Britt Robson
Thursday December 17th, 2009

They are the bane of any team, the crippler of even formidable contenders. They are injuries, as fickle and happenstance -- and heartbreaking -- as any roulette wheel And as we pass the quarter mark of the 2009-10 season, a number of teams have been ravaged by them, while others have been spared their wrath. Here's a look at how injuries have wreaked havoc across the league.

Portland Trail Blazers Welcome to surgery central. Last year's starting small forward, Nicholas Batum, went under the knife in October for a torn shoulder labrum and won't be back until February or March -- the same time forward Travis Outlaw is due back after November foot surgery. In a 48-hour period earlier this month, center Greg Oden was lost for the season with a fractured kneecap and guard Rudy Fernandez was shelved through mid-January due to back surgery to relieve pain in his leg. And when coach Nate McMillan practiced with the team to give them enough healthy bodies for 5-on-5, he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Because the Blazers had as much depth as any club heading into the season, they have enough to compete for a playoff spot, if not a championship. Backup center Joel Przybilla will deliver the boards, blocks and interior presence he's always brought during Oden's frequent absences (Don't forget, Przybilla's still the highest-paid player on Portland's roster this season). Martell Webster owns the small forward position, and more will be asked of callow point guard Jerryd Bayless and the ageless Juwan Howard, who is received surprising court time even before the spate of injuries.

Golden State Warriors Coach Don Nelson likes his small-ball, but this is ridiculous. The team's two best big men, 7-footer Andris Biedrins (back) and 6-10 Ronny Turiaf (knee), have each played just four games so far this season. The club's best defender, swingman Kelenna Azubuike, was lost for the season after nine games because of a torn tendon in his knee. Promising forward Brandan Wright may play his first game of the season in February after recovering from shoulder surgery. And swingman Raja Bell got in 23 minutes after being acquired in a trade from Charlotte before opting for wrist surgery that will sideline him three months.

The carnage of big bodies has simply sped up the chaos in the Bay Area, as the Warriors seek to lap the rest of the league in pace of play. They may lead the league in steals, but their break-neck offense ranks a woeful 21st in the NBA in efficiency and last in rebounding at both ends of the court.

Indiana Pacers Just four games after the Pacers' second-best player, Mike Dunleavy, returned from off-season knee surgery, their leading scorer, Danny Granger, went down with a torn plantar fascia that will keep him out until at least mid-January. And their two best rebounders, forward Troy Murphy (back) and center Jeff Foster (ankle) were lost for three weeks in November.

Brought in for defense, Dahntay Jones has been a godsend, nearly tripling his career scoring average with 13.9 points per game. Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough comprise an intriguing young frontcourt tandem, but with T.J. Ford continuing to struggle, the Pacers have missed Dunleavy's ball distribution.

Philadelphia 76ers Two players coming into their own this season, second-year center-forward Marreese Speights and 23-year-old fifth-year point guard Lou Williams, went down with November injuries. Philly was 4-6 with Speights healthy and 5-9 with Williams in the starting lineup. Now they're 6-19.

Well, now that they've got Allen Iverson everything should be smooth sailing in Philadelphia, right John Thompson?

Los Angeles Lakers The defending champions have kept winning, despite weeks-long injuries to key players. Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games with a hamstring injury, and Luke Walton has been out with a back injury. Thankfully, the maturation of Andrew Bynum -- and, belatedly, Ron Artest -- enabled coach Phil Jackson to weather Gasol's absence, but heavy minutes were levied on both Bynum and Kobe Bryant, which will bear watching as L.A. finally takes to the road portion of their schedule.

Orlando Magic Jameer Nelson -- coupled with the 10-game suspension to Rashard Lewis -- have hurt last year's other finalist. However, Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson provided flexibility in Lewis' absence, and Jason Williams deserves a gold watch for un-retiring and teaming with ancient Anthony Johnson to mitigate the loss of Nelson at the point.

Utah Jazz Jerry Sloan continues to do a masterful job with the Jazz, who are on a roll despite significant time lost for Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles, and, most recently, Andrei Kirilenko. (They got Korver and AK-47 back the other night and promptly lost at home to the woeful Wolves.) Credit the studs in Utah, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, for elevating their games another notch thus far this season. Meanwhile, Utah has unearthed a couple of invaluable role players in rookies Eric Maynor at the point and defensive glue guy Wes Matthews at small forward.

