Following the 80-74 win in Charlotte the Trailblazers now have four of their fifteen players injured for a significant number of games, including two key rotation players. Reports (here and here) disagree as to the length of injuries, but it seems certain that Nicolas Batum will be out until mid-February and Travis Outlaw has the same injury which knocked Martell Webster out all of last season. Furthermore, most of our players, though young, have a history of injury concerns. The purpose of this post is to ponder how serious of a position the Blazers are ten games into the season and what back-up plan, if any, the organization needs.
First of all, the Blazers are 7-3, leading their division and owning the longest current winning streak. So they got that going for them.
Portland's two injured rotation forwards, Batum and Outlaw, combine for about forty minutes a game, and contribute significantly when healthy. Two injured rookies, Jeff Pendergraph and Patty Mills, fill out the roster and are coming off of surgeries; they are significant here mostly in the roster spots they take, as whatever virtues they bring to the court are entirely unknown. A quick glance through NBA.com's injury report indicates maybe 6-12 teams with significant injury concerns, either in terms of many players dinged up, a couple key players out some length of time, or a key contributor out.
Many active players on our roster, though perhaps healthy, have a history of concerns. Steve Blake and Webster are coming off of surgeries. Rudy Fernandez played serious basketball this summer and had preseason back spasms and fatigue. Knock on wood for Greg Oden. Joel Przybilla had never played 82 games until last season. Jerryd Bayless just rolled his ankle in a freak accident. And let's not forget Brandon Roy had knee surgery not 18 months ago, missed 25 games his rookie season and also has not played in 80 regular season games.
A question I have at this point is: is this par for the course for an NBA team? Being a Blazers fan, knowing every injury and its estimated length when it happens, I'm pretty sure I suffer from some myopia and am in danger of overestimating the impact a few missing players have compared with teams like the Warriors and Celtics. But at the very least I think it's valid to start wondering. First, the Blazers have had to play rotation players during blowouts--Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla and (now) Juwan Howard, further risking injury. And it's easy to wonder if these injuries just ten games into the season increase the chance of more significant injuries as key players are forced to play more minutes with more fatigue. Finally, even if our players stay nominally healthy, how much will added playing time affect them during key games in April?
Questions and Possible Solutions
Concerns such as these highlight how important staying healthy is to a successful season. Despite some setbacks and missed games last year, Portland stayed relatively healthy and surged to finish with 54 wins. Perhaps the sanest approach is to accept the team that started the season, injuries or no, since trying to add and subtract players on the fly is a dicey proposition at best. The latter approach has many complications, including:
1. What players are available? The only free agents I know of are those who could not make a roster; two of the players we tried out for roster spot #15, Collins and Udoka, are playing for Phoenix and Sacremento, respectively. A trade is definitely possible--to many a long-overdue move. But the Blazers have looked fervently into trades for several months now and could find nothing to their liking. The only upside to a trade now as opposed to a few months ago is that our cap holds for our Euros are off. Of course, we could bring in one of them over--Kopenen, Clavier, Freeland--but since none of them have played in the NBA that sounds no more likely than signing someone from the Developmental League.
2. What players would we give up? Dante Cunningham, Pendergraph and Mills have non-guaranteed contracts, and can be released without much immediate harm. Do we want to give up on their potential? The latter two are injured, and are therefore unable to help our short-term problem, but cutting injured players to the unemployment line may hurt how future draftees and free agents view us. As to players we might give up in a trade, presumably if we need more healthy players, we would want to include either Batum or Outlaw. But what provisions, if any, rule against trading injured players (it didn't seem to matter with RLEC)? Finally, our ideal trade has always been giving up a greater number of players; such a move would not help our current situation.
3. What are the long-term implications? A danger with making a move like this is to fix a minor, short-term problem in a way that causes larger, long-term problems. Thankfully, GM Kevin Pritchard seems to have the opposite temperament, but we are vulnerable for many weeks if any more injuries occur--and every game counts.
I'm assuming the Trailblazer's front office has contingency plans for significant injuries, including a list of players available who've tried out during the draft, summer league and training camp. If not, now is certainly the time to look into who might be available and at what price. Perhaps ideas for trades at the deadline might have more significance now and an eye toward a move earlier than anticipated may be taken more seriously.
More important, however, is that prior to this the problem was perceived as the opposite: How are the Blazers going to find time for so much talent? Here is where we cash in on our depth and where players get the playing time they thought they deserved in the first place. Can they perform given the opportunity? If not, will the front office sign some players as insurance--or motivation?
I don't think now is the time to panic or make any major moves, but I do think the signing of Mills now instead of Udoka is much more significant now than whatever it was at the time. We are now in the position for several weeks where another injury or two, even for a couple of games, leaves Nate with no margin of error. The time may come soon where we only dress nine or ten guys, due entirely to Paul Allen's infatuation with a late second-rounder.
One final thought: I believe Coach McMillan's lineup change, moving Roy to the 3 and starting Miller, was a temporary measure aimed at jump-starting the team and exploiting matchups in the backcourt of his next few opponents. I'm betting he anticipated Webster return to start against Atlanta. What will he do now? If he stays the course, Steve Blake (5-24 in his last 3 games) will have to guard Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams or Josh Smith (all of which sound disastrous) and Brandon Roy may struggle against a bigger defender. If he starts Webster, will Cunningham play his first significant minutes?
The Trailblazers certainly are living in interesting times. Here's to hoping they can win during them.