Deja Vu in Chicago, Plus a Trip Through the NBA’s Emergency Room
Some thoughts after a very depressing weekend of NBA basketball has left the league feeling unusually unsettled for this time of season, with scads of injuries and so many (Eastern Conference) teams with high internal expectations floundering horribly:
With Derrick Rose officially lost for the season, we don’t need any more reminders about just how much luck and health-related fortune goes into winning even a single championship. All the VERY LOUD SHOUTING about “ringzzzzz” might obscure this, but how many rings would Michael Jordan own if Scottie Pippen had developed chronic knee issues? Bill Russell went down midway through the 1958 Finals, which the Celtics lost, and injuries both major and minor have tipped the balance of every postseason since. We would do well to remember season-altering issues to contender centerpieces (Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Jerry West, Kevin Garnett, Oscar Robertson, Dave DeBusschere, Russell Westbrook, Andrew Bynum, Isiah Thomas, etc.) and sub-stars (Jameer Nelson, Sam Cassell, Lakers-era Karl Malone, Gus Johnson, and on, and on) the next time someone screams about how pathetic and “unclutch” it is that Player X hasn’t won a ring. Health plays a giant role in deciding the champion — in literally every season.
For all the attention on the wonky basketball mysteries SportVU tracking cameras might solve, the real holy grail is combining that technology with others that might lead to some tiny slice of enlightenment on injury prediction and prevention. It will never be an exact science — not in our lifetimes, anyway. But any team that learns some small truth about injuries will have gained a valuable edge.
The Bulls find themselves in a very tricky situation. This is a taxed-out team, built around Rose, constructed to win the title now. Rose tore the medial portion of his meniscus, the piece of cartilage that runs along the inside of a player’s knee. That is a small bit of good news. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found NBA players were disproportionately likely to tear the lateral meniscus, the portion of cartilage that does a bit more athletic work and carries a longer recovery time.
Rose has avoided that, at least. The Bulls will likely choose to mend the torn portion of Rose’s meniscus if they can, though the medial side has weaker blood flow, which can make it more challenging to pull off a full stitching, according to several doctors and trainers. A full mending carries a recovery time that can last between three and four months, and often even longer; Westbrook took nearly six months to fully recover from his meniscus tear, and that was before learning he needed a second clean-up operation before this season. Snipping out the damaged portion of the meniscus allows for much quicker recovery, but snipping out too much of it can leave the player vulnerable to long-term bone-on-bone issues.
The Bulls will make the playoffs if they wish to do so. The East is a giant pile of flaming basketball dung after Indiana, Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago, and the Bulls proved last season that Tom Thibodeau’s defense and some canny ball movement is enough to keep them around .500. And, hell, .500 could get you a damn trophy in the Eastern Conference this season.
It’s true that this Chicago team, with Mike Dunleavy and Mike James/Marquis Teague in the places of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, is comparatively lacking in ball handlers. That hurts. James has played nine minutes all season, Dunleavy is mostly a spot-up guy with a bit of one-dribble-and-pass panache, and Teague hasn’t resembled an NBA player in his limited time. (He belongs in the D-League, but I’m not sure the Bulls are familiar with the D-League. Just kidding — they are, I swear! But they haven’t acted as such.) Deng gets by with crafty movement that generates a teensy bit of separation, and Jimmy Butler hasn’t grasped a larger share of the offense to date. And Butler’s hurt for now, anyway, leaving Kirk Hinrich far too much responsibility.
Chicago is nearly $8 million over the tax line; adding even one minimum-salaried player to what is already a bare-bones 13-man roster is a very expensive proposition for a team that never even paid a dollar in tax until last season.
But the Bulls are an obvious playoff team, regardless. The question is whether they should maintain this roster in hopes of coalescing late in the season upon Rose’s return, or cut bait and begin repurposing the team for its next era — while potentially cutting this season’s tax bill in the process.
That begins, and might well end, with Deng’s $14 million expiring contract. The Bulls tabled extension talks with Deng before the season, but they’ve always maintained privately that they’d like to re-sign him as a long-term piece. Thibodeau adores him, almost to the point of physical destruction.
But he’s nearly 29, seeking an eight-figure annual salary, with a weird injury history and minute totals in the rearview that make you wince just looking at them. Any team would be justified in feeling queasy about committing four years of big salary to Deng.
Keeping Deng on the books would also kill the (very tenuous) possibility of Chicago carving out max-level/LeBron-level cap space this summer, even if they were to use the amnesty provision on the final season of Carlos Boozer’s massive contract. If the Bulls think this era is basically dead, they’d be wise to test the trade market for Deng rather than let him walk for nothing.
The market for expiring contracts has been cool in recent seasons, as teams have learned to properly value first-round picks over a few months of contract-year production from a trade piece. But Deng is a well-regarded Swiss army knife of a player who doesn’t require touches and could fit within any system. Chicago might be able to pry a late first-round pick from some borderline contender in exchange for Deng — the desperate Wizards just coughed up a potential lottery pick for Marcin “the towel ripper” Gortat — but even if they can’t, the Bulls might net some combination of savings and second-round picks. Potential Deng suitors could include:
The Cavs are a disaster with a revolving cast of bricklayers at small forward, an ownership group that talked very loudly about making noise in the postseason, and a pile of trade assets. Deng would help this season without soaking up the cap space Cleveland has saved up to make another run at LeBron. (Stop laughing!)
