Griffin's Return Date Slips - Let's Do the Time Warp Again

It has become sadly axiomatic for Clippers fans.  It's not bad enough that far too many players get injured and miss far too many games.  Even more frustrating is that they seem to always miss more games - sometimes, a lot more games - than the organization originally estimates.  Well, it's happened again.  Eric Pincus of HoopsWorld and Ben Bolch of the LA Times both reported last night that number one overall pick Blake Griffin, originally slated for a mid-December return, will likely be out until at least the new year.

The most famous recent example of "Clipper injury return slippage" is of course the 2008-2009 season of Chris Kaman, during which an injury originally termed day-to-day ended up sidelining the center for over three months and 48 consecutive games.  In an absurd twist, each time the Clippers estimated a return date, the date didn't just move out a little - the longer he sat, the further away his return date slipped, causing me to question the very fabric of space and time.

But maybe Clipper fans, myself included, are just too close to this problem.  Maybe this type of return date slippage happens with every team.  Well, anecdotally at least, no, it doesn't.

You may recall that I personally set this whole Griffin injury saga in motion by tempting the Clipper curse with a  'perspective' post about Antawn Jamison's pre-season injury.  Let's revisit that, shall we?  In the original AP story, the Wizards set Jamison's recovery time at 3 to 5 weeks, saying that he was "likely to miss the first eight to 13 games."  Jamison was back on the court after exactly three weeks, having missed nine games.

Or how about Jordan Farmar of the Lakers last season?  He missed four weeks of the season when he had knee surgery.  He came back two weeks earlier than the estimate.

So what's wrong with the Clippers?  Is it their training staff?  Is it their doctors?  Are their players bad healers?  Is it the dreaded curse?

Tom Peters, management guru and author of "In Search of Excellence" has a formula for success:  underpromise and overdeliver.  Tell your customer less than you think you can do, and then they'll be happy when you do more.  This concept is painfully well illustrated in these injury examples.  If the Wizards had said that Jamison would miss the first two weeks of the season, then their fans (their customers) would have been disappointed had he sat out one more week.  They set a worst case expectation of five weeks and 13 games and Jamison was back sooner.  Now, the same three week absence is viewed in a positive light.

When the Clippers originally released information about Griffin's injury on Oct. 27, they set an expectation.  Here's what the press release said:  "it has been determined that Griffin will be sidelined for approximately six weeks."

Now, that statement is open to some interpretation.  Unlike with the Wizards, the Clippers did not give an estimate of games he would miss.  Not to worry though - reporters are ready to step in and fill in the blanks.  I got out a calendar and counted 22 games in the first six weeks of the season.  For other scribes, that number was rounded down for some reason to 20 games.  And 20 games became the new expectation. By the way, Saturday versus the Pacers is game number 20.

Of course we know in reality that six weeks often means something else.  Sometimes it means "After six weeks he has to be re-examined, and then if he's cleared he'll start running to get back into shape, and then he'll be cleared for basketball activity, and then he'll be cleared for full contact, and then we'll need to get him some full practices in before he plays, and the schedule may not allow for that, and and and...." In my first post following the announcement, I asked hypothetically "Does six weeks mean six weeks, or does it mean All Star Break?"

So I asked the coach the question the day after the injury was first announced.  And he told me that as far as he knew, six weeks meant six weeks.

I asked MDsr if six weeks meant missing six weeks of games, or if it meant six weeks before he returns to practice.  He said it was his understanding that he'd be playing in six weeks. - "Six weeks is like fully healed, back."  He also said that Blake could play on it now, but that it just wouldn't get better if he did.

Am I calling MDsr a liar?  Of course not.  It's an injury, there are a million unknowns, bones don't heal at a uniform rate, if it doesn't respond it doesn't respond.  But regardless of all that, the Clippers are just terrible - really, truly horrid - at managing expectations.

When the injury was first disclosed, I read some stuff on Wikipedia - WIKIPEDIA, for FSM's sake - and said to myself that six weeks sounded optimistic.  Oh, that's right, I didn't say it too myself, I said it to everyone.  "It must be a very minor stress fracture for the doctors to be discussing a six week recovery timeline." 

