As the NBA season hits the midway point, the landscape looks more unfamiliar than at any time in recent memory. A glimpse up and down the league standings underscores how much injuries and other unforeseen absences are the great wild cards of professional basketball, routinely making a mockery of even the most perceptive prognosticator's preseason picks.
Injuries are a part of all sports, of course, but in basketball -- where only five players man the floor at a time and individual athletes are capable of dominating a game, a season, an era -- they can be especially devastating. Just take a look at the ongoing narrative of this current NBA season. The Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets, and New Jersey Nets might be playoff contenders now if not for serious injuries to star players. This dynamic works the other way too. Few expected the Orlando Magic to be a contender this season but only because no one expected such a thorough comeback from injury-plagued forward Grant Hill.
So, given all that, what do we make of this year's Memphis Grizzlies? At the halfway mark, the team has already lost more games to injury among its optimal 10-man-rotation (63) than it did all last season (59), and yet the 2004-2005 Grizzlies are only one game behind the 50-win pace of last year's squad. In fact, the team's prospective rotation has been intact for only two games all season.
How have the Grizzlies been able to withstand this injury bug? Chalk it up to outstanding team depth, but in more ways than one.
Last season, the Grizzlies' depth was generally celebrated in terms of its role in wearing down opposing teams. But this season illustrates that the biggest benefit may be in allowing the team to survive the injuries that are inevitable over the grind of an 82-game NBA season.
But a less obvious theory is that injuries have actually helped the Grizzlies this season.
James Posey's injured foot was a big reason for the slow start, but that was in part because the team played him anyway, and a hobbled Posey proved a detriment to team success. Otherwise, the Grizzlies' string of minor injuries has served to limit controversies over playing time, especially since Coach Mike Fratello took control. The conventional wisdom was that Fratello would scrap Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation, but Fratello has never once had his 10 best players available. Because the injuries have been constant but staggered (in only four games this season has the team had fewer than eight of its 10 available), Fratello has been able to run more conventional rotations without benching players in order to do it.
But even without a full complement of players available, Fratello still hasn't resorted to the short rotations you see many other teams around the league run. Until the roster changes, this team's strength is still its depth, and Fratello has been wise enough to use it. In fact, if you break the Fratello era down into sets of games based on the number of players he's used, a pattern emerges. Heading into Tuesday's game against Orlando, Fratello's Grizzlies have gone a perfect 5-0 when using a full 10-man rotation. With a nine-man rotation, the team has gone 8-4. With eight, 5-3. With seven, 0-1.
So Fratello has used the Grizzlies' depth, just not as rigidly as Hubie Brown did. He mixes and matches. He plays the hot hand. He deploys unconventional lineups to get his best players more time. And because there's always been a player or two missing, he's been able to do so without shortchanging any of his key players. But that could change.
Heading into Tuesday's game with Orlando, starting shooting guard Mike Miller was still on the injured list with a concussion and sixth man Bonzi Wells was listed as questionable with a groin strain. But both are minor injuries, and, unless yet another injury pops up, Fratello could have a full roster at his disposal soon. How he uses it, and how his players -- whose chemistry issues last fall almost torpedoed this season -- handle it, could be the key to the Grizzlies' playoff hopes. It could be that full health will bring back the locker-room problems and sink the Griz. But Fratello's proven enough in his short stint at the helm that I'd roll the dice with him. n
SPORTS by CHRIS HERRINGTON
The Grizzlies -- and Memphis -- have suffered a huge loss since our last issue. Longtime radio and television play-by-play announcer Don Poier died of natural causes while with the team in Denver last Friday. We join with the rest of the Memphis media and Grizzlies fans in mourning Poier, whose palpable enthusiasm never overwhelmed his evenhanded, deeply knowledgeable descriptions of the game. Without him, Grizzlies games will lose a bit of their poetry. As much the frontman for the franchise as Shane Battier or Jerry West, Poier will be missed terribly. -- CH