The Bucks have stumbled into a tanking gold mine, but their owner, Herb Kohl, has long been open about his preference that the Bucks compete for a bottom-rung playoff spot instead of chasing Ping-Pong balls. Caron Butler exploded over the weekend against Philly, but he’s aging and unreliable. Carlos Delfino is done for a long time. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t ready. Khris Middleton has shown flashes, but is mostly unproven. The Bucks have expiring contracts that can fit, plus more second-round picks than anyone in the league.
Come on, Hawks! The Eastern Conference is in flames around you! You’re the third-best team in the conference now by complete accident! Go for it! This roster is built to trade, and Paul Millsap, on a bargain deal, will instantly become perhaps the league’s most tradable player when the calendar flips to December 15. Millsap is a valuable piece, and the Millsap/Al Horford pairing gives Atlanta impeccable spacing. But he’s also something of a Horford Lite, and if Danny Ferry can turn him into a game-changing wing or center (Omer Asik?), then they should at least think about it — especially if said trade target carries an expiring contract that doesn’t impact the cap flexibility Ferry has worked so carefully to build.
DeMarre Carroll has been game as the team’s starting small forward, and it has been nice watching him stroke 3s at a career-best rate. But he should be a bench guy, and the Hawks have zero size on the wing behind him.
You could build a lot of interesting two- and three-team trades using the Hawks. And Atlanta can swap first-round picks with Brooklyn, via the terms of the Joe Johnson deal, in each of the next two drafts — a little trade tidbit that now looks like a straight-up coup.
Never underestimate the lunacy of a 3-9 team whose owner actually thinks they should be title contenders. The Knicks can’t trade any first-round pick before their 2018 selection (thanks, Andrea!), but the Bulls might be able to foist the Deng/Boozer platter onto New York for Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire’s body, and a future pick.
You could make the case for San Antonio and Oklahoma City, both in need of backup small forwards, and with small-ball friendly rosters that could incorporate another rangy wing without suffering major diminishing returns. But the Thunder are only $1.4 million under the tax, making it difficult for them to take on Deng’s salary and offer the Bulls much in the way of savings. The same is true for Memphis, which has a bit more breathing room under the tax but lacks a big expiring contract or a tradable first-round pick. The Wolves have a ready package on hand of Derrick Williams, J.J. Barea, and Alexey Shved, but Corey Brewer has fit in nicely at small forward, and said package leaves Chicago with more long-term money on the books than it has now. The Nuggets and Pellies, the latter currently starting Al-Farouq Aminu’s broken moon-ball jump shot at small forward, introduce the same issue of long-term money coming back to Chicago in any workable Deng deals.
Bottom line: Chicago is toast as a contender without Rose, and if the Bulls conclude that the odds are against Rose returning to anything like peak form this season, they should begin exploring trades now. The foundation for the next Bulls team is already here, in Rose, Noah, Butler, the overseas star Nikola Mirotic, and an extra first-round pick the Bobcats still owe Chicago for (gulp) Tyrus Thomas. Butler can guard most small forwards already; it would be worthwhile to test the market for both Deng and Gibson.
Please be well, Derrick.
Oh, hey, more shitty news: Marc Gasol is out indefinitely (likely around two months) with an MCL sprain in his left knee. Thank the Grit-n-Grind gods for Kosta Koufos and his Amish-style beard, and for Memphis’s savvy move taking advantage of Denver’s bizarre belief in JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov over a guy who, you know, actually played well in actual basketball games.
And even so: Memphis’s playoff odds might be in trouble if Gasol’s timetable nudges up against two months or lasts even longer. The Grizz righted the ship with four straight road wins on the West Coast and four straight vintage Zach Randolph performances. But the bigger-picture indicators here are still troubling. Almost all of Memphis’s seven wins have been close, and the one blowout came at home against a Golden State team traveling on the second end of a back-to-back. Two of their wins have come in overtime, including against a Golden State team missing Stephen Curry (Tony Allen also missed that game, to be fair), and the Lakers and Kings aren’t exactly world-beaters at home.
Meanwhile, all but one of Memphis’s six losses have come via double digits, including their last three by 16 points apiece. (In fairness, the Grizz have faced the toughest schedule in the league, in terms of opponent winning percentage.) That leaves Memphis with a troubling negative point differential and a defense that still ranks just 19th in points allowed per possession after rediscovering some of its grit in California.
Gasol has been part of that slippage. He hasn’t been the same nimble beast since overextending himself for Spain at Eurobasket, though he looked better before his injury. Tony Allen has been a bit off, to the point where the Grizzlies actually removed him for defensive purposes late against the Lakers last week after he repeatedly lost track of Jodie Meeks. Randolph has never been better than average, and as long as Memphis asks him to show relatively hard on pick-and-rolls, he’s going to get beat a fair number of times. Quincy Pondexter hasn’t been as steady as he was last season, and the rest of Memphis’s wing shooters are minus defenders.
This isn’t a shot at Memphis. This is a good team, and Koufos is a savvy two-way player. Dave Joerger, the team’s head coach, can reintegrate Ed Davis into the rotation, and Davis will put up numbers if he gets minutes. Jon Leuer looms as a floor-stretching big who hasn’t yet been able to earn consistent time.
If Memphis were in the Eastern Conference, this post would be about them trying to hang on to the no. 4 seed. Unfortunately, they’re in the Western Conference, where two teams who expected to fight for one of the last two playoff spots (Portland and Dallas) are 21-7 combined. Denver and New Orleans have recovered to .500, and the Lakers and Phoenix are still scrapping along. Making the playoffs in this conference is harder than winning the freaking Hunger Games if you insist on engaging in prolonged taunting conversations with Katniss instead of just killing her when you’ve pinned her down.
Memphis has never been a big margin-for-error team. Its starting lineup has struggled to score since last season’s playoffs, and the group has almost no space with which to work as long as both Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are on the court. Gasol manufactures the slivers of space the Grizzlies do happen across. He’s like a beefy point guard, handling the ball from the elbow for dribble handoffs with Mike Conley, pick-and-rolls, passes to baseline cutters, and enough midrange jumpers to keep defenses honest. No player in the league touches the ball more often at the elbow, and it’s not even close, per SportVU tracking data.
He’s also an inside-out post threat, especially when teams stick their best interior defender on Z-Bo, and, oh yeah, he’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The team’s offense has fallen off badly this season when Gasol has been on the bench, and Memphis was awful on both ends without him last season, per NBA.com.
Koufos is a fine player. He fills space in smart ways on both ends, staying out of the way on offense and flashing into open territory at the right times. But he’s never been much of a passer, and he’s made exactly three shots over the last two seasons from beyond 14 feet out, per NBA.com. He’s a better passer than he has shown, and I enjoyed the chemistry he showed in a brief center-center pairing with Gasol, but this is a large drop-off for a team that really couldn’t afford to lose any of its precious spacing on offense.
Perhaps Joerger will tinker, using this injury as an excuse to promote Pondexter or Mike Miller into the starting lineup to goose the shooting. He might also lean more upon the Conley/Jerryd Bayless combo, which has logged just 60 minutes this season after thriving in nearly 650 last season — most of which came in the second half of the year, when Lionel Hollins paired the two a ton. But Miller is already playing too much, and both Pondexter and Bayless have struggled out of the gate.
Memphis has only 13 players on its roster and more than $3 million before it hits the tax, so the Grizz may well look to add one of the bigs sitting around for hire — Chris Johnson, Jason Collins (less likely given the required skill set here), Chris Wilcox, etc.
And one more: Andre Iguodala is out indefinitely with a hamstring issue, though he won’t need surgery and is confident he’ll be back soon. If that’s the case, the Warriors should be fine, even though the hits are piling up now. Injuries to Jermaine O’Neal and Festus Ezeli have left Golden State without a reliable backup for elbow-swingin’ Andrew Bogut, who is himself recovering from a prolonged ankle problem. Lineups with David Lee at center tend to struggle defensively, and Marreese Speights is shooting 29.6 percent. That is not a typo. Ezeli is still months away, and he will still have terrible hands when he comes back.
Toney Douglas is also out, leaving Iggy as the team’s de facto backup point guard, initiating the offense when Stephen Curry sits — and even at times when Curry plays. He’s also guarding the most threatening opposing wing scorer almost every night, and he has proven a wonderful fit on both ends for the Warriors.
But they can survive, provided Curry can stay healthy. Golden State has scored 116.2 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court and just 87.5 points without him. Basically, they’ve had fire shooting from their asses whenever Curry plays, and they’ve turned into the Jazz when he sits. Intriguing lineups featuring no traditional point guards have scored at an even worse rate, per NBA.com.
But those groups have held down the fort defensively, and Kent Bazemore deserves more of a shot at the point. Harrison Barnes is back healthy, and he can provide a reasonable Iggy facsimile. Barnes can defend top wing scorers, leaving Klay Thompson to defend point guards and allowing Curry to hide on the least dangerous perimeter guy available. Barnes can’t touch Iggy as a passer and ball handler, but he can do a little of each, especially with a head start, and he’s a useful option in the post.
Draymond Green provides both wing depth and the ability for Mark Jackson to go small when matchups allow. Jackson will have to be careful not to overload the starters, especially Curry and Bogut, but the Warriors have the pieces to survive without Iggy. They’ve been a stronger team than their 8-6 record indicates; they’ve outscored opponents by about 4.5 points per game, a big number, and they have the sixth-best point differential per 100 possessions in the league, per NBA.com. That differential shrinks a bit when Curry’s on the floor without Iguodala, but it’s still solidly positive.
One more injury and the Dubs are in trouble, especially with seven of their next eight on the road. But they should be able to hang in, provided Iggy gets back soon.