How Tony Parker's injury could affect the Lakers
It's why Lakers Coach Phil Jackson kept two-a-day sessions during training camp to a minimum. It's why he found time during the season to limit practice time and give the team days off when he felt it was warranted. And it's why Jackson felt neither too high during long winning streaks or too low after disappointing performances.
The reason, of course, involves the players' health, the main variable Jackson and team members maintain serve as the biggest indicator on whether they can three-peat this season. There's plenty of moving parts regarding that issue. This mostly centers, of course, on aging All-Star guard Kobe Bryant, who's been mostly limited during practice this season because of the lack of cartilage surrounding his surgically repaired right knee. It includes Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who missed the first 24 games because of the controversial timing for his offseason surgery on his right knee and his extensive injury history that always leaves fans anxious. And it includes Lakers forward Matt Barnes, who traveled with the team on its two-game trip after rehabbing from Jan. 11 surgery on his right knee to treat a torn lateral meniscus tear.
While the latest NBA injury news doesn't directly involve the Lakers, their long-held belief that health proves to be the most important variable for determining playoff success proves timely. San Antonio guard Tony Parker is expected to miss two to four weeks because of a strained left calf, meaning he will miss at least six games and as many as 13, if he returns within the timetable given by the club. The natural instinct for Laker fans will involve how this could affect the defending champions. It's obviously natural to wonder if the Lakers could catch the Spurs in the standings, but it could be a tall measure considering San Antonio (49-10) holds an eight-game lead for the top spot in the Western Conference. It's more likely Dallas (43-16) could take the spot, considering it only trails San Antonio by six games, a scenario that would still affect the Lakers in playoff matchups. If the season ended today, the Lakers would face Denver in the first round and, assuming the Lakers advance, would then play the Mavericks in the second round. Should Dallas eclipse San Antonio in the West, the Lakers could meet the Spurs in the conference semifinals regardless of whether the defending champions finish second or third.
Those fixated on the standings race and playoff matchups, however, are missing the bigger picture. Sure, the Lakers probably feel more confident heading into Sunday's game against San Antonio without its starting point guard running the show. Jackson and his players have proclaimed that wins and losses matter more after the All-Star break, particularly in March, when the standings race is sorted out. And because of the nature of prolonged absences, it's conceivable the Spurs would go through a transition period when Parker returns to the lineup.
Regardless ofJason Terry's insistence the Mavericks aren't concerned about the Lakers and that Dallas will catch San Antonio, the main concern involves how each team handles injuries. Even though there's a possibility Parker's absence could ultimately hurt San Antonio in the postseason, the Spurs showed as recently as last season that they could adjust. When Parker missed 16 games in March and April last season because of a broken right hand, the Spurs went 11-5 during that stretch, including signature wins against Orlando, Cleveland, Boston and the Lakers as Manu Ginobili averaged 22.1 points, 5.8 assists and shot 51.7% from the field and 44.1% from three-point range. The stakes were higher then because the Spurs weren't at the top of the conference standings, they were fighting for playoff position. San Antonio certainly has the experience to do it again, considering George Hill is a reliable option at the point as the team's leading scorer off the bench (11.2 points per game) and Ginobili has proven more consistent this season.
It was tempting to write off Dallas after it lost Caron Butler to a season-ending injury and then fell in six consecutive games. It's tempting to believe San Antonio is showing cracks in its depth. But even if the NBA schedule is inching closer and closer to the postseason, it's too early to say. One only has to look at the Lakers last season to understand that having the proper amount of health in the postseason hinges on strategic planning and a little amount of luck. The Lakers sat Bynum for the final 13 games of the regular season in hopes he could fully recover from a strained left Achilles' tendon. They took a similar approach to resting Bryant for four of the last five games after his knee became swollen. Even though the rest and treatment helped, by no means had the Lakers solved their problems.
It was only the beginning of health concerns. Bryant continued to experienced increased swelling and Bynum soon discovered he had torn cartilage in his right knee. Both had their knees drained, and Bryant responded by going on a 30-point tear in 13 of the 18 playoff games after having the procedure before Game 6 of the first-round series against Oklahoma City. That allowed Bynum to essentially operate on one leg so he could still present the matchup problems his length provides against smaller conference opponents. Certainly a week-long stretch consisting of zero practice and heavy treatment between the Lakers' West semifinals matchup against Utah and conference finals series against Phoenix helped each player as well.
The big question is how will San Antonio minimize the impact of Parker's absence for the next two to four weeks, and will the Spurs' fortunes take a serious enough downward spiral to help the Lakers. San Antonio is a well-coached team that has dealt with injury problems among its stars in the past, and with a lineup and bench that mixes veterans and young players they might not tumble too far in the standings, something Lakers fans might not want to hear at this point. But they'll admit it was too early to write off the Lakers after the knee injuries to Bryant and Bynum heading into the 2010 playoffs. With the Spurs, we'll simply just have to wait and see.
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Photo: San Antonio's Tony Parker, right, drives around New Jersey's Deron Williams. Credit: Darren Abate / Associated Press