When it comes to impact on a team’s trajectory over the breadth of a season, not to mention the postseason, NBA franchise players rank second in professional sports only to NFL starting quarterbacks.
Much to the NBA’s delight and, occasionally, its chagrin.
If healthy, an NFL QB can flip a 6-10 season into 10-6. No one quibbles with the position as every franchise’s focal point. I once had an NFL general manager tell me, “The most important player on a football team is the starting quarterback. The second-most important player is the backup quarterback.”
Yet quarterbacks also are frequently fragile, routinely roughed up and sidelined, rehabbed or discarded at the least opportune times. That can torpedo a career or a team’s rosy five-year plan.
NBA franchise guys check all the QB boxes: Visible, impactful and nearly irreplaceable. It’s only natural at the start of this season to anticipate that one or more teams will lose the services of its No. 1 or No. 2 star for a month or two (or worse).
Projections for the New Orleans Pelicans are ramping down after it was announced Monday that Kia Rookie of the Year favorite Zion Williamson be out six-to-eight weeks following surgery on his right knee to fix a torn meniscus.
Williamson -- that breathtaking 6-foot-6, 285-pound blend of size, speed and skills selected No. 1 in the 2019 draft -- probably will face some challenges in ROY balloting if he misses the expected 25-30 games while recovering from this fix. (The fewest appearances by any previous ROY in a 82-game season was 50, by Patrick Ewing in 1986.)
Worse, the Pelicans’ hopes of making the leap in the standings they’d need to chase a Western Conference playoff berth already looks daunting. Navigating Williamson past this setback is struggle enough; finding ways to avoid future injuries to his lower extremities is an immediate organizational priority.
The Pelicans have a lot of new faces this season -- Derrick Favors, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, J.J. Redick -- and return their ever-underrated guard, Jrue Holiday, too. But they have no one capable of filling Williamson’s blown-out sneakers based on the buzz and performances of the preseason. New Orleans’ 2019-20 trajectory already has been altered.
Which brings us to this: which five NBA teams are least capable of weathering an injury to a top star, followed by the five most capable of surviving such a predicament. We’re going with playoff aspirants, mind you, since an All-Star or projected award chaser plucked off a likely losing team wouldn’t hurt that crew’s ambitions much.
So as talented and important as are Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are, their presence or absence probably won’t derail, respectively, the Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Thunder, Wizards or the Suns from their modest expectations.
Here in no particular order are the teams most, and least, vulnerable to what no one wants to see happen.
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5 most vulnerable teams
1. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have serious depth to their roster. They feel as good as or better about their bench than they did in winning 60 games last season. This, despite valuable combo guard Malcolm Brogdon’s relocation to Indiana. But this team is built to play around Giannis Antetokounmpo at both ends. Any extended absence by the reigning Kia MVP would be like taking a loose thread on a Wisconsin-weather sweater and tying it to the bumper of a passing brewery truck. Plans for the East’s No. 1 seed, a Finals trip, a championship could all unravel quickly.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Conventional wisdom would say that when a roster boasts two of the top half dozen players in the league, it ought to be able to weather an extended absence by one of them. Except there’s nothing conventional about this insta-contender the Lakers put together. Anthony Davis has a history of injuries that adds an urgency to this issue for them, while LeBron James’ value out of the lineup got demonstrated in 2018-19 much as his value in a team’s lineup was known before. The Lakers were 28-27 when James played and 9-18 when he didn’t. Kyle Kuzma isn’t ready to step up into either star’s role, and the Lakers would be well-advised not to expect a return to All-Star form from Dwight Howard. If Davis goes down, these might too closely resemble last season’s Lakers. If James, then last season’s Pelicans.
3. Utah Jazz: What we said about Antetokounmpo up top? Well, the Jazz are similarly built around Rudy Gobert on the defensive end. Ed Davis was a strong below-the-radar addition, but no one else in the NBA has the impact as a rim protector/mistake-eraser quite like Gobert. Offensively this is an ensemble, particularly with Mike Conley getting the ball in his hands to occasionally say “no” to Donovan Mitchell.
4. Golden State Warriors: One team can only suffer so much attrition. The Warriors figure to be better than some anticipate, given the departure of Kevin Durant and extended rehab of Klay Thompson (which could keep him out all of 2019-20). The upside to those events has been excitement about Stephen Curry returning in all his glory to the player who snagged Kia MVPs in ‘15 and ‘16. There’s no reason or room for Curry to hide his light under the bushel that enabled Durant & Co. to shine. If he were to go down for a month or more in what a lot of us imagine as a renaissance season, the depleted Warriors will sag with him.
5. Miami Heat: In the year of the tandem, the team in South Florida used the offseason to transform itself into another lone star state. Jimmy Butler is an alpha dog … and he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He has been and can be an imposing player at both ends, and it seems as if his scenery-chewing personality should mesh with the hardnosed, Pat Riley culture. But if Butler were to miss 30 games or so, his absence would be felt much like it was in Minnesota after he was traded last autumn -- without the sign of relief and bounce in mood the Timberwolves felt with his departure.
5 least vulnerable teams
1. Denver Nuggets: There might be a tie or two across 30 teams, but no player in the NBA tops Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the “unique” category. His passing ability and feel for the game, in a 7-foot, 250-pound package, are unicorn-worthy. Only Wilt Chamberlain among the league’s historic big men ever posted season stats across the board better than Jokic’s 20.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 7.3 apg. OK, so if the Denver center is that special, how would it cope if he were out for a significant number of games? With depth and versatility, mixed with the continuity that sets the Nuggets apart from almost every other team. You get the feeling that coach Michael Malone has had a restrictor plate on some of his guys, in terms of individual potential, in order to serve the group good. But that means Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Gary Harris or new additions (Jerami Grant or Michael Porter Jr.) could boost their production to ease Jokic’s hypothetical unavailability.
2. Houston Rockets: Can a team lose a former MVP in his prime to significant injury and avoid sputtering to the side? It can if it has two of them. While finding the ideal fit of James Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s game looms as the season’s biggest chore for Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, an extended layoff for either would be a pretty familiar spot for either. Harden has flown solo in the past in Houston and Westbrook had that role in OKC. The biggest danger would come not from opponents but from undoing whatever strides had been made in blending their talents. Bad habits in March, for instance, could linger in the playoffs.
3. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers rate this high, in terms of playing in Kevlar uniforms, because they have done it. Losing All-Star guard Victor Oladipo to a ruptured right quadriceps tendon last January should have sent them into a death spiral. But they bucked up well, managing a 16-19 record over the final three months to finish 48-34 and grab the East’s fifth seed. More telling, when Oladipo was hurt for three weeks earlier in the season, Indiana went 7-4. He remains their best player under contract, someone they’ll have to do without for a while now.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers’ plan has been to plant enough stars in its lineup that the loss of one wouldn’t really matter. They’re not quite that bulletproof, but the on-time development of center Joel Embiid and guard Ben Simmons, added to the consistency of Tobias Harris, suggests an injury to any of them would be less traumatic than in the past. Even as recently as last season, the 51-31 Sixers were 8-10 when Embiid missed games and 1-2 with Simmons out. With so many stellar tandems dotting the NBA landscape, Philadelphia arguably has the best Big Three, and that depth of stars might matter.
5. Portland Trail Blazers: Not to downplay point guard Damian Lillard’s importance -- or, for that matter, his reliability (Lillard has played in 541 of 574 career games). This is more a testament to GM Neil Olshey’s resourcefulness and coach Terry Stotts’ resiliency in steering the Blazers through setbacks and allegedly dashed expectations in the past. They’ve been able to shape-shift Portland to emphasize other styles and traits as needed. After losing center Jusuf Nurkic two weeks before the 2019 playoffs, the Blazers finished 8-2 and reached the West finals. In Anfernee Simons, they added another dynamic backcourt player to team with either Lillard or C.J. McCollum.
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