Dallas Mavericks Extended absences for swingman Josh Howard and center Erick Dampier haven't deterred the Mavericks from leading the Southwest Division. For all the talk about the depth San Antonio added, the Mavs are the division's deepest team. When everyone is healthy, Dallas can switch out Dampier for guard Jason Terry, bump Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Howard up a position size, and suddenly go from pound-it-out half-court play to a run-and-gun unit. Meanwhile, Jose Barea in the backcourt, Drew Gooden at center, and Kris Humphries, Quinton Ross and Tim Thomas at forwards present a plethora of other options.

Sacramento Kings The Kings were galvanized by a retrofitted backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Beno Udrih after leading scorer Kevin Martin underwent wrist surgery five games into the season. The versatility of Evans enables the Kings to put him at the point in a giant backcourt alongside swingmen Andres Nocioni (6-foot-7) and Donte Greene (6-11), or play him off the ball beside a classic point such as Udrih. Either way, Brandon Jennings better watch his back as Evans makes up ground in the rookie of the year race.

Milwaukee Bucks Speaking of Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks discovered that losing leading scorer and gold medal Olympian Michael Redd after just two games provided their rookie sensation with more touches and a spot at the top of the team's pecking order. Sift in a bounty of glue-guy forwards (Ersan Ilyasova, Hakim Warrick, Carlos Delfino), appreciate the professionalism of Luke Ridnour as he selflessly supplements Jennings at the point, cross your fingers that center Andrew Bogut's back holds up and you've got a classic Scott Skiles ensemble that comes to compete every night.

Detroit Pistons When Pistons veterans Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince went down for most of the first six weeks of the season, the three-guard combo of Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum filled in admirably. Now, Hamilton is back, but Gordon and Bynum are waylaid, and Prince's chronic back pains have stubbornly kept him on the sidelines. Stuckey's emergence and Bynum's career month of November makes a trade for either one of Detroit's iconic ring-holders, Hamilton and/or Prince, desirable for GM Joe Dumars. But who picks up those contracts? Prince is due $21 million over the next two years; Hamilton is owed nearly $50 million over the next four.

Atlanta Hawks None of the top eight players in the Atlanta Hawks rotation have missed a game this season. Big leaps forward for the front court duo of Josh Smith and Al Horford have carried Atlanta, along with a solid bench core led by Jamal Crawford and Maurice Evans, and underrated Mike Bibby guiding an offense that commits the league's fewest turnovers. And with Marvin Williams off to a slow start, there is still room for further improvement.

Oklahoma City Thunder The exciting young core of the Oklahoma City Thunder have also been injury-free. Kevin Durant is in bloom, point guard Russell Westbrook would be gaining plenty more huzzahs if he weren't in KD's shadow, and the combination of defensive monster Thabo Sefolosha and precocious rookie James Harden at the off guard slot has been superb for the Thunder.

Houston Rockets The karma gods that stripped the Rockets of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have pretty much left the rest of the roster intact. With the league's smallest talent gap between the top eight or nine players in their rotation, the Rockets are proving that synergy through chemistry can legitimately boost a team into playoff contention, while improving underrated coach Rick Adelman's chances of landing in the Hall of Fame.

Charlotte Bobcats Minor ailments for Flip Murray are the worst things to happen to the top eight players for the Bobcats. Stephen Jackson has made a difference, but don't sleep on Charlotte's unique tandem of rebounder small forward Gerald Wallace and distributor power forward Boris Diaw. And coach Larry Brown's decision to go with Raymond Felton over D.J. Augustin at the point has improved Felton's confidence and elevated his play.

Boston Celtics Finally, the Celtics will gladly accept the absence of Glen "Big Baby" Davis and now Marcus Daniels if the top six players in their rotation remain injury-free. Nobody in the leagues plays team defense and shares the ball on offense as consistently and capably as the Celts.

(All stats are through Dec. 16.)

• Injuries to Manu Ginobili and Leandro Barbosa has made Jason Terry an early favorite to repeat as Sixth Man of the Year. Yet, while the Jet has markedly improved his defense and is averaging 16.7 points and 3.4 assists in 34.2 minutes per game, his shooting percentage from the field (43.4) and beyond the arc (33.8) are his lowest in six years. Knicks forward Al Harrington (19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds in 31.5 minutes per game) is a serious candidate but may lose eligibility if New York continues to play well with him in the starting lineup.

• A couple of other superglue-guy forwards belong in the sixth man discussion. Houston's Carl Landry (16.6 points, 6.0 rebounds in 26.6 minutes per game) has 165 fourth-quarter points in 25 games to rank among the league's top three in that category, one reason Houston is a plus-19 in the 31 crunch time minutes (defined as within five points with five minutes or less to play in the fourth quarter or overtime) Landry has played this season.