Until yesterday, no one within the Clippers organization said a single word to imply that there were any issues with Griffin's return date.  It was always, "he's on schedule", "everything's going well" kinds of quotes.  There were never any details of course, but nothing to imply a different time frame.  Tuesday morning, Ralph Lawler tweeted "Griffin continues to progress and heal as anticipated."  As anticipated.  Well, weren't we all anticipating that he'd be back in a week?  Isn't that what we were told to anticipate?

But here's where it gets absurd.  Eric Pincus' story resetting the date after the new year was posted on Dec. 2 - five weeks and two days after the 'six weeks' press release.  That morning - THAT VERY MORNING - Dunleavy was quoted in the LA Times as saying that he received a "good report" regarding Griffin's recovery.  The same LA Times story said that Griffin was scheduled to have an MRI in 10 days - which seemed contradictory in itself, since that MRI would be occurring almost seven weeks into the supposedly six week process.  But a "good report" is a "good report" and that meant Blake would be back close to his original return date, right?  What exactly changed between Dec. 1 (when MDsr gave the "good report" quote) and Dec. 2 (when he moved the return date into 2010)?

According to Dunleavy, what changed was that he got a little better educated.  "Now that I'm learning more about [his injury] It's probably looking more like after the first of the year."

Huh, that's interesting.  Didn't the Clippers consult with a couple of high-falutin' specialists back in October, and didn't those guys set the recovery at six weeks?  Does MDsr now know more about this type of injury than those guys?  Just curious.

Looking more closely at Pincus' post, we see all of that dreaded extra time built in, all of those little things that we're so familiar with from other injuries. 

Just getting green-lit isn't enough for Griffin to make his season debut.  He'll need to gradually work his way back into shape, while testing the knee each step to make sure there aren't any negative repercussions.

So in fact, MDsr is now, five weeks into the process, starting to manage expectations.  That's great - better late than never I guess.  But I personally asked him these questions five weeks ago, and he said six weeks is six weeks.  It's much harder to "underpromise and overperform" when you've already "overpromised and underperformed."

He's the really scary part: "Dunleavy said the ultimate test will be a CT Scan, 'which will show how the bone mends.  When that looks like it's really good, that's when he's cleared to do basketball-like activity.'"  Um, OK.  When is that scannie thingie happening?  If the MRI is happening in 8 days, when is the CT scan?  I mean, here's an idea.  Assuming the equipment is more or less in the same place - you know, like at a hospital or some other medical-looking place - how about he has the CT scan the same day he has the MRI?  What is the delay there?  We're wating for the CT-scan to 'look really good.'  But if they don't schedule the CT scan, then it's hard to know what it looks like.

(Here's the real question: since an MRI is better at showing the soft tissue like muscles and tendons and what not, while the CT scan is a highly detailed view of the bones, why are they having an MRI at all?  Isn't the issue here, the stress fracture of his patella - and isn't the patella a bone?)

In the end, is this a big deal?  To return to the land of perspective, it is of course much more important for Blake Griffin to be fully healed than that he play a few games in late December.  Whether the Clippers have a chance to make the playoffs this season, and whether Griffin's prolonged absence damages those chances, isn't really the issue in the big picture.  It's not like the Clippers would be competing for a championship this season with Griffin.  Blake Griffin's future is no less bright with this new return date set.

But the present for Clipper fans is significantly dimmer.  This team has, by and large, been pretty tough to watch this season.  8 and 11 is much better than last year, but many of those wins have come over bad teams in unimpressive fashion.  And the losses have included way too many stinkers, last night included.  For Clipper fans, the return of Blake Griffin is the one thing that can redeem this team. 

So to say, on Dec. 2, when the original estimate was less than a week away, that now he's AT LEAST a month away, is bad, bad news.  To put it in business world terms, the Clippers gave us an estimate of six weeks.  Five weeks into that, they said, sorry, it's at least nine weeks.  That's a 50% error - with little in the way of assurances that the new date will be met. 

Of course, this has always been the Clippers motto - "The Clippers: Overpromise, Underdeliver."

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