In the NBA, You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

Usually, there's no "bright side" to losing an NBA star to injury.

In a hyper-competitive league where skill and luck play equal parts in determining a champion, nicks and bruises (or things that are much more severe) can be killers. At the same time, though, injuries to stars can lead to a better understanding of the big picture.

For some teams, that could mean an even greater appreciation for the contributions of that fallen star. For others, it might lead to a necessary reevaluation of the state of the franchise. Granted, "a little clarity" is a small consolation for teams dealing with the loss of major components.

But if they lead to other players stepping up, or a better overall understanding of a team's makeup, maybe injuries actually have some value.

The latest injury plague struck on Nov. 22, giving the league no fewer than three "patient zeros," if that's even medically possible. Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol and Andre Iguodala all went down in the same day, casting their respective teams into varying stages of panic.

It might not make the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies or Golden State Warriors feel any better, but they're all going to learn a lot about themselves while their key pieces are on the mend.


Spanish Imposition

Marc Gasol went down with a sprained MCL on Nov. 22, and his absence is going to make things extremely difficult for a Memphis Grizzlies team that had been hitting its stride just when the big man tweaked his knee.

It's not exactly a world-shattering revelation to point out that the loss of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year will negatively impact the Grizz, but Gasol's value to his team is so immense, so totally irreplaceable, that it's worth delving into the impact of his injury.

Kosta Koufos is a better-than-average big man who has filled in admirably for Gasol. The Greek center, brought over from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Darrell Arthur, is an able defender and a hard worker on the glass.

But he's nothing like Gasol, who all but ran Memphis' offense himself while also functioning as the Grizzlies' biggest defensive presence.

The Grizzlies' glaring lack of perimeter shooting made spacing the floor a constant struggle. Gasol's surgical operation from the elbows helped manufacture just enough cutting lanes and passing angles to prevent defenses from completely packing the middle. Even with Gasol in the lineup, though, Memphis wasn't playing much more than half-decent offense.

As expected, the Grizz have been much worse without him. Per, Memphis has scored at a clip of just 98.5 points per 100 possessions, a decline of almost three points from the 101.4 mark it had posted with the big man on the floor.

The crisis management options are few. Memphis can lean more heavily on Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, but neither can magically turn Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince into passable shooters. So, spacing will be a bigger issue than ever.

Plus, Randolph has shown signs of wearing down in recent seasons, so it's a little scary to put more on his plate. Predictably, an increased offensive role has aggravated a toe injury that kept Z-Bo sidelined for Memphis' most recent game.

Since Gasol hit the trainer's table, the Grizzlies have lost three out of four (including the game in which he was injured) and have had serious trouble scoring. In fact, they even managed to drop a game to the Brooklyn Nets. With the way Brooklyn has been coming apart in the early season, that's hard to do.

There was little danger of Gasol feeling underappreciated in Memphis. But now that the Grizzlies are having such a hard time coping with the hole his absence has left on both ends of the floor, it's becoming clear that the big man is more valuable than anybody could have imagined.

If his indefinite absence stretches beyond six weeks, Gasol might return to a Grizzlies team that has slipped too far down in the ultra-competitive Western Conference to make a return trip to the playoffs.


A Good Investment

The plague of Nov. 22 also claimed Iguodala, robbing the Warriors of their most versatile star.

On the short list of the NBA's best perimeter defenders and functioning as Golden State's de facto backup point guard, Iguodala left a void that no combination of substitutes has been able to fill. Defensively, his loss has had a profound effect:

Warriors head coach Mark Jackson elaborated on the difficulties that have arisen since Iguodala felt a pop in his left hammy.

Per Matt Schwab of the Contra Costa Times, he said: 

He's a bigtime playmaker on the offensive end. He's another ball-handler for us. He's a guy that has an extremely high IQ, understanding the offensive end and the defensive end. He helps out depth also, because now you bring Harrison (Barnes) off the bench. Now you have, I don't want to say no nowhere to go with Harrison not on the bench, but that hurts us. 

Jackson's right; Iguodala's absence has had far-reaching effects. Stephen Curry's life gets easier when he can play off the ball for a few minutes per game, but because of Kent Bazemore's regression and the stress fracture keeping Toney Douglas on the pine, the Dubs' best shooter is stuck handling the ball all by himself for huge minutes on a nightly basis.

For a player dealing with serious turnover issues this season, having to function as a primary facilitator and scorer is resulting in some awfully full stat sheets for Curry. That's both good and bad, as the Warriors' 115-113 win over the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 1 showed.

Curry scored 36 points on 14-of-24 shooting but gave the ball away seven times as the Kings pressured him relentlessly.

As long as Iguodala is out, the Dubs will have a much harder time defending, won't have the bench depth they need and will subject Curry to a few rough nights.

Per Schwab, Jackson summed things up: "We went and got him for a reason, and when we don't have him we're still a good basketball team, but we're not the same team."

The problem is that the difference between the Warriors with and without Iguodala might wind up being big enough to make the Dubs a first-round out instead of a fringe title contender.

The Warriors made a brilliant move when they acquired him, and they're just now learning how crucial he is to their plans this year.


Deja Vu...Almost

The Bulls aren't going to learn anything new about how Rose's absence will affect their on-court play. They already sat through that lesson last season.

So when the offense sputters, the point guards can't create their own shots and Tom Thibodeau drags his team to a respectable record on grit alone, everyone in Chicago will notice the familiar feeling.

Not everything will be the same, though.

This time around, Rose's season-ending injury could force a total franchise reevaluation. Without its former MVP, Chicago has absolutely no chance at a championship. So, the Bulls might opt to make the tough decisions that are looming in their future much sooner than expected.

Free-agent-to-be Luol Deng could be dealt. And Chicago will almost certainly look for ways to move perennial amnesty candidate Carlos Boozer if it can.

Rose's injury won't cause a complete organizational rebuild, but it's going to come pretty darn close.


The Upshot

Since the trio of injuries that altered the league on Nov. 22, Anthony Davis, Paul Pierce, J.J. Redick, Jordan Farmar and Bradley Beal—just to name a few—have also been brought low by all manner of physical maladies. Their teams will now have to figure out compensatory measures, just like the Bulls, Warriors and Grizzlies.

The upshot of all these injuries is complicated.

On the one hand, the fickle nature of NBA health would seem to indicate that teams should do everything possible to win in the short term. Because freak injuries are—by nature—unpredictable, there's never going to be any certainty that careful, long-term planning is the best way to build a winner.

When a championship window can slam shut so abruptly, doesn't it make sense to dive through it headfirst at the earliest opportunity?

At the same time, it'd be foolish to run players into the ground in pursuit of instant gratification because the risk of overuse injuries is also a real thing.

It seems like the smart teams (Read: San Antonio Spurs) have chosen to play it safe, relying on good luck and cautious play to sustain their stars. But it's rare to find an organization for whom that strategy has paid off so handsomely. Limiting Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to 30 minutes a night is a great plan until one of them breaks a hand or tears a meniscus.

So, what are teams supposed to do? Gun for short-term success because the risk of injury can destroy the best-laid plans at any moment, or rely on luck to sustain their health long enough to make big-picture plans work out?

NBA teams always find out just how valuable their key players are when they're forced to make do without them. But the best way to build a winner in a league constantly beset by franchise-altering injuries remains a frustrating mystery.


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