• Miami's Udonis Haslem (10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game] likewise elevates his game in the clutch: The Heat are plus-22 in the 34 crunchtime minutes Haslem has been on the floor. Not coincidentally, both Houston and Miami are among the league's biggest overachievers thus far this season.

• But if you're looking for a sixth man who has had the most positive impact on his team's performance, check out the much-derided, fuzzy-haired, flop-oriented Cavs forward Anderson Varejao. During the 567 minutes Varejao has been on the court this season, the Cavs have scored 10.5 more points per 100 possessions and allowed 12.3 fewer points per 100 possessions to their opponents than in the 445 minutes Varejao has been on the bench. Put more simply, in gross numbers, Cleveland is plus-159 when Varejao plays and minus-39 when he sits.

That's a lot more impressive than the modest individual statistics (10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game) that the fifth-year power forward from Brazil has posted and it's because Varejao's defense has been superb thus far this season. His rotations are quick and aggressive and his rebounding -- his signature tap-outs on the offensive glass but also his jousting for inside position -- is vastly improved.

According to 82games.com. the Cavs' allow opponents fewer points per 100 possessions when Varejao is at center than when either Shaq or Zydrunas Ilgauskas are playing the position. The disparity is even greater between Cleveland's other options at power forward and Varejao, who is limiting opponents to a miserly 86.4 points per 100 possessions when playing the "4". Add in that Cleveland leads the league in yielding just 33.9 points in the paint to their opponents and Anderson Varejao, of all people, needs to be recognized as a highly effective defender in the low block.

• Old school hoops fans grimace at the preponderance of three-pointers in today's game, but it is hard to ignore how important the inside-outside dynamic has become in the modern NBA offense. Still, even the most efficient shooting teams can become besotted with perimeter treys and the Orlando Magic are a Exhibit A. Currently fourth in the NBA in true shooting percentage (which takes into account free throws and the added value of three-pointers), the Magic are most vulnerable when they start denying touches to Dwight Howard inside. In Orlando's 19 wins this season, Howard has attempted an average 10.3 field goals per game, but for the six Orlando defeats, Howards shot frequency is cut in half, to 5.3 FGA. Six times this season, Howard has attempted five or fewer shots from the field and Orlando has lost four of those games.

• After watching Tracy McGrady land among the starters in early returns from the All-Star balloting, quibbling with any aspect of the process seems like a Byzantine enterprise. And watching Amar'e Stoudemire successfully return from injury, in a contract year, with the All-Star Game in his home city, it is hard to begrudge him a spot on the Western Conference squad. Those caveats aside, however, it is interesting to see how Stoudemire stacks up against the three other top-shelf centers in the conference -- Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Nene Hilario in Denver, and Andrew Bynum in L.A. He leads the pack in two categories, minutes-played and points. Otherwise, Stoudemire is third in field-goal percentage (ahead of only Duncan), second in free-throw percentage, last in rebounds, last in assists, second in steals (behind only Nene), last in blocks, and worst in turnovers by a wide margin.

• The dirty little secret in Utah is that a front line of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur is horrible on defense. The Jazz are 10.5 points more porous per 100 possessions when Okur is in the game and 6.2 points per 100 worse when Boozer plays, so obviously the tandem together doesn't stop anybody. Paul Millsap and big boy Kyle Fesenko both dramatically improve the team defense when they get minutes so maybe it is time for some new combinations.

• Among the woes for San Antonio is Tony Parker's wayward jump shot. Last year, 59 percent of Parker's attempts were jumpers and he had an effective field goal percentage of 42.4 -- not great, but enough to keep opposing defenses honest. This year, the mix of jumpers in his game has dropped to 54 percent because his effective field goal percentage is a paltry 36.7 from outside. Opponents are giving him the open look and denying penetration: His percentage of blocked shots in the paint has risen from 12 percent to 16 percent thus far this year.

• It's become too easy slap the superstar label on LeBron James and then stop paying attention to the consistency and subtlety of his excellence. Right now, he's hitting 50.7 percent of his shots and is sixth in the NBA with eight assists per game, more than pure point guards who live on dimes, like Jose Calderon, or players with killer jumpshooters for teammates, like Russell Westbrook (Durant) and Chauncey Billups (Anthony). Explosions, like his 11 points in 1:55 of the third quarter versus Oklahoma City, remain in the memory, but for real value, consider how consistently he bails out the Cavs' offense. Nearly a quarter of his 515 shot attempts have been taken with three seconds or less on the shot clock and his effective field goal percentage (which factors in the added value of threes) on those attempts is 56.4.

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