In a terrible coincidence, three potential contenders suffered injuries to critical players on Friday night.
Derrick Rose (torn meniscus), Marc Gasol (sprained MCL) and Andre Iguodala (hamstring strain) were all taken off the board in a matter of hours, done in by a string of fluky, non-contact injuries that could bear far-reaching implications. Exact timelines for recovery aren't yet known, given the specifics of their injuries and the various treatment options still in play, leading the Bulls, Grizzlies and Warriors, respectively, to rule their three stars out "indefinitely."
That's a horrible, uncertain word in this context, used to describe both those players who will go on to miss the remainder of the season and those who will be sidelined a matter of weeks. There's no hope or resolution there; Rose, in particular, is a veteran of indefinite status after missing the entire 2012-13 season, as were Andrew Bynum (who didn't play a game for Philadelphia) and Danny Granger (who played a mere five games for Indiana). It's a source of frustration, too, as indefinite framing of an injury seems to only lead to more media prodding and added fan anxiety regarding a player's return. A key contributor missing four to six weeks is easily digestible for all involved. A key contributor missing some unspecified amount of time is harder to swallow.
That isn't to say that all three of these players will wind up absent for the remainder of the season -- merely that there is a painfully wide range of possibilities on the board for each of them. That's particularly true for Rose, who not only is coming off an unfortunate, season-long absence because of an ACL tear but is also the only one of the three to undergo surgery as a result of his most recent injury. The result of that surgery, though, depends on which procedure Rose opts to have. From K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
How long Rose is out won't be known until surgeons do their work. Estimates range from one month to six; that's how wide the disparity is.
According to sources who have discussed Rose's medical care, if merely an arthroscopic process is needed to "clean up" the injury, his absence would be on the shorter end of that spectrum. If the meniscus needs more extensive surgery to be reattached or repaired, Rose would be out longer and could miss the entire season.
...Sources said Rose likely will opt to have the meniscus reattached, which would be better for the long-term but sideline him longer.
Such a procedure would be wise for the long game, given how much basketball Rose still has ahead of him and how invested the Bulls are in his future. Still, these are not easy decisions. Chances to contend for a title -- as the Bulls have, in theory, this season -- are precious, though the long-term costs to Rose's career could make that quicker recovery timeline prohibitive.
If Rose opts for surgical meniscus reattachment and another season of rehabilitation, the Eastern Conference would only grow more stratified. Miami and Indiana are a cut above the rest as it is, though Chicago seemed the most likely to close the gap. Even with Rose shooting 35.4 percent, posting a career-low in assists and turning the ball over at a career-worst rate, the Bulls were still definitively the third-best team in the conference. If Rose had been able to fix his errant jumper and establish a better sense of timing, the Bulls' offense stood a good chance to rebound from its bleak inefficiency.
One could already see the basis for that improvement despite Rose's underwhelming form. Though he was missing far more of his own shots than usual, Rose's presence on the floor completely shifted the Bulls' shot distribution -- cutting down on the team's mid-range attempts and bringing the offense closer to the basket. Without Rose, that trend will be difficult to replicate. Kirk Hinrich, who will fill in for Rose as Chicago's starting point guard, is a capable rotation player, but in no way poses the kind of offensive threat that would generate consistent close-range looks. Without them, the Bulls are resigned to the same style of makeshift offense employed in Rose's absence last season, when they ranked 24th in points scored per possession.
What's worse: Hinrich will now go about his work at the point without the help of two very important shot creators. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli were crucial sources of dynamism within Chicago's offense last season, and both moved on as free agents over the summer. That puts a lot of pressure on Hinrich to keep the Bulls afloat on his own, with only Marquis Teague and Mike James behind him on the depth chart. No longer can Hinrich defer to Robinson's skittering work off the dribble or Belinelli's improvisation; he's truly on his own, a placement that doesn't bode well for a player with Hinrich's limitations. The Bulls are used to playing without Rose at this point, unfortunate though that may be. What they're not used to is playing without Rose, Robinson, Belinelli and -- for the moment -- the injured Jimmy Butler. This will be a trying season under those circumstances, as Chicago has a realistic chance to threaten for the worst offense in the league.
Still, this is a team that makes do. Chicago's defense has rebounded to elite levels, as expected, after some early struggles, and the Bulls should still make the postseason because of their collective pluck and the dreadful field in the East. Yet if Rose is truly gone for the season, so too are the Bulls' hopes of being anything more than playoff fodder. A lot could happen between now and April, but the benchmark set by the two best teams in the East (and perhaps the league) seems more distant than ever.
Things may be just as dire for the Grizzlies, even without the same risk of a season-long absence for Gasol. All told, an MCL sprain diagnosis was a bit of good news for Memphis, as the brutal, alternative time frame of an MCL tear would have doomed the Grizzlies in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Instead, Gasol's injury turned out to be a sprain that sees many of its victims back on the court within six weeks or so.
The only problem: Even that six-week timetable would see 19 games pass before Gasol's return, more than enough for the Grizzlies to dig themselves into a considerable hole. Through Saturday, Memphis had the eighth-best record in the West with five teams (the Timberwolves, Suns, Pelicans, Nuggets and Lakers) trailing by a game or less. What matters isn't Memphis' exact standing in the conference so much as the clutter of potential playoff contenders; Utah and Sacramento would seem to be the only two teams safely out of the postseason running, which leaves little room for error as the Grizz grit and grind for a postseason berth.
That endeavor becomes far more complicated -- and, needless to say, more difficult -- without Gasol, especially considering how much of Memphis' success is built on intimate familiarity. The successes of this Grizzlies core have come as a result of playing in tune with one another. Tony Allen knows how much he can gamble with Gasol helping behind him. Gasol knows how to best set up Zach Randolph with a high-low feed. Randolph understands how to post up without cluttering Mike Conley's driving lanes. There's a shorthand in the way Memphis executes that's vital -- and oddly off-key so far this season. Plays that seemed routine in the past have proved uncharacteristically difficult in recent weeks, and any momentum garnered since was derailed when the Grizzlies watched their best player helped off the court.This is a team in the process of addressing the flaws of its execution, and yet for almost 20 games could be without its defensive anchor and offensive fulcrum.
Kosta Koufos will step in to start, with Ed Davis likely filling in more reserve minutes as a result. Both are good NBA players, but the baseline on both ends of the floor will be sloppier without Gasol around to smooth things over. When the Memphis defense is functioning correctly, it's Gasol who wrangles pick-and-roll ball handlers, protects the paint through his careful control of space and challenges any opponent who attempts to score inside. On offense, too, Gasol helps Memphis manage the presence of limited players such as Allen and Tayshaun Prince with his high-post facilitation. Both present challenges to the Grizzlies' spacing on a play-by-play basis, and without having Gasol stationed at the elbow with a 7-footer's-eye-view of the floor, Memphis will struggle to redirect possessions and beat double teams consistently.
All of which is to say that without Gasol's help on both ends of the court, the Grizzlies will have a hell of a time holding off those hungry teams behind them in the West. At best, this all but eliminates the chance for Memphis to secure home-court advantage in even a single round of the playoffs. At worst, it derails the Grizzlies for the next 20 games or so and impairs a contender from ever establishing a proper rhythm this season.
Iguodala isn't the centerpiece of his team's roster (a la Gasol) or the face of his franchise (a la Rose), but he has quickly established himself as one of Golden State's most important players. The combination of his slightly lesser standing and seemingly less severe injury makes his case the least troubling of the three. That his hamstring strain will not require surgery is a fortunate break, and one likely to be less harsh on the Warriors than Gasol's absence will prove to be on the Grizzlies.
Nevertheless, Iguodala's "indefinite" timetable is a bit worrisome. The Warriors haven't exactly been forthcoming regarding the nature of their players' injuries (and true recovery timelines) in recent seasons, with Andrew Bogut's nebulous status last season being the most egregious example. It's in the hands of such a franchise that the word "indefinitely" seems dangerous. Perhaps there's no need for concern on those grounds, as Iguodala may well recover in good time without issue.
For his part, Iguodala seems to think that he won't be out of the lineup for long. From Marcus Thompson of Inside Bay Area:
“I’ve never been hurt before,” Iguodala said after totaling six points and six assists in 28 minutes Friday. “I’ve had something that might’ve kept me out for a game. Something really minor where I knew I’d be back in two days. But this one kind of worries me a little bit. So we’ll take it serious and I’m sure I’ll be back really soon. My body has been pretty good to me so far. I take care of it, so sooner than everyone thinks.”
Hopefully that's the case, though the Warriors have more than earned a healthy skepticism in their public dealings with injury.
Regardless, Golden State has its own issues to sort out -- ones of which Iguodala is a prime component. The last week has made it abundantly clear that the Warriors are ill-equipped to execute offensively without Stephen Curry on the floor. With Curry controlling the ball and stretching the defense, Golden State scores at a blistering clip of 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. When he sits -- or sits out, as was the case for two games after Curry suffered a concussion last week -- that output plummets to an astounding 87.5 points per 100 possessions.
This is a problem, and one that directly involves Iguodala -- a versatile forward who has functionally acted as Golden State's backup point guard. He's a terrific passer for a wing player, but he's struggled to maintain the balance of even an abridged version of Golden State's typical offense. If the Warriors intend to follow through on their title-contending designs, they'll need to find some way to better manage their minutes without Curry, specifically in those instances where Iguodala is the initiator of the offense. That becomes trickier if Iguodala's hamstring strain evolves into anything more serious, or even lingers longer than expected. Beyond strategic planning, such problems take time and repetition to fully work out -- both of which could be a challenge if there's any complication to Iguodala's injury. Hand-wringing aside, Iguodala's diagnosis would seem to be manageable for the Warriors. Harrison Barnes is fit to take over a bigger cut of minutes while Iguodala rests, and Curry's return (he played in Saturday's loss to Portland) should help Golden State hold somewhat steady. There's reason for worry until Iguodala finds his way back to the court, but the long-term implications should be relatively minimal if this usage of "indefinitely" isn't as open-ended as the Warriors' reputation would suggest.