NBA learns to do more with less after rash of midseason injuries
Rockets have gone 16-5 since losing Tracy McGrady to knee surgery in February
Rafer Alston has helped run Magic's offense after losing All-Star Jameer Nelson
Sixers have had four of five starters available for every game this season
Every time you hear those words these days -- "Do more with less" -- you want to snap the pencil in your hand while imagining your boss with a yellow, No. 2 neck. It is management by Dilbert, a hollow dictum that strains credulity as much as it strains a dwindling workforce. When you think about it, if your department, crew or shift actually was capable today of doing more whatever with less something, then yesterday it must have been doing less with more. Nice message there, boss.
Then you glance at the NBA standings and you see that, in fact, a number of playoff-bound teams have been doing just that. Winning more with less talent. More teamwork with less star power. More results with less payroll, at least on the floor at any given moment. A remarkable number of clubs have endured injuries to significant players without immediately nose diving in their division or conference races. Teams in Houston, Orlando, Philadelphia and elsewhere have kept afloat their fans' postseason hopes while -- uh-oh -- maybe emboldening your CEO to trim a little closer to the bone next quarter.
In which case, thanks a lot, resilient stinkin' NBA teams. Why couldn't you be more like San Antonio (17-15 without Manu Ginobili), Boston (7-6 during Kevin Garnett's recent absence) or Minnesota (3-19 since Al Jefferson's season-ending knee injury)?
Here are some of the teams that are thriving, not just surviving (that's Dilbertian, too) in their management of crises:
Houston without Tracy McGrady
The Rockets were 31-21 on Feb. 9 after a miserable 124-112 defeat at Milwaukee. Worse -- or so it seemed -- was McGrady playing in his final game of the season; he would have microfracture surgery on his left knee two weeks later. And yet, Houston has gone 16-5 since that loss to the Bucks. It ranks third in the West and, a few days ago, briefly sat atop the Southwest, the team's latest division lead since 1994. The Rockets are headed toward 50 victories for the third straight season and their best offensive season in almost a decade, with a career 22.1-point scorer on the shelf.
"We've had so much drama and ... lineup shuffles, trades. I don't think too many people thought we'd be here today,'' Shane Battier told the Houston Chronicle, after the Rockets passed San Antonio temporarily. "[First place] hasn't been our goal. Our goal is to play good defense, play good basketball. Let's improve so we're playing our best basketball come playoff time."
With the bold move of trading Rafer Alston and entrusting point-guard duties to Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks, with Carl Landry's development (pre-gunshot wound), with Luis Scola as a grinder and near-star and with Ron Artest contributing to a 33-13 record when he's in the starting lineup, the Rockets have put a serious dent in their overall record without McGrady. They're 47-57 sans T-Mac since 2004-05, but 27-11 without him this season (vs. 20-15 when he played).
"In this long season, you're going to go through ups and downs, through injuries and everything else," coach Rick Adelman said. "We've had some major changes. We've been able to overcome them and continue to come back from them. I think it bodes well because it's a character of the team that shows up. I think they always had an attitude."
Orlando without Jameer Nelson
Maybe Rockets GM Daryl Morey should get extra credit for keeping two teams afloat through troubled times. The Magic's fortunes weren't his priority, but in the three-team deal that got him Lowry and Brian Cook, Morey delivered Alston to Orlando on the very day that Nelson was having shoulder surgery on his torn right labrum. Magic GM Otis Smith obviously deserves some brownie points then, too.
Nelson's injury, besides spoiling his All-Star and potentially Most Improved Player season, was expected to doom Orlando's ambitions overall. The team was 32-10 (.762) with Nelson running the offense, and it is 13-4 (.765) since Alston took over.
Orlando clinched its second straight Southeast title Wednesday and will compete in the playoffs for the third consecutive year. It is 27-11 on the road, second best in the NBA, and the Magic offense ranks sixth at 104.5 points and fifth at 47.4 percent shooting.
"We know the organization is doing better because [fans] are mad the point spread isn't big enough,'' coach Stan Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel after a 110-103 victory over the Knicks."That's a great sign. ... We understand that we're at a point where that's not good enough, and that brings a smile to my face."
Alston is scoring and shooting a little better since the trade -- 11.9 points vs. 11.5, 39.7 percent vs. 37 percent -- and he has kept 34-year-old backup Anthony Johnson effective off the bench. Johnson's production suffered when his minutes soared immediately after Nelson's injury.
L.A. Lakers without Andrew Bynum
Granted, Bynum -- whose season got shredded by a knee injury for the second time in as many years -- ranked no higher than the Lakers' third-most-important player, behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But the 7-foot, low-post man-child was an emerging dimension they again don't have, and he seemed a likely X factor to push them one step beyond last spring's result, when L.A. lost to Boston in the Finals.
Bynum might be back for that this spring and, frankly, might not be needed until then, based on L.A.'s performance. Since he went down -- we're counting the Jan. 31 game at Memphis in which Bryant accidentally bowled him over, tearing Bynum's right medial collateral ligament, because it happened five minutes after tip-off -- the Lakers have gone 21-5. Losing his 14.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.89 blocks put a challenge to the teams' veterans, so Bryant has boosted his scoring average by 2.6 points, Gasol is up 3.6 and Lamar Odom is up 4.3 -- that's 74 percent of Bynum's points right there. Gasol and Odom are grabbing an extra 6.7 rebounds, 80 percent of the big fella's output. And Odom, more secure in his role now, ranks 18th with 1.32 blocks.
Philadelphia without Elton Brand
When they signed Brand as a free agent last summer, the Sixers saw themselves going to the playoffs again, even advancing this time. They didn't expect to be toting Brand around as a sharply dressed mascot. The fact is, Philadelphia was 13-16 with Brand on the floor this season, but 24-17 without him heading into Friday's game against Charlotte, about 180 degrees from what anyone expected or intended. Since doctors shut him down on Feb. 9 with the injury to his right shoulder, the Sixers have gone 14-9.
Fortunately for Philly, four other starters -- Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert and Thaddeus Young -- have been available for every game (something Sixers stats guru Harvey Pollack says no other NBA team can boast). The team has no one averaging as much as 20 points per game -- something that has happened only four other times for this franchise since 1955-56 -- and yet the offense since coach Tony DiLeo took over for fired Maurice Cheeks has averaged 99.6 points vs. 93.3. The club's faster tempo benefits from Brand's absence, freed from any obligation to run half-court sets through him.
Utah without Carlos Boozer
Boozer is back, unlike the key guys mentioned so far, so this is more about what the Jazz did than what they are doing minus a star player. Utah is 10-4 since Boozer returned from the injury that required arthroscopic knee surgery in January. It took coach Jerry Sloan, who has used 17 starting lineups, until game No. 57 to have his preferred unit of Boozer, C.J. Miles, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer and Deron Williams for the introductions. Which means this has been a group effort by whomever, whenever. Boozer's absence was the greatest -- the Jazz were 26-19 in games he missed -- but Sloan navigated through others' layoffs: 9-5 without Williams, 5-1 without Miles, 5-2 without Brewer and 4-5 without Okur. With the all-for-one dedication, Paul Millsap deserves special mention; he had a streak of 19 point-rebound double-doubles, and his development could make Boozer expendable this summer.
Milwaukee without Michael Redd
The Bucks are headed for the lottery, but they sorta, kinda qualify here because things were supposed to have gotten so much worse than 31-41 after Redd went down. Redd was averaging 21.2 points and 36.5 minutes when he tore two ligaments in his left knee on Jan. 24, and the Bucks were 17-15 with their best player in the starting lineup. Ten days later, center Andrew Bogut suffered a stress fracture in his back, ending his season, too. Milwaukee hung tough, going 5-4 in its first nine without Redd, five of those without Bogut. Forward Charlie Villanueva has done a Dutch Boy job of plugging holes, scoring 20 points or more in 12 of his 25 games since Redd got hurt and 26 times overall -- that's his most since 11 as a Toronto rookie in 2005-06. But it hasn't been enough; the Bucks seem to be running on fumes now, going 2-8 so far in March.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.
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