Without Nene (right), Washington will hurt for defense and rebounding. (Mitchell Layton/MCT via Getty Images)
The Wizards' playoffs-or-bust season has taken a serious hit. In a game against Cleveland on Sunday, Nene -- Washington's versatile starting power forward -- went down with a left knee injury that rendered him unable to walk. Wizards officials initially feared that a torn ligament could be the cause, but on Monday an MRI revealed that Nene had suffered a sprained MCL. That bears a more hopeful timetable, though the Wizards announced in a press release that Nene is expected to miss approximately six weeks of action.
Although a sprained MCL is better than the alternative in this case, a six-week absence would run nearly to the end of the regular season. Supposing Nene isn't delayed beyond that timetable, that would keep him out of Washington's next 21 games -- a slate of largely winnable games that just became far more challenging.
Without Nene, all bets are off as far as Washington's standing. To date the fifth-seeded Wizards are 28-28, due largely to a top-10 defense that either limits opponents to a single shot or ends their possessions prematurely with a turnover. Nene is instrumental in both efforts, and overall rates as Washington's single most important defensive player. His combination of strength and agility cannot be replaced; there is no stopgap that can fulfill Nene's defensive function to the Wizards, as few bigs in the league are as sharp and preemptive in their coverage of space. With that kind of player serving as a systemic backbone, Washington has defended at a top-three level this season. When Nene has rested or otherwise missed time with injury, the Wizards plummet to the defensive marks of a bottom-five defensive team.
Put another way: In their 1,256 minutes without Nene, the Wizards have defended opponents on average about as effectively as the 19-37 Lakers have. That could well be Washington's new day-to-day reality, as Nene's injury leaves the Wiz short on quality frontcourt depth and without the best defensive player on their roster. Even though Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker have contributed admirably this season off the Washington bench, the Wizards otherwise have a dearth of viable players with experience at either power forward or center. Marcin Gortat is still active to take the majority of minutes in the latter spot, but his inconsistency this season should only complicate Nene's prolonged absence.
Washington will look to free agency to help fill that void, as Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported that Washington is expected to sign the 32-year-old Drew Gooden to a 10-day contract. Beyond that, Washington is likely looking to Trevor Ariza to play up and out of position or to the consistently underwhelming Chris Singleton to provide something -- neither of which bodes well for a team still vulnerable in the East's playoff race.
At present, five games separate the Wizards -- a team that has given up draft picks, cap flexibility, and assets in aiming for the postseason -- from the ninth-place Pistons. That might seem like a safe cushion in light of Detroit's greater dysfunction, but the two teams are separated by a single game in their last 12. With Nene out that gap gets tighter still, and at the very least Washington faces the possibility of slipping into the seventh or eighth seed and a sure first-round playoff elimination.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.