Injuries Reveal Shallow Depth
Once the League Expanded to 30 Teams, the Talent Pool Got Watered Down
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.”