Which Injury Is Most Crucial in NBA Playoff Race?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2013

Mar 13, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) grabs his ankle before coming out of the game at the end of the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 96-92. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Many of the NBA's biggest stars are ailing, and with the playoffs approaching, a few injuries stand out as having the potential to make massive impacts on the postseason race.

But how is it possible to determine which single injury is most crucial to the chase for a championship?

Well, for starters, we've got to draw some lines.


The Ceiling

By definition, teams that aren't realistic threats to win a championship have to take a backseat. That might seem harsh, but think of it this way: If the Toronto Raptors aren't going anywhere with or without Andrea Bargnani, why does it matter for the playoffs if he's healthy?

That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that clubs that figure to make the playoffs, but ultimately seem unlikely to collect a ring, can't really have "crucial" injuries in the same way that legitimate championship contenders can.

For that reason, Carmelo Anthony's troublesome knee and Tyson Chandler's cranky neck can't qualify as "most crucial" because the New York Knicks simply aren't a title contender.

Anthony has looked good since his post-knee-drain return, but even if he's fully healthy the rest of the way, the best his Knicks can hope for is a quick, painless death at the hands of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs—if they survive long enough to face them.

The same is true of Chandler, who is set to miss about a week of action with a bulging disk in his neck, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.

David West of the Indiana Pacers and Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics both fit into this category, too.

West is battling a bad back that could cause him to miss a couple more games, and Kevin Garnett has just come back after missing time with a left thigh injury. Both of those players mean the world to their teams, as each one serves as the emotional leader and enforcer.

But like the Knicks, neither the Celtics nor the Pacers have much of a chance of getting past a Miami club that looks unbeatable. West's and Garnett's injuries matter, but ultimately, they're not the most crucial because their teams don't look capable of going all the way.


Addition By Subtraction

Secondly, we've got to figure out how badly these playoff teams really need their injured players.

In some cases this year, injuries to stars have actually resulted in an overall improvement in their team's play. Obviously, a team that maintains its level of performance—or gets better—in the aftermath of a player's injury doesn't speak highly of that player's inherent value.

Enter Rajon Rondo.

After Rondo tore his ACL on Jan. 25, his Celtics won seven straight and have gone 16-8 overall. Boston has rallied together in his absence, but the bigger changes have been improved ball movement and defensive discipline.

Because the Celtics appreciably improved after Rondo went down, it's impossible to call his injury "crucial."

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Danny Granger.

Paul George has emerged this year as Indiana's star on the wing, meaning the Pacers haven't needed Granger's services as desperately as they otherwise would have. With a younger, healthier, more athletic All-Star firmly entrenched in his spot, Granger has basically become obsolete.

So as he continues to work back from patellar tendonosis in his knee, the Pacers won't exactly be on pins and needles waiting for his return.

Granger can help Indiana, but it's not like his five points per game will make or break his team's season.


A Drop in the Bucket

If a team has so many other issues that the health of its injured star is just one of a hundred pressing problems, it's hard to term that injury particularly "crucial."

That's where Kobe Bryant's ankle sprain and Pau Gasol's torn plantar fascia fit in.

Bryant is a hugely valuable player to the L.A. Lakers, but even if he were fully healthy for the rest of the season and the playoffs, his team still has to sort out health issues elsewhere, along with a litany of other problems.

Chemistry is still dicey between L.A.'s best players, largely because Bryant, Steve Nash, Gasol and Dwight Howard have hardly played together this year.

The bench is still thin behind the starters, and Mike D'Antoni still hasn't proved he knows what to do with all four of his stars when they're on the court together.

Bryant and Gasol, if healthy, make the Lakers better. But there are so many other issues swirling around the Lakers that their returns on March 22 against the Washington Wizards are really just the first step in an arduous process of overcoming the team's mountain of obstacles.


The Wild Card

The most discussed injury this season belongs to Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose. The entire city of Chicago is playing one of the most painful waiting games in history as it suffers through Rose's impossibly drawn-out return.

The latest word from the former MVP is that he's leaving his comeback date up to a higher power.

Divine intervention aside, the truth is that the Bulls are a thin, utterly worn-out team right now. On top of that, there's no way of knowing how close Rose will be to his old self if he returns this season.

For those reasons, it's just not logical to expect his re-insertion into the lineup to suddenly morph the Bulls into a title contender. It's certainly possible that they'll return to the elite level they played at last season if D-Rose is fully healthy.

But that's a pretty big "if."

On a broader scale, Rose's return to full health is definitely the most crucial injury for the long-term future of the Bulls. But it isn't the one that has the largest effect on this NBA season.


The Missing Piece

Because the San Antonio Spurs have gone 6-2 since Tony Parker went down with an ankle sprain on March 1, it might seem tempting to lump his injury into the "Addition by Subtraction" category. After all, the Spurs seem to have gotten along just fine without him.

But the truth is that San Antonio can't capture its fifth ring unless Parker is at full strength.

Without a havoc-creating penetrator on offense, the Spurs rely far too heavily on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to initiate plays. Those two are fantastic offensive weapons, but their age and high mileage make it less than ideal to feature them so heavily.

Parker's abilities to cause trouble with his quickness and push the pace when the time's right are critical pieces of the Spurs' arsenal.

With him, San Antonio is a real threat to dethrone the Miami Heat. Without him, they're something slightly less than that.

Because Parker means so much to his team, and because his team really can contend for a title if he's healthy, his is the most crucial injury in the NBA playoff race.

It's a good thing for the Spurs he rejoined the starting lineup on March 22 against the Utah Jazz.


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