The injuries are beginning to mount and NBA teams up and down the standings are looking for fill-in production. Who is being asked to step up?
If there is anything that has defined the early portion of the 2019-20 NBA season, it’s injuries. We began the year knowing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson would likely miss the entire season, but we’ve experienced an avalanche of additional injuries through the first three weeks of the year. Due to the sheer volume of players that either have already begun to miss time or will begin missing time very soon, we’re going to use this opportunity to check in on who’s out, who’s replacing them, and what it might mean.
Gordon Hayward, Celtics
This is just a shame, as Hayward finally looked like he was just about all the way back from the awful injury he suffered five minutes into his first game with the Celtics. Eight games into Boston’s season, Hayward was averaged 19-7-4 in 31 minutes a night, on a 55-43-84 shooting line. He was moving around like the Hayward of old, at least offensively, and looked like a guy who could anchor this team the way he was expected to when the Celtics signed him to a max contract.
In his first game out, Marcus Smart slid into the starting lineup, while Brad Wanamaker and Javonte Green saw significant bumps in playing time. Those shifts make sense, but as Hayward’s absence lingers, the Celtics will clearly need more from Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown offensively. Hayward had been sharing a decent amount of the ball-handling and shot-creation burden with Kemba Walker, who is a far more useful off-ball playing than Kyrie Irving, and if the Celtics want to keep using Walker that way, they’re going to need some other guys to pick up some of Hayward’s slack.
With the Celtics looking like a contender in the East early in the season, though, the more interesting aspect of Hayward’s injury might be how it affects Boston’s playoff aspirations. We know the Celtics will be playing in April and May. Before the season, it seemed like the biggest way Hayward would be of use to them in those games was as a trade chip to acquire a solution for their frontcourt. The way he was playing early on seemingly changed that, but now he’s due for another extended absence. How Boston plays while he’s sidelined will tell us a lot about what’s in store for Hayward’s future.
Stephen Curry (and Damion Lee), Warriors
Curry is irreplaceable, obviously. But Lee was part of the group of players helping pick up the slack, and now he’s out, too. Now it’s basically Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell, second-round rookie Eric Paschall, and a bunch of Oh, That Guys. This stuff is bleak. Alec Burks is heavily involved. Glenn Robinson III is playing 31 minutes a night. Willie Cauley-Stein is splitting the center minutes with Marquese Chriss. Jordan Poole is shooting negative four thousand percent. Russell is essentially going to be responsible for all of the shot-creation and offense-running, and so far he has been using that responsibility to go on wild scoring binges. Perhaps he develops some pick and roll chemistry with Draymond and/or Paschall, but the likelihood of either pair developing the Curry-Green mind-meld is pretty low.
Khris Middleton, Bucks
I can’t say I’ve ever understood the reluctance of a sizable portion of Bucks fans to accept Middleton as a high-level second scorer and multi-positional defender. I’ve heard explanations that vary from his passiveness to his shot selection but I’ve never felt they held much water. For the next few weeks, that group will get a first-hand look at how important having this type of player can be.
Having Giannis Antetokounmpo will, of course, alleviate Middleton’s absence to some degree or anything. This team goes as far as Giannis will take them, and shifting some of the scoring and creation burden from Middleton to other guys on the team won’t change that all that drastically. But losing a player who is a plus shooter, plus creator, and plus defender puts a strain on the rest of the players on the floor. When you consider that “big wing” is not a player archetype the Bucks are all that long on, it that strain becomes magnified.
This team was already accounting for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon by splitting his role between Wesley Matthews and George Hill. Now it will have to count on those players, plus Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver, and (maybe?) D.J. Wilson to collectively approximate what Middleton brings to the table. Each of those players provides some of the things Middleton can do, but none can do all of them. That’s going to hamstring Milwaukee in one way or another at almost all times, and Giannis and Mike Budenholzer will be responsible for mitigating those deficiencies.
De’Aaron Fox, Kings
Ugh. Just when the Kings seemed to be getting back on track (3-1 in their past four games), their best player sprains his ankle in practice. Fox will reportedly miss at least three weeks, and it’s difficult to see the Kings remaining all that competitive in his absence. They already looked like a disaster early in the season, and with both Fox and Marvin Bagley III out for at least the next several weeks, they are left wanting for playing who can create offense for both themselves and others.
We’re going to be treated to a whole lot of Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes while these guys are out, and Bogdan Bogdanovic will presumably take over a larger role as well. Cory Joseph figures to slide into the starting lineup in Fox’s stead, while Yogi Ferrell moves back into the backup point guard role he held for a couple years before the Kings signed Joseph this offseason.
Joseph is essentially your prototype backup who can operate as a starter in a pinch, but he does not have anywhere near the same level of speed or dynamism as Fox. The team essentially built its entire system last season around using Fox’s speed as a weapon to hustle the ball down the floor at every available opportunity. That pace-pushing helped the Kings score efficiently, but they often bogged down in the halfcourt. Without Fox around to spearhead the transition offense, they may struggle to score on the break as well.
Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, Raptors
The champs began this season with a rotation that included basically eight players that Nick Nurse actually trusted. Now two of those players are out. Lowry should hopefully be back soon, but it sounds like Ibaka is going to be out for a while.
The way the Raptors are replacing Lowry is pretty fascinating. They began the year essentially replicating the Portland Trail Blazers model from a few years ago, where their backup point guard was also their starting off-guard. That’s what Fred Van Vleet was doing for the first couple weeks of the season.
With Lowry out, Norm Powell is starting, which means the Raps are back in a more traditional alignment. But that’s only to start the game. Lowry and Van Vleet are the only two real point guards on the roster, and Van Vleet’s not exactly a traditional point guard anyway. Now when he sits, the Raptors do not actually have a lead guard. Using Pascal Siakam as a primary initiator is a quick fix that makes sense. But Powell and OG Anunoby, and perhaps Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Patrick McCaw (when he returns from his own injury) will also likely have the ball in their hands more often.
Similarly, the Raptors are likely to simply lean on Marc Gasol more often for as long as Ibaka is out; but they’ll also have to go to some lineups with Siakam at center; use Anunoby at the four more often; and get guys like Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Stanley Johnson, and perhaps Dewan Hernandez on the floor more often as well. Boucher already looks capable of filling a decent-sized role, but it would be nice for Toronto if one or more of those other guys can pop.
Eric Gordon (and Danuel House?), Rockets
The Rockets already lost designated shooter and surprisingly versatile defender Gerald Green to a broken foot, possibly for the season. Gordon was the team’s greatest off-ball threat, and now he’s going to be out a while as well. With Gordon out, House would be expected to pick up some slack, but he also suffered an injury on Monday. We don’t know how long his bruised back will keep him out, but it’s safe to say the Rockets need him more than ever. There’s not much more responsibility they can thrust onto the shoulders of James Harden and/or Russell Westbrook, so Austin Rivers (who was already picking up some of Green’s slack), Ben McLemore, Thabo Sefolosha, and maybe even Chris Clemons figure to be counted on more than they have been so far.
Landry Shamet, Clippers
The Clippers are blessed with substantial depth, but they don’t really have another player who replicates Shamet’s skill set. Lucky for them, Paul George is set to return from offseason surgery, so the way they do things was about to change anyway. George is a pretty significant upgrade at that spot, so the Clips should be fine here, even if they no longer have a guy to fly around off pin-downs all night long.