NBA: Impact of sidelined superstars

Darko Debogovic

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Golden State at LA Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers star, Kobe Bryant, tore his Achilles at the end of last season. He is not expected to return by the start of the regular season and with a revamped roster, a lot of new players will have to step up in his absence. Photo courtesy of MCT

Every NBA season is riddled with injuries and 2012 was no different. Last year basketball fans saw the likes of Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo all go down with injuries, creating immediate ramifications for their teams moving forward. With the preseason underway and the possibility of these superstars missing significant action in 2013, we’ll look at how each player’s absence directly impacts his respective team.

Kobe Bryant – Late last season, Laker Nation took one collective gasp as Bryant fell awkwardly on his ankle in a tight game with huge playoff implications against the Golden State Warriors.

After hitting two crucial free throws, he made his way to the bench and eventually the locker room. Bryant’s reputation of playing through pain indicated that the Black Mamba would rattle his way out and return to lift the Lakers over the Warriors in overtime but that didn’t happen. Instead, an MRI on his ankle revealed a complete Achilles tear. Perhaps no comparison is more fitting for Bryant than that of Homer’s Trojan hero Achilles, but unlike the Achaeans (who eventually rallied from Achilles’ death to win the Trojan War) Kobe’s absence from battle won’t spell victory for the Lakers.

Last year Bryant averaged 27.3 points per game, third best in the league and shot a respectable 46 percent from the field. No other Laker averaged more than 17 and three of their top six offensive players won’t be returning. All eyes will be on veterans Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to pick up the slack and produce offensively. Nash, despite his age, is one of the best passers in the league and Gasol’s ability to knock down mid-range shots should complement their pick and roll well. If the Lakers want to maintain their slim postseason chances, they’ll have to do it through Nash and Gasol until Bryant’s return.

Russell Westbrook – In recent years the knock on Russell Westbrook has been his inconsistent jumper and questionable shot selection, but his absence from the 2012 playoffs revealed just how vital he is to his team. After colliding with Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in game 2 of the Western Conference playoffs, Westbrook tore his lateral meniscus. Westbrook’s injury revealed the Thunder’s offense for what it truly is: stagnant, motionless and solely dependent on isolations from their two superstars (Kevin Durant and Westbrook). When both are healthy, Oklahoma City flourishes but if one piece is missing the whole thing crumbles.

Westbrook led the Thunder in assists per game last year with 7.4 and was second in scoring with 23.2 points per game. To be successful in the early portion of the 2013 season without their best point guard, Oklahoma City will have to stop relying so heavily on Durant. Head coach Scott Brooks will also be tasked with creating a broader offensive system that incorporates the role players such as Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. No one’s questioning Oklahoma City’s playoff contention, just don’t expect them to have another 60-win season.

Rajon Rondo – The Boston Celtics were dealt a devastating blow when Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in a routine January game against the Atlanta Hawks without even knowing it. Despite the injury, he led the NBA in assists per game with 11.5 and finished the year with 20 double-doubles. He also led the Celtics in assists and steals with 1.8. A lot of questions remain in Boston but one thing is clear: 2013 will be a rebuilding year.

 On July 12, nine days after Rivers’ departure, the Celtics hired former Butler basketball head coach Brad Stevens. Boston will look to transition from Rivers’ defensive-minded philosophy to a spread offense under Stevens’ tutelage. During his time at Butler, Stevens liked to spread his wings in corners and leave his centers and bigs in the paint, giving his point guards plenty of room to work. This bodes well for a premier ball handling guard like Rondo, but before his return look for either Avery Bradley or Courtney Lee to take over point guard duties. The days of Doc Rivers and the big three are over and without Rondo to start the season, Boston’s chances at making the playoffs look bleak.