Injuries happen, and they're not an excuse. Lots of teams seem to be able to overcome them and avoid a disastrous season, even when they occur to key players and even when they occur in volume. The Trailblazers made the playoffs this season with Brandon Roy playing as a shell of his former self, without Greg Oden (again) and with most of their other bigs spending significant time in street clothes. The Mavericks lost Caron Butler on New Year's Day but still won 57 games. The Grizzlies lost Rudy Gay in mid February but made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons despite his absence.
Having said that, it's not reasonable to imply that injuries don't have any impact. If it didn't matter what players were available to play, then it wouldn't matter what players you sign or draft. Players are not interchangeable parts. If your best players are not available due to injury, the team is necessarily going to be diminished. It's a credit to the Portlands and the Memphises of the league that they have won some games and made the playoffs - but they won't win a championship. They probably won't get out of the first round of the playoffs.
I started thinking the other day about the string of injuries the Clippers have suffered recently. I'm not talking about Danny Manning and Norm Nixon and Derek Smith here - I'm just talking about the last five seasons. And over those five seasons, it's pretty remarkable how infrequently the Clippers have been at something resembling full strength.
Since Shaun Livingston's knee imploded on February 26th, 2007, the Clippers have played 353 regular season games over the course of five NBA seasons. In those 353 games, by my count, they have been at full strength 29 times, or a little more than 8% of the time.
Now, let's define some terms here. First of all, I didn't go digging through box scores pre-dating Livingston's injury. I started there because it was easy. Sam Cassell missed a bunch of games that season, but I didn't go back looking at the team's relative health prior to February 2007.
Secondly, I'm not dealing with bench guys and role players. I'm not counting games missed by Zeljko Rebraca in 06-07 (he was out for the season) or Craig Smith or Randy Foye this year. I would like to say I'm counting only starters, but that's not entirely accurate either, mainly because the Clippers have had a bit of an overload at some positions the past few seasons. So let's say 'starter quality' players. So for instance, even though Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby never started together and never could really, they are all starter quality, and so their availability or lack thereof is included in the definition of 'full strength' used here.
Season by season, here's the breakdown:
February 26 2007 to the end of the season - Livingston was obviously lost for all of those games. Although Livingston was not necessarily the starter with Cassell still around, he was a key part of that team (fourth in minutes per game at the time of his injury). His absence was of course compounded by Cassell's own ongoing injury issues as he struggled through his 17th season in the league. Jason Hart was the starter for the stretch run as the Clippers fought for the last playoff spot. 'Nuff said.
2007-2008 season - Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles tendon in the off-season. He missed 74 of 82 games, returning to action in April 2nd. By the time he returned, Kaman was out for the rest of the season himself.
2008-2009 Season - Technically speaking, the Clippers started the 08-09 season pretty healthy. New acquisition Marcus Camby missed the first three games of the season, but then they played eight straight with their starting lineup of Baron Davis, Cat Mobley, Al Thornton, Camby and Kaman all available. