Livingston's hard-earned return
Shaun Livingston is back nearly two years after a devastating knee injury
The Heat backup point guard hasn't regained all of his explosiveness yet
More topics: Chris Paul's hot start, the Wizards' woes and an analysis of the 76ers
Gone are the expectations that came with being the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft. Forgotten are the hopes that the 6-foot-7 phenom from Peoria (Ill.) Central High School could be the Clippers' Magic Johnson. Lost, for now, is the chance to brand a franchise as his own.
The NBA life of Shaun Livingston is a quiet one now, marked by a handful of minutes as the Heat's third-string point guard and hours spent rehabilitating his knee after a devastating injury nearly two years ago almost ended his career at age 21.
"You come into the game and you don't want to do too much all at once," Livingston said recently about his approach this season. "The explosion I have is what I have. I want to contribute and help the team win basketball games. Those are my expectations, and they are going to come in due time."
As modest as those goals may be, they appeared all but impossible when Livingston crumpled to the floor after making a layup for the Clippers against the Bobcats in February 2007. The damage done to Livingston's left knee -- a torn MCL, ACL, PCL and lateral meniscus, in addition to a dislocated patella and tibia-femoral -- left doctors to contemplate partial amputation of the leg.
"Directly after the injury, I had my doubts about playing [again]," Livingston said. "But ever since it's been, well, not smooth sailing, but forward-looking."
More than a year of rehab had Livingston ready to resume basketball. But it had also given the Clippers time to explore other options at point guard. Around the same time they renounced their rights to Livingston last summer, the Clippers signed Baron Davis to a five-year, $65 million deal.
While preparing himself to attract other teams as an unrestricted free agent, the 23-year-old found his way back to Chicago-based super trainer Tim Grover, who had helped Livingston prepare for the draft four years ago.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we could get him back," Grover said. "He was in pretty good shape, but he wasn't ready to play. The knee was strong but it wasn't quite strong enough, and there were other supporting muscles in the leg that also needed to be addressed."
Six days a week, Livingston worked with Grover and his squad of trainers and physical therapists on multidirectional lunges, balance work, isometrics and body engineering. Translating that work to the basketball floor, though, required therapy not only of the body but also the mind.
"[Sometimes] we made him do an activity that simulates something in a game, but it may not be basketball-related," Grover said. "We may have had him do something with a football, and just joke around and take his mind off of things. Then after he was done with it, we'd show him, Hey, Shawn, do you know what you just went through? This is the position your knee was in, and we'd show it to him on film. That would often give him the confidence to step up and do it [on the basketball court]."
Livingston was soon working out for a few teams in search of point-guard depth: Miami, Minnesota and Portland. When everyone in the Heat organization except a slick-haired executive dropped by Grover's Attack Athletics facility for a look-see in August, it appeared Livingston's NBA career may have some life in it yet. Then, after he auditioned for Pat Riley at a private Miami workout, Livingston was welcomed out of the NBA wilderness to the warm breezes of South Beach.
"Once you get on the court, you want to show everybody who you are. You've got something to prove," said Livingston, who played in two of the Heat's first six games. "Patience will be the key. Of course, it's hard to be patient. I'm still young. Competition, emotion, all of that comes into play."
But it won't come into play in full for some time. Livingston recently told the Boston Herald that he was at "80 percent of where I was." Grover said he didn't expect Livingston to be close to fully recovered until the All-Star break.
Little steps. They aren't very satisfying, but when the alternative may be to not step at all, well, a few more months of slow progress maybe isn't so bad.
Hair. Even with Josh Childress and his Afro off in Greece, the NBA continues to demonstrate creativity in the hair arts. Bulls forward Drew Gooden debuted a braided chin beard inspired by Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow character in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Appropriately enough, Gooden has nicknamed the growth "The Johnny." Nuggets forward Carmel Anthony took an opposite approach, cutting his signature cornrows before opening Studio 15, his new barbershop in downtown Denver. "We've got the works," Anthony told The Denver Post. "And there's lineups, a cosmetologist, manicure, pedicure."
Chris Paul. Last year's MVP runner-up got an early start on this year's race. The Hornets' point guard became the first player in NBA history to record at least 20 points and 10 assists in six consecutive games to open the season.
The Wizards. How did they muddle through most of last season without Gilbert Arenas and still make the playoffs, yet started 0-5 this season without Agent Zero? Defense. The Wizards were by no means great on D last season, but they ranked a respectable 12th in points allowed and 19th in opponents' shooting percentage. This season? Through Sunday, Washington was surrendering a league-worst 108.8 points on 50.2 percent shooting. Part of this is a result of losing starting center Brendan Haywood until at least February after wrist surgery. But a bigger part is the Wizards' unwillingness to put forth a consistent effort on the defensive end. It's easy, and appropriate, to blame the players, but after five-plus years of the same lament, doesn't coach Eddie Jordan deserve some of the blame, too?
Post offense. There's long been a dearth of elite big men in the NBA. More and more, though, teams are all but abandoning the inside game. Miami, Washington, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, New York and Chicago are just some of the teams offering little semblance of an offensive post presence. They also may not be able to offer much in the way of winning records by the end of the season.
An NBA scout assesses the 76ers, who are off to a 2-4 start after their offseason acquisition of Elton Brand.
"Brand gives them the true low-post scoring threat, a guy you can go into on a nightly basis and who can get 20 points. In addition, he's smart enough and well-rounded enough to find the open man when he draws double teams, which create opportunities for Andre Iguodala, Louis Williams, Andre Miller, whomever. But they don't scare you shooting the ball from the perimeter. On those nights, they're going to have to really defend.
"Miller might be the key guy for them because he initiates everything. He has to avoid the lulls he has had over his career. He's had years where he seems motivated, and he's had years where it didn't seem he wanted to be there. If he's not at that highly motivated level, they won't be any better than last year [when they finished 40-42 and lost in the first round of the playoffs]."
They said it
"A guy who blew by me so fast, I didn't have time to say hello."
"I don't think he's athletic by any means, but it doesn't look like he has a bad stroke."
You're trading Marilyn Monroe for Jane Russell."
"If you're going to win an NBA championship, [playing defense is] where you got to go. Notice I didn't say world championship, because there's no such thing. Not many have figured that out yet. ... Did any of us win a championship in Spain or Italy or Russia or any other country outside the United States? The World Series, I don't know why it's the World Series. I never have gotten it. I still don't get it and people continue to do it. One would think stubbornness or hubris or something like that has something to do with it, but these days, when things are so obvious, it's remarkable to me that people still can't figure that out."
"I was hoping they traded all five of their starters. All of them to the West, with no return."
The Painted Area: Dissecting how the Cavs are using LeBron James in the high and low post a lot more, a decision that has facilitated more motion in the offense.
Basketball Prospectus: SI.com contributor Will Carroll breaks down the mechanics of Greg Oden's foot sprain and talks to a specialist at the famed Kerlan-Jobe clinic about how the injury will affect the Trail Blazers' center upon his return. Further, Carroll ponders how Oden's muscular development may be contributing to his increasing list of injuries.
The Sporting News: Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko fame explains why Iverson's trade to Detroit makes him culturally relevant again.
It's not surprising that Major League Baseball reportedly won't allow Mark Cuban to join their old-boys network of owners. It's a shame, though, that the Cubs are being denied a potential owner who is innovative and fan-friendly.
The NBA has to like the early-season intrigue. A blockbuster trade, a memorable buzzer-beater in Portland, a Knicks team that actually tries and the makings of a sizzling MVP race -- all in the first two weeks.
Though the final numbers won't come until the last day of the season, nine teams reportedly are on pace to pay the luxury tax, a fee that will total more than $100 million combined. While the Knicks (about $27 million owed) and Heat ($440,000) bookend the group, the seven other projected taxpayers (Dallas, Cleveland, Lakers, Boston, Denver, Phoenix and Houston) all are decent to excellent bets to make the playoffs. Guess money can buy happiness.