ing Pierce, they were in such dread­ful shape that they needed a waiver to sign Kevinn Pinkney to a 10- day con­tract just to put nine healthy play­ers on the court. The Bucks were miss­ing all five play­ers who were ex­pected to be starters at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son — Redd, Char­lie Vil­lanueva, Andrew Bogut, Mau­rice Wil­liams and Bobby Sim­mons.

“ It’s been 21 years in this league and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any­thing like this on my team or coach­ing a team. It’s been amaz­ing,” said Rivers, whose team en­tered the week­end with a league- high 254 games lost to in­jury this sea­son.

Rivers was asked how some teams have be­come so de­pen­dent on one star that they are help­less in his ab­sence. “ I think it’s the league un­for­tu­nately,” Rivers said.

The de­fend­ing cham­pion Mi­ami Heat is still in po­si­tion to win the South­east Di­vi­sion de­spite deal­ing with the ex­tended ab­sences of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. The Hous­ton Rock­ets are ranked fifth in the West­ern Con­fer­ence even though Yao Ming missed 32 games with a frac­tured bone un­der his right knee. The Los An­ge­les Lak­ers re­main in con­tention for the sixth seed in the West de­spite los­ing an as­tound­ing 246 games to in­jury.

But other teams, such as the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers ( with Sam Cas­sell and Shaun Liv­ingston), Golden State ( Ja­son Richard­son and Baron Davis) and New Or­leans ( Peja Stojakovic, David West and Chris Paul), have been scram­bling to get into the play­offs de­spite in­juries to key play­ers through­out the sea­son.

“ Dal­las can sur­vive. Mi­ami can. Phoenix is so deep; they have vet­eran play­ers who can pick up the slack,” Rivers said. “ But there’s a lot of teams that are shal­low. When I played there were 23 teams. It’s 30 now. You take away seven teams and dis­perse the tal­ent around the league, ev­ery­one would be deep. I think that’s what it shows. All the teams that have won have had health.”

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