Column: Making The Most Out Of Injuries

by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Dealing with injuries is a necessary evil in the NBA. You never want anyone to go down, whether it’s a player on your own team or an opposing squad, but the chances of something happening on any given night is pretty good. These guys are the biggest, fastest and strongest players on the planet, and they’re part of an 82-game marathon. Breakdowns will happen from time to time.

Last year’s Wolves team was on the extreme end of it. The injuries they went through were almost laughable because it seemed as though we were watching a “What more could possibly happen?” scenario. This year, the Wolves had been pretty lucky in the injury department prior to the last 2-3 weeks having essentially just Chase Budinger (knee) and Ronny Turiaf (elbow) miss time.

But over these past 13 games, the Wolves needed to adapt. That’s when starting center Nikola Pekovic went down with bursitis in his right ankle. Six games later, shooting guard Kevin Martin broke his left thumb. And in the first game back from the All-Star Break—right before the Wolves went on this current five-game road trip—Turiaf hurt his knee against the Pacers and has been out since.

That left the Wolves without their top two centers and a starting 2-guard. Yet over the past week, the Wolves were able to do what good teams in this league must in order to stay competitive. They endured these untimely injuries and actually put together a stretch of basketball that is arguably their best of the season.

And now, as Pekovic and Martin both returned on Saturday night in a 108-97 win over the Kings, the Wolves just might be in better position than they were before the injuries took place. Not just because they are back at .500 with a winnable stretch of games in their near future, but because they were able to adapt and learn a bit about themselves in the games both Martin and Pekovic were unavailable.

The Wolves needed to adjust on the fly with Pekovic, Martin and Turiaf out. They needed to move All-Star power forward Kevin Love to the center position, insert Dante Cunningham as the starting power forward and rearrange their wing rotation to find the right mix. It took some time, but suddenly we’ve got a clearer picture of what some of these guys can do when moved around and shuffled.

Kevin Love, for instance, was just as dominant offensively while technically playing the center position as he was before. He picked up more of the slack and went on a run in which he put together 11 straight 25-point, 10-rebound games as well as a franchise-record six straight 30-plus point outings. He did it while defending at the center position, which puts him out of his traditional comfort zone and wears him down a bit more than usual due to the difference in physicality at the 5. It still didn’t really faze him. And now we know that even though coach Rick Adelman likes to put Love at the 5 for only shorter spurts, it is possible for him to be successful at that spot.

That opened up a little more room for Robbie Hummel to slide in at the 3 and 4 spots from time to time. Hummel, technically a rookie, is just a solid player all around. He understands the system and where he needs to be, he’s a team player and he can knock down a jumper. And he got a little more experience at the NBA level during these past two weeks.

Speaking of rookies, Shabazz Muhammad’s minutes this year have been few and far between. But he got his opportunity to shine in Phoenix this week, and he seized it in scoring 20 points—10 in the 4th alone—and helped the Wolves beat the Suns on the road. He showcased that his physicality on the wing can be useful, especially being able to move inside a bit on the offensive end, and he also brings a scorer’s touch and the will to haul down rebounds. We learned what Muhammad can do during important moments of big games during this stretch.

All of that, plus Cunningham slid into the starting role and thrived not only by hitting those midrange jumpers but also showcasing his athletic ability getting the rim more often than earlier this season. And Chase Budinger filled in admirably as a starting 2-guard, as well.

When players go down, teams need to fill in for that lost productivity. But this league is all about opportunity, and when a player or two go down it offers a team to get better all-around thanks to adjusted positioning. The Wolves, for instance, are now better off to have Love play the 5, to have Muhammad gain more minutes or to have other role contributors step up into more prominent minutes.

That’s what good teams do, after all. When you lose a star player (or two), you need to have a next man up philosophy. We see it around the league all the time. When Russell Westbrook went down earlier this year and missed a significant chunk of the first half, the Thunder got excellent production from Reggie Jackson in that point guard role. Jackson was primed to make a run as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this year, but he transitioned into the starting lineup and gave Oklahoma City enough production to help them stay at or near the top of the Western Conference. Now that Westbrook is back, the Thunder have a more experienced backup point guard ready to bolster their back court depth. It should also be mentioned that Jeremy Lamb, who came over to OKC in the James Harden deal, also stepped up and contributed during Westbrook’s absence.

Last year, with the Bull missing Derrick Rose all season long due to his ACL rehabilitation, Chicago still made the playoffs thanks in part to contributing point guard play from Kirk Hinrich and a collective collaboration from Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, among others. Taj Gibson stepped up into his role, Nate Robinson showcased how much he can impact games, and in the end the Bulls won 45 games, made it into the playoffs as a fifth seed and upset the Nets in the first round.

This year, the Clippers lost Chris Paul for 18 games from the beginning of January through early February. He’s a perennial MVP contender, and he’s the engine that runs that Clippers team on the court both on a competitive level and on an execution level. But the Clippers went 12-6 in that span, because guys like Darren Collison—a new addition this year—stepped in, and others like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford picked up the slack.

Last night, the Wolves got 26 points from Martin and 20 points and nine boards from Pekovic in their returns. They’re back, and the Wolves are in better shape because they now have additional experience on how to play without these guys. Not that Pekovic and Martin will be hurt or out of the lineup again, but if they are the Wolves can adapt. And even if they’re active on the bench, it gives the Wolves more ways to mix and match their rotations and matchups.

Good teams don’t sulk when they have injuries. They adapt, and they get better. The Wolves are better today than they were three weeks ago, and that should help them in this upcoming playoff push.

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