It seems like just yesterday the Miami Heat were hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. The excitement of the playoffs, where it seemed like anything could and did happen, gave way to a sense of inevitability.
As we head into the 2013-2014 season, every other team in the Association is hearing "not one, not two" in its head, knowing that LeBron James and the Heat are going for that promised third ring and will be prohibitive favorites. Other teams have drafted, signed and worked in hopes that they will be better, and over the next nine months we'll find out.
But if you watched closely last season, you'll know it's not always talent that wins. Sometimes keeping the talent on the floor is the bigger challenge. Injuries become what-ifs. Would the Thunder have won if Russell Westbrook's knee hadn't been nudged out of the playoffs? What would the Bulls have done if Derrick Rose had decided to play? Was there one last run in the Celtics if Rajon Rondo had been at the point?
We not only have to answer some of the injury questions left over from last year, but we'll also have new ones. No team will come out unscathed or unscarred. Some team that might have given the Heat a run will fall by the wayside, left only with another sad what-if.
I'm excited by the prospects of the upcoming NBA season and proud to be a part of the world-class coverage here at Bleacher Report. So let's open up our own version of camp by taking a look at the biggest injury questions we have heading into a new season...
INJURY: post-surgical Achilles tendon reconstruction
OUTLOOK: expected to be ready for opening night
If there's one thing I've learned in the years of doing this job, it's never to make guarantees. Words like "likely" and "expected" give a little bit of an out. I'm not scared of being wrong, but there's always that chance that things change and people don't realize that something I wrote months ago has been rendered moot by interceding events.
That said, I'm perfectly willing to walk way out on the proverbial limb and tell you that Kobe Bryant is going to be ready for opening night.
Bryant's return from a late-season Achilles tear has gone exactly as planned. This is less Mamba Magic or other mumbo-jumbo as it is a good surgeon and a prepared patient. Just as Adrian Peterson's ridiculous conditioning made him the perfect vehicle for a repaired knee ligament, Bryant may be an equally good one for an Achilles.
Bryant is at the end of his career, but the adjustments he's made have allowed him to showcase the things he does well. He'll need to do that again as he learns that he won't be able to do all the things he could before surgery. He's going to lose a bit more than time alone would have taken, but everyone I've spoken to believes that Bryant is the quickest adjuster in the West.
We've seen enough of Bryant's rehab publicly to see how far he is. He can run on an anti-gravity treadmill, walk down stairs at Dodger Stadium and jump off platforms, but we haven't seen him play much basketball. We'll get a very limited look at him during the preseason as the Lakers handle him carefully, but even if he's not the Kobe of old, this older Kobe is likely to be quite productive.
Watch to see if he's able to do his trademark fadeaway. That shot is very athletic and stresses the Achilles in every stage—plant, turn, jump, land. If he's able to do even a close approximation of that, he's going to be good. If he has to find a new trademark, he's likely to be good anyway.
INJURY: ACL reconstruction
OUTLOOK: return to play in December
Rajon Rondo isn't known for being quiet or unassuming. He's brash. He's vocal. He's in your face defensively. So a near-silent, behind-the-scenes rehab wasn't what most expected from the Celtics point. Some took that as a rejection of the rebuilt team or its young new coach. I think Rondo is just doing what he told us he would all along.
When Rondo went down with the knee sprain, one of the first things he wanted to know was, "Who did Adrian Peterson's knee?" Finding out who got the best results (or at least the best known results) fits Rondo's pattern to a T. Peterson didn't talk much during his rehab. Instead, he just showed up and stunned everyone with how well it was going.
Rondo could do the same, but the schedule isn't as much in his favor as it was for Peterson. The NBA's long season isn't going to allow Rondo to make a dramatic opening night start, but he's not far behind. Even prior to the end of last season, Rondo was showing signs of being ahead of schedule. Sources I spoke with said that while the December goal is still the team's expectation, Rondo could play his way into beating that expectation.
While there may still be some drama about how Rondo will mesh with Brad Stevens, everyone with the Celtics knows that a healthy Rondo is key to everything going to plan, whether he's leading the Celtics on the court or bringing them a nice return at the trade deadline.
INJURY: post-surgical knee, meniscus repair
OUTLOOK: expected to open season healthy
The Thunder made a potentially costly decision last year when one nudge sent Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs and to a surgeon's table. His torn meniscus was repaired rather than removed, a decision that should be better in the long term, but eliminated the chance that he could return during the playoffs.
It's that kind of big-picture decision that Sam Presti is famous for, but one that's really hard to make, no matter how comfortable he is in the GM chair. The Thunder are forward-thinking and medically focused, but flags fly forever, and as young as Westbrook is, the Thunder could have easily thought they would trade off some of his future for another shot at a ring.
Much has been made over the last week about Westbrook not being fully cleared to play basketball. Like Westbrook, fans shouldn't be that worried about this. What basketball is he missing? The Thunder's medical staff is probably very happy he's not in a gym or park somewhere. Controlling athletes during the offseason is difficult, but a doctor's leash does have a bit more pull than most.
Expect Westbrook to be ready to go once we get closer to the season. This sort of injury shouldn't affect his style of play at all. The decision to think long term? That we'll have to wait a while to judge.
UPDATE: Just before camps opened, Russell Westbrook had a setback in his rehab. Westbrook was found to have a loose stitch inside his repaired knee, which caused a problem inside the knee. Essentially, Westbrook is getting a re-do and will face four to six weeks of recovery and then a bit more to get into game shape and function.
Aside from the change in timing, there's really no change in what to expect from Westbrook in the short or long term. If this does extend out a bit, it shouldn't be seen as a negative. The Thunder have always taken the long term view on this injury.
INJURY: post-surgery, ACL reconstruction
OUTLOOK: expected to be ready for training camp
Derrick Rose has the easiest path to a return of any player in this article. Given he doesn't have an injury, it makes sense. Rose was cleared to return back in March, and it was his decision not to play through the rest of the Bulls' regular season and playoff run. You can attack or defend him based on your belief, but that's fact.
Rose has now had 15 months to recover from an injury that should take nine to 12 months, and six months to get used to the idea that multiple doctors conclude that his knee is at maximum medical improvement. He can dunk from his left foot, and he has his teammates still defending him, despite him watching Joakim Noah puking through the playoffs and Luol Deng trying to lift himself from a hospital bed to play, while he watched.
I can appreciate a player taking care of himself or resisting being pushed back onto the court when he's worried he will hurt himself further. That's not what happened here. Rose simply decided he was not going to play. He was able to then and he should be even more able to now.
Rose may be back, if he chooses to, and he may be just as good, since we expect people coming off this type of surgery to return to level. Don't call it a comeback. He could have been here for years.
INJURY: fractured hand, sprained wrist
OUTLOOK: should be ready for start of season
Kevin Love just could not heal up. Did he come back too quickly or was this bad luck? Some suggest that he might be a bit brittle, but he's never shown that previously, which would imply a major change that there's just no evidence for.
Love went from a monster to an observer, able to work on his haute couture and his Internet startup more than he was his hoops. Love has spent the offseason working on his conditioning with a celebrity trainer, who also created a device called "Hoop Hands." I tried to find out more about it, but there's nothing that I could find even deep in a Google search.
Assuming that Love is still a normal person, his hands should be healed from the fracture (and the re-fracture) and his conditioning should be top-notch. That means that at least physically, at the start of the season, Love should be back to his normal level, which is elite. Even with the problems, he showed that he was still at a good offensive level, though there's still room to improve.
At 25 and coming off a lost season, Love will have every chance to re-establish himself as an elite player. With two more years of escalating salary on the T-Wolves' books for Love, they'd better hope he does it quickly. I don't think the hands will stop him.
INJURY: torn shoulder labrum
OUTLOOK: not expected to miss time
Dwight Howard played much of the second half of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. It's a painful injury that we're seeing more in basketball players because of new rebounding techniques. The "arm rip" is now an acceptable tactic, even if it draws fouls. For a player as massive as Howard, it's a bit surprising that he would be susceptible to this, but big muscles can only guard a weak ring of cartilage so much.
Howard has moved from Los Angeles to Houston and will change medical staffs, but the situation really hasn't changed. Howard and the Rockets' staff should be able to get a maintenance program going that should approximate what the Lakers did to keep Howard on the floor. Some of this will always be pain tolerance, but with most chronic injuries, a player is able to make adjustments over time.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Howard have a couple episodes with the shoulder, especially early in the season. Adjustments are tough, and even with a full camp to test things, it's just not the same as the grind and physical play of the regular season. Howard is a key addition for the Rockets, but if he's not healthy or even self-limited, the Rockets won't get their money's worth.
INJURY: torn shoulder labrum
OUTLOOK: not expected to miss time
Form follows function. With injuries, context is everything, which is why the same injury to two players can have vastly different consequences. Carmelo Anthony is one of the top stars in the game, but no one is going to mistake his style of play for Dwight Howard's. Why then is it so hard for everyone to understand that a labrum tear for Howard is not going to have the same consequences as a labrum tear for Anthony?
Anthony is a shooter, as pure and simple as you're going to find in the modern NBA. The action he needs for his arm and the action that a defender is going to take to stop that are far different than what Howard does and the defensive technique to allay it. At worst, Anthony is going to get hacked on the arm, a chopping blow that will alter his shot and maybe knock him off-balance. It won't affect the shoulder the way that having the arm forcibly pulled down or back will affect Howard.
Yes, the shoulder could affect the mechanics of Anthony's shot, but Anthony would probably find a way to hoist 20 shots with both arms in casts. He was able to shoot through the playoffs when the injury was acute, so a summer of rehab should only help him.
INJURY: arthritic knees
OUTLOOK: expected to be ready, high chance of recurrence
While Derrick Rose is his own brand of infuriating, Philly was done quickly with Andrew Bynum. It spent a lot of money on the big man in hopes that he could turn things around, but it never even got him on the court. After months of dealing with doctors, Bynum finally had surgery.
The key here is that the surgery wasn't some big deal that cost him months. Instead, it was the most basic of knee surgeries, the kind of arthroscopic cleanout that surgeons call a "scrape and tape." Bynum was able to head to Spain and flamenco dance just weeks after, which I'm sure had many in Philadelphia saying, "We paid him what?"
Cleveland took a long look at Greg Oden and decided to go with Bynum, which says something about someone, but I'm not sure who. Bynum remains a huge injury risk. Even with his dancing, he was likely grinding his knees toward the next episode and the next few weeks on the bench. The Cavs have a solid medical staff, but figuring out how to maintain him and find the right usage/rest balance for him will go a long way in figuring out how much more the Cavs get out of Bynum than the Sixers did.
This is not the "surrounded by talent" that Eric Gordon wanted.
INJURY: post-surgical ankle debridement
OUTLOOK: expected to be ready for start of season
Eric Gordon has always been a talented player, but he's also always been a bit fragile. Sometimes called the "Human Band-Aid," Gordon's talent on the court is frustrating because of his inability to stay on it. He lasted about half of a season last year in New Orleans, which is an improvement on his nine games the previous season.
Gordon appears to be over his ankle issues after surgery to remove bone spurs, but he wasn't able to do much in the way of basketball activities over the offseason. His focus has been rehab, but maybe the name change sat well with Gordon, as he seems more committed to staying than leaving for once.
While the Pelicans are saying all the right things about Gordon and Gordon is saying and doing all the right things, he's not going to change who he is, positively or negatively. Players don't suddenly stop being injury-prone in situations where it's not dumb luck. Someone runs into a pole or twists a knee? That's bad luck. Gordon's situation is chronic, maybe even genetic. Someday at the draft, teams will just take a quick cheek swab and avoid these kinds of picks.
Until then, they'll have to make do and hope. Gordon is still talented, and maybe with a little luck and maintenance, he'll be able to play enough to keep the Pelicans out of the lottery for a year, assuming that's even a good thing.
INJURY: post-ACL reconstruction
OUTLOOK: return expected in December or January
Nerlens Noel isn't going to need a redshirt, but this one-and-done Kentucky big man isn't going to be ready for the season. The bigger question is whether he's ready to contribute at all this season.
After an extensive rehab in Birmingham which allayed many of the physical fears that teams had about Noel's knee after his gruesome collegiate injury, the Sixers were the ones that listened to Dr. James Andrews and drafted Noel. Sliding to No. 6 was to many an indication that Noel's recovery was delayed or there were concerns about his return, but so far he looks to be on schedule.
The normal timetable would have him ready sometime between November and March, but most have pegged his return somewhere around Christmas. That's reasonable, and with the Sixers in full rebuilding mode, it's not going to hurt their status in next year's draft if Noel's return slides a bit. They'll be very cautious in bringing him in, both due to the injury and due to his age.
Noel fits an interesting mold and many inside the game wondered whether, knee injury or not, Noel was really the kind of big that a team can be built around. The Sixers have plenty of experience dealing with knee injuries, but I think Noel will end up a much better experience for the team than Andrew Bynum did.
INJURY: arthritic knees
Greg Oden is a long way from the potential great he was when the Portland Trail Blazers made their second-worst pick ever. Oden isn't going to come back into the NBA and step into that role. In fact, no one has. The game has evolved in just a few years to the point where there are very few traditional big men. Of course, Miami may have brought Oden in to match up against just one of those.
The Heat know that Oden is going to give them limited minutes and limited games. Erik Spoelstra and his medical staff are going to have to figure out a plan to maximize those for impact. Oden could well become a matchup player as much as a big man off the bench. There's more than just Roy Hibbert out there, and it will be up to the Heat scouting staff to figure out where Oden can best be deployed, whether to try and body up on bigs or to alter the shot of the alterable.
Oden is a long shot and paid like one, but he's also something of a lottery ticket. Not lottery pick, but lottery ticket. He could pay off handsomely, filling a role that Chris Bosh and Chris Anderson simply can't. Until the Heat raise another trophy, there's no way to judge this one, but if it works, Oden could hold that trophy higher than anyone else.
INJURY: arthritic knees
OUTLOOK: expected to be ready during training camp, high risk of recurrence
There have been Big Twos and Big Threes throughout the NBA's rich history. In the modern Association, the salary cap has made it tough to have a complete team or one that retains the same character over a period of years. The Indiana Pacers have their Big Two in Paul George and Roy Hibbert. The question they have is not whether Danny Granger will be the third big player, but whether he can even be a complement to those two in the upcoming season.
Granger's knees are worn down. He has "old knees," in the words of one team source. They're painful, swollen and arthritic. Even with all our modern sports medicine, there's very little that can be done for Granger. He's had the knees cleaned out and shaved down and has taken injections almost as much as a doctor can give in good conscience.
They've avoided microfracture, largely because of the mixed results, but Granger is maybe a few years ahead of being the first NBA player to have a meniscus implant or meniscus transplant. No one wants to be first.
Granger's last surgery cleaned up scar on the underside of his patella. If this reduces some friction in the short term, it's definitely a good thing, but the Pacers braintrust will have to find the right minute restrictions. The Pacers have the team depth to make this work, but its a big unknown as to whether it's workable at all.
The upside here is that the Pacers will know quickly. If Granger can recover game to game and not have too much problem with recovery, it's a very good sign. Having 15 to 20 minutes of Granger per game could be the difference the Pacers need.
Steve Nash: Nash could never get healthy enough last season to allow us to tell whether he was still an elite guy. Worse, hamstring injuries don't get any easier for an older player who still needs quickness. Worse still, the pattern Nash exhibits—lots of minor injuries after a very healthy younger career—is a very negative one. The Lakers had a bunch of injuries last season, and they have most of them back. How Gary Vitti, the iconic Lakers AT, deals with those and how Mike D'Antoni handles any minute restrictions will go a long way in telling us whether "Hollywood Nights" will go a long way.
Pau Gasol: Gasol essentially did surgery on himself when the plantar fascia tore last season. He came back and played, but needed a procedure called FAST to help his knees as well. It's not an easy procedure to explain or watch. Players go through a lot to get out there. Gasol is going to need a lot of maintenance and could go downhill very quickly.
Joakim Noah: How Noah fought through the painful plantar fasciitis last season, plus flu, and still managed to not punch Derrick Rose in the mouth is beyond me. Overcoming fasciitis is hard enough. It is something that lingers, but Noah and the Bulls' medical staff appear to have a good maintenance program set up. Don't expect much to change with Noah, but be conscious of the risk.
Dwyane Wade: Wade's knees are chronic. Shockwave therapy is just a hope that it makes things a bit more comfortable. The clock doesn't run backward, and at best Wade will have a bit more freedom of movement and a bit less pain. The Heat were good enough to win with him last year and they should be again this year. The dropoff is gradual, not sudden.
Danilo Gallinari: Gallinari had a pair of knee surgeries, all to repair the "terrible triad" he suffered. That's a sprain of the ACL and MCL, as well as tearing of the meniscus. Players do come back from this, and all indications are that Gallinari will be back in December. That may be a bit aggressive, and I expect there to be some limitations, especially as he adjusts and regains confidence in his knee.
Bradley Beal: If you don't pay attention, hearing that Beal is coming off a season-ending broken leg sounds pretty bad. It was a stress fracture of the fibula. While it's worrisome that this could happen, it shouldn't be that big an issue. Beal and John Wall are an interesting combo in theory. Both will have to stay healthy this season to see how interesting they are on wood.