At this point in the offseason, NBA airspace league-wide is filled with projections for the 2013-2014 season. I’ve made my own projections, but I have no intention of bogging you down with more of the same, however, I must revisit them briefly in order to provide the necessary context for this piece (get comfortable, it’s a doozy).
First off, the Western conference can be broken down into tiers; immediate contenders, possible contenders, scrappers, and tank artists / those less fortunate. The tier list is a little bit different for everyone, but mine looks something like this:
- 1st Tier: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs
- 2nd Tier: Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors
- 3rd Tier: Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers
- 4th Tier: Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings
Here is where we get to the meat of the discussion, and why the 3rd tier is so much more brutal than even first glance would indicate. Outside of Portland, every team in that section dealt with major injury to one or more of their biggest stars last year. As such, their regular season records suffered; the exception being Denver, who lost Gallinari to a torn ACL too late in the season to heavily impact their standing.
While Portland has made vast improvements, it is difficult to place them at the top of their tier. Not only were they middle of the pack record-wise, but they have no severely injured contributors to welcome back next season. Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews all missed a few games toward the end, but their injuries were considerably less significant than others overall. Let’s hit this team by team to better understand what I am getting at.
Injured Star: Dirk Nowitzki
Severity: Surgery required
Time missed: 29 games (35% of regular season)
Without Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks were 13-16 (44.8%); a five percent lower win percentage than what they finished the regular season with; 41-41 (50.0%). That neutral record was not enough to give them a playoff berth, but it was just enough to keep them in contention for longer than they could have been. Ultimately, the Lakers (tying the Rockets), snagged Dallas’ could-have-been spot in the playoffs with four more wins; 45-37 (54.9%).
Sometimes people forget that even after returning from injury, it takes time for players to reach their full form. Had Dirk Nowitzki been healthy all year, there is a good chance that the five percent swing to their win percentage would have landed them in the 7th or 8th spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Since last season, they have only gotten better. In free agency, they picked up Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, and Samuel Dalembert, while shedding Caveman Kaman. Not only will the Mavs be healthy to start the 2013-2014 season, but their roster has received a shot in the arm as well. So while from the outside looking in, the Blazers made a similar run at the playoffs last season, the Mavericks were (and probably still are) the better team.
Injured Star(s): Kevin Love / Ricky Rubio
Injury: (Love) Broken fingers / (Rubio) torn ACL
Severity: (Love) Season ending / (Rubio) Extreme
Time missed: (Love) 64 games (78% of regular season)
Time missed: (Rubio) 25 games (30% of regular season)
The Timberwolves went 31-51 last year for good reason. When healthy, Kevin Love is arguably the best power forward in the NBA, but he missed most of the season with broken fingers from “knuckle pushups.” I suspect a more Stoudemirian cause that involved a fire extinguisher punching rampage, but the result is the same; games missed.
Added to this are Rubio’s 25 absences at the beginning of the season, followed by a rough re-entry process. The injury bug hit Minnesota the hardest, and they could only watch as their mighty roster filled up with DNPs. Now that the T-Wolves are in good health, they may be able to transform their frustration into production and do some serious work out West.
Assuming 100% health from Rubio and Love, Minnesota will be a force to be reckoned with. So although the Blazers were able to laugh them off with a 4-0 game split in the 2013-2014 season, a repeat is rather unlikely. The Timberwolves may even be leading the 3rd tier soon enough. They have added Kevin Martin to their squad and re-signed Nikola Pekovic. This is the most formidable they have looked since the KG era.
New Orleans Pelicans
Injured Star(s): Eric Gordon / Anthony Davis
Injury: (Gordon) Knee / (Davis) MCL sprain
Severity: (Gordon) Surgery required / (Davis) Season shut-down
Time missed: (Gordon) 40 games (49% of regular season)
Time missed: (Davis) 18 games (22% of regular season)
The Pelicans were the second weakest team in the Western Conference last year with a record of 27-55 (32.9%). Sometimes I forget how important Eric Gordon is to their “success,” even if the Pelicans don’t want him there. After all, he was their main compensation for losing Chris Paul in 2011, and the struggling Pelicans won seven percent more games with him on the floor. The mysterious knee injury that kept him in-and-out all year had a measurable effect on New Orleans’ progress. His health will mean new life for them in the 2013-2014 season.
Let’s not forget about Anthony Davis either. He may not have had the most serious of injuries, but missing more than 20% of the season is a huge blow. I think many Blazer fans tend to overlook how close the ROY race would have been if Davis had remained healthy. We like to think that because Lillard was a unanimous selection that it was a blowout. Davis was truly magnificent when he was able to stay on the court.
With these two players in good health, and Jrue Holiday / Tyrke Evans added to the roster, New Orleans may be Portland’s toughest competitor in the 3rd tier this year. That’s a major concern when it comes to playoff position, as any of those teams could claw their way in or be left in the dust. If the Blazers can’t make their new roster better than the newly healthy lineups of their peers, they may find themselves in the latter group.
Los Angeles Lakers
Injured Star(s): Pau Gasol / Steve Nash
Injury: (Gasol) Torn plantar fascia, patellar tendinitis / (Nash) fibula fracture
Severity: (Gasol) Surgery required / (Nash) Lots of bench riding
Time missed: (Gasol) 33 games (40% of regular season)
Time missed: (Nash) 32 games (39% of regular season)
D’Antoni system be damned, when Pau Gasol is healthy, he is still one of the best power forwards in the league. The Lakers won 71% of their games in which Pau Gasol scored double digit points. His implementation in the offense is key to Laker success; something D’Antoni will be forced to realize now that Dwight Howard has vacated the city. His ups and downs last season were more heart wrenching, if not more interesting, than the Dwightmare.
Don’t discount Steve Nash either. He may be older than VHS and Betamax (google it, young bloods), but he is still one of the best facilitators to ever play the game. There is a reason people, albeit mistakenly, thought last year’s Lakers would be a super-team. Steve Nash was a huge part of that. Going into the coming season, he still is.
Many have already placed the Lakers firmly off of the radar without a second look. Kobe is on a blistering pace to return from his torn Achilles (not mentioned previously because he did not miss significant time in the regular season), Nash is almost 100% as of four days ago, and Pau Gasol figures to be more than a sideshow in D’Antoni’s circus of ineptitude. Watch out, because the Lakers are a blip at the very least.
Now, back to the Blazers. They were fortunate enough to squeeze all 82 games out of their brand new Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, they managed to escape the regular season without any “major” injuries, the ones that were sustained came at the end of the season (where they could not impact the Blazers’ record for an extended amount of time), and they still finished the season 33-49 (40.2%).
Of the 3rd tier, that’s a very middling win percentage:
- Nuggets: 69.5%
- Lakers: 54.9%
- Mavericks: 50.0%
- Trail Blazers: 40.2%
- Timberwolves: 37.8%
- Pelicans: 32.9%
It should be noted, that the Nuggets are almost guaranteed to be worse this season, after losing Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, Coach of the Year George Karl, and the ever-capable floor general Andre Iguodala, but they are still a very talented crew.
You may be thinking, “But the Blazers lost 13 straight due to injury; why doesn’t that count as impactful?” Well, it does. However; there are a few important differences. The first being that it is difficult to compare Aldridge missing 8 games to Love missing 64, or Gasol missing 33, or even Nowitzki missing 29. The Blazers lost not only because their injuries overlapped, but because they were vastly overmatched in the toughest NBA schedule to finish out the season.
The other thing that is important to keep in mind is timing. The Blazers that were still injured at the end of the regular season (Batum and Matthews) were able to recover after their season ended instead of missing more games, whereas players like Nowitzki and Rubio were left to drudge through several games of rust partway through the season, after missing extended periods of time. Players are not immediately themselves upon return.
So the Blazers’ anticipated tier is full of teams that have improved in the offseason, recovered their star players in the offseason, or both. That’s a scary thought when you step back and look at the challenges the Blazers have ahead of them. And that’s just their immediate company! Never mind all the teams that are already leaps and bounds ahead of the pack.
Whether or not the Blazers can battle their way to the top of the 3rd tier and into the playoffs depends predominantly on one crucial point; can their improvements match the improvements of the competition when star-power recovery is factored in? They had no major absences to excuse their poor position last season, and no players returning from significant time missed. The Blazers will have to do it with elbow grease, new faces, and will power alone.