The 2013-14 NBA season is shaping up to be a big one for injured giants.
Dwight Howard's looking to dominate the league for the Houston Rockets, now that his back is finally in working order again. The fringe playoff hopes of the Cleveland Cavaliers will rest heavily on the perpetually pain-plagued knees of Andrew Bynum, who sat out all of last season while with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Bynum's old teammate, Pau Gasol, is facing free agency, barely removed from the worst campaign of his career. And Greg Oden, known "best" for being the one man taken ahead of Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA draft, is looking forward to his first taste of competitive basketball in nearly four years, as a member of the Miami Heat.
Andrew Bogut is neither an All-Star nor a complete bust, but rather something squarely in the middle.
For now, at least. How he fares with the Golden State Warriors this season will go a long way toward determining on which side of that spectrum Bogut eventually finds himself.
The stage is set well enough for Bogut to wind up on the positive side of the ledger. He's come into training camp as healthy as he's been in nearly two years, with an exciting team sporting the requisite ingredients to leave a mark on the league.
Bogut broke his ankle in January of 2012, shortly after the end of the lockout. A month-and-a-half later, the Warriors traded for him, knowing full well that he wouldn't likely be available to play until the following season.
The deal, which also brought Stephen Jackson back to the Bay Area, drew the ire of many Warriors fans, who saw the jettisoning of Monta Ellis (and Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown) to the Milwaukee Bucks as yet another affront to their loyalty and a sign that the organization's new leadership was just as clueless as its predecessors were.
Bogut sat out the remainder of the 2011-12 season after undergoing what was later revealed to be microfracture surgery to clean up the once-broken ankle. He rushed himself back after just six months, even though the recovery in question usually requires closer to a year of rest and rehab.
As a result, Bogut shuffled through the first four games of the 2012-13 campaign, only to then miss nearly three additional months to allow for a more proper recovery. That debacle left Bogut "playing at maybe 40 or 50% capacity," as he recently told Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News. Added Bogut:
I felt like I was a lumbering per se traditional center, just banging guys around. I had no real skill or speed or movement in my game. It was all very one-dimensional.
Now that I’m feeling like I can move like the way I know I can, those other dimensions of my game will flourish.
Which must come as music to the ears of those same Warriors fans who once derided the team's front office for going all-in on an injury-prone pivot. Those fans saw Bogut hobble his way through a total of 32 regular-season games and all 12 of Golden State's playoff tilts. They watched as he turned in arguably the least productive campaign of his eight-year tenure in the NBA, with career lows in points (5.8) and minutes (24.6) and the second-lowest field-goal percentage of his career (.451).
But they were also witness to what Bogut could be, even without the benefit of a clean bill of health. They cheered for his 14 rebounds and four blocks in the postseason opener against the Denver Nuggets. They applauded his three playoff double-doubles, including a personal playoff-best 14-point, 21-rebound rumpus in the first-round clincher.
They got a taste of Andrew Bogut's potential impact on a young and exciting squad. Now, they'll get to see what he can do when he's not hampered by a bum ankle.
A one-time All-NBA performer, Bogut's best known for his vision and timing as a passer and his intelligence and toughness as a defender. A grizzly elbow injury suffered in 2010 robbed Bogut of his feel as a scorer, but left intact his ability to get up and down the floor and use his size to his advantage:
I broke my elbow (in 2010) and that was a different recovery because I lost a lot of my touch. So that was a different mental demon to fight. But I always felt good conditioning-wise and moving around and using my quickness.
Bogut's elbow may never allow him to shoot like he once could, but that's the last thing the Dubs need from him. They're already loaded with guys who are ready, willing and more than able to shoot, led by the "Splash Bros.," Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes will both provide athleticism on the wings, while David Lee can handle the bulk of the team's interior scoring duties.
Bogut's responsibilities, then, come down to what he does best and what centers have traditionally done: rebound, defend, do the dirty work and bring some much-needed toughness to the table. That shouldn't be a problem for Bogut, assuming he's as healthy as he insists he is.
Of greater concern for Bogut is his future, be it in the Bay Area or elsewhere. He's due $14 million this season, but will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
That is, unless his agent, Bruce Kaider, and the Warriors work out an extension of some sort before then—which, at this point, seems unlikely:
-Q: And you’ve got the little matter of pending free agency coming up after this season. Which makes this a contract year. Have there been any talks with the Warriors about an extension? They’ve said they want to sign you, pretty clearly.
-BOGUT: I want to stay.
-Q: So you’ve had talks?
-BOGUT: There haven’t been. But I want to stay here, if I can. I like the organization, I like the direction, I like the owners, I love the coaches, I love the players.
To his credit, Bogut understands that staying in Golden State will require much more than just a declaration of desire. He'll have to prove that he can stay healthy over the long haul and that a fit Bogut is worth a long-term investment on the part of any team, Golden State included:
I honestly want to stay here. But I’m not (overlooking) that I’ve been hurt, so my value has been diminished a little bit. And obviously I want to have a good year.
But I’m not one of those guys who wants to have a good year, get my deal and then shut it down. I wouldn’t do that. People might think that because of last year and the injury, but it’s a unique circumstance.
I just want to keep playing. I want to get to the playoffs and make a run at that and then let the chips fall where they may.
He's also mature and focused enough to not allow the uncertainty of his future distract him from the task at hand:
People have question marks and so does this organization about my durability. I totally understand that.
I have to just keep being professional, play hard, and see what happens. Would I like to get an extension today? Of course I would. Anyone would.
But I know they have to do their background, I have to do my background. And if an offer comes or something does happen, we’ll go from there. But right now, nothing’s been talked about.
I’ve tried to focus on training camp and making sure everybody knows I’m healthy and go from there.
If Bogut, with his 29th birthday fast approaching, can't now—as a prominent member of a dark-horse title contender—shed the stigma and the lingering effects of injury, then he may never have that opportunity. Teams are already wary of Bogut's fragility and won't feel any better about it as his body continues to age and absorb the sort of pounding to which his preferred style of play lends itself.
In that sense, Bogut is both in total control of his destiny and far removed from its outcome. He could put together his finest season as a pro and propel the Warriors to the 2014 Western Conference Finals and still struggle to find long-term security on the open market.
Then again, finding work shouldn't be too much trouble for a 7-footer who can do a lot more than just walk and chew gum at the same time—which isn't always so easy for bigs in the NBA. He's seen the money that's been tossed at Dwight, despite his back, and at Bynum, belying the condition of his knees. He heard about the free-agent frenzy over Oden and will probably have to wait his turn next summer to see what Gasol gets on the open market.
The point is, it pays to be tall in the NBA—it always has and always will, contrary to what the rise of "small ball" might suggest. Size of the sort Bogut sports cannot be taught.
That much Bogut can take comfort in, and he has so far:
If I get an extension, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. But we’re not really talking about it right now. The focus is training camp.
And I think a big fellah on the open market isn’t all so bad, either, judging by the last (offseason).
Not for scouts and general managers. Not for coaches. Not for fans.
And certainly not for Bogut himself. For him, it's about doing anything and everything he can to help his team, all the while demonstrating that freak accidents and the gruesome injuries that result needn't define a player's value in the short term or his legacy in the long.
It's about shedding labels. It's about recasting himself as a key contributor to a winning ecosystem rather than as a "bust" who'll never live up to outdated expectations.
Indeed, the 2013-14 season will be of pivotal importance to many of Bogut's peers, but the opportunity at hand could for him mean the most of all.
Wanna chat about Bogut? My door is always open...on Twitter, anyway.