Expert NBA Handicapping: Assessing Long-Term Injuries
It has been a remarkably bad first few days of the NBA season when it comes to the health of key players. Gordon Hayward was lost - likely for at least one season - with an injury so nasty it could turn you off of eating for life if you caught it live. Jeremy Lin was lost for the year in the Nets' opener. And Chris Paul reportedly could miss a month or two with continuing knee woes. And we are only, as I write this, at the first weekend of the season. For fans this is a brutal start. And for bettors it is a real headache. We need to figure out what these injuries mean, but also how people are reacting and whether that reaction is warranted. Here are six questions to ask to help you in these particular situations and in the face of long-term NBA injuries in general:
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What role does he really play on the team?: In an increasingly star-driven world of the NBA, casual fans tend to assume that the big stars do everything and the role players do little. The bigger the star, then, the more significant the impact. Of course, it's not as simple as that. The role a player fills on the court can have a big impact on how easily he can be replaced - or not. A guy who is the quarterback of an offense, for example, might have more significant impact in his absence than a guy who is just the last guy who touches the ball before he scores. A guy who spaces the floor and forces opposing defenders to account for him could be lost more than a pure shooter. The centerpiece of an offense will obviously be missed more than a complimentary piece. In all cases, then, you need to look not at what the perception of the player's importance is, but what his importance actually is. It's often the cases that those two things are very different.
How can they replace him?: If a player is going to be gone for the long term then they are going to have to replace him. You need to spend time looking at how easy that will be to do and what impact it will have on the lineup. It's not as easy as just looking at the backup, either, because a key injury can often have a bigger impact. Hayward's injury means a more prominent role for young players early on than would probably be ideal. Lin's injury means that D'Angelo Russell is going to have to be the primary ball handler more than anyone likely wanted and that the shooting guard position will become a concern - perhaps to the benefit of a guy like Caris Levert. Paul's injury delays the time that he and James Harden have to figure out how to mesh as two ball-dominant players, and if they haven't resolved that fully and completely by playoff time they are doomed. The loss of a key player long term rarely just creates a next-man-up situation. It's more like one domino has fallen, and now we need to see what others topple and what is left.
How high were public expectations?: Gordon Hayward was likely going to have a bigger impact on the Celtics this year than Jeremy Lin was in Brooklyn. The difference in those impacts, though, will not be nearly as significant as the public perceives them to be. Hayward was part of a dramatic reinvention of an already strong team in Boston, and he was a centerpiece of a frontal attack on the Cavs. Lin, meanwhile, helmed a team that was so bad for so long that people had likely forgotten that they were in the league or at least that they had left New Jersey. The higher the public expectations, the more likely those expectations are out of whack and that the impact of the injury is not accurately represented in the public betting reaction.
How is the media reacting?: The public response to a situation is largely driven by the media coverage - though the vice versa is also true. In these situations, then, it's important to keep an eye both on how the immediate reaction to the injury is portrayed and how the longer think pieces that emerge later deal with the injury and its impact.
Can the coach handle it?: These situations are going to create instant adversity for a team. They have prepared for one reality and are now faced with a different and likely far less appealing one. It's the job of the coach to guide his team through this adversity, adjust and adapt, and to have the team as ready as they can be in their new situation. I don't know about you, but in this type of a situation I'd rather have Brad Stevens in charge than Kenny Atkinson.
What happens next?: This isn't a concern for Hayward and Lin since neither is likely to return this season. For Paul and others who miss a sizeable chunk of time but still return in season, though, bettors have to put at least as much effort into thinking about what the return means as they did about the departure. How close to full steam will he be upon return? Have we learned enough from past injuries to know how much rust he could have to deal with early on? Have they effectively replaced him to the extent that his return will provide another significant adjustment, or will he only be greeted with relief?
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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