Next Man Up

Last week, Michael Wilbon wrote a lengthy piece on predicting that the team who best manages their injury situation during the season and playoffs will ultimately win the NBA championship. He’s not wrong. A two game preseason and a compacted regular season would result in more injuries to key players, making for an unpredictable 2011-2012 post-season. This much we knew or could reasonably predict.

But the real question was how would the teams react when key contributors or All-star caliber players went down?

Apparently, just splendidly. Check this out:

Miami Heat without Dwyane Wade: 6-1
Memphis Grizzlies without Zach Randolph: 8-3
Atlanta Hawks without Al Horford: 5-1
Chicago Bulls without Derrick Rose: 4-1
Combined records: 23-6

What the hell? It looks like these guys are all managing just fine. What is behind this resiliency?

Lucky scheduling?
The lopsided won-loss record could just be a product of luck in the schedule, and to a degree it is. The Grizzlies have beaten the Hornets (twice), Knicks, Bulls, Pistons and Kings during their six game win streak sans their All-star power forward. Take away the Bulls and those are predictable victories. But let’s look at the Heat. They’ve gone 6-1 without Wade against teams with a combined record of 59-41. In their six wins against the Pacers, Hawks, Nets, Spurs, Lakers and Sixers, the Heat have won by an average of 17 points. To most, there is a simple explanation for this: They still have LeBron, dummy! But it’s deeper than that. Literally.

Strength in Numbers Greater than 3
Basketball is a superstar’s game, right? Maybe. Maybe not. More than any other season in recent memory, the NBA is trending away from the Big 3 philosophy. If I’m a NBA GM, I’m looking at the Knicks’ current demise and thinking to myself, why gut my club for three guys fighting for all the glory while the rest of the team sits back and watches it burn? Teams carry 12-15 guys. Not 3. I always believed Big 3’s alienate the rest of the team, creating drama as soon as shit hits the fan, which it certainly has in NYC.

The Heat learned from their mistakes and surrounded the Big 3 with quality depth via free agency and the draft. Rookie point guard Norris Cole, along with veterans Shane Battier, James Jones and Mike Miller are all coming off the bench or spot starting for Miami, contributing quality minutes in Wade’s absence. It’s no longer three guys and a bunch of vets chasing rings (Eddie House, Ilgauskus, Bibby).

Meanwhile in Atlanta, the Hawks lost Jamal Crawford in free agency and Al Horford for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. They added Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic and Willie Green in the offseason. Bench mob they are not, but the trio are professionals who won’t be rattled by the sudden loss of Horford. And let’s not forget Ivan Johnson.

More Minutes, More Responsibility
With the condensed schedule, a team playing without a superstar opens up minutes for guys who theoretically have fresher legs than their healthier opponents. In Memphis, Zach Randolph’s absence opened up minutes for Mareese Speights, the little used power forward from Philadelphia. Speights couldn’t find the floor in Philly, but in Memphis, with Randolph out, he’s taking advantage of the available floortime, averaging 8.8 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 22 minutes a night. I’d take Speights against an established big man coming off three games in four nights. As a coach, losing a superstar for an extended period of time allows for more creativity and control in terms of rotations and finding gems off your bench. Again, let’s not forget Ivan Johnson. It also forces rotation players to assume a greater role on both ends of the floor. Marc Gasol  and Mike Conley have lifted their games in Randolph’s absence and the results are a six game winning streak for Memphis. UPDATE: Marc Gasol was announced as the Western Conference player of the week.

Look, all four of these teams were penciled into the playoffs before the season began. It’s no surprise they are playing well. But the Next Man Up mentality is usually reserved for the gridiron. I expected a dip, an opening, a chance for middling teams to make their move in the standings. Despite the schedule and the injuries, the Heat, Bulls, Hawks and Grizzlies have refused to budge, making them that much more dangerous when their stars come back.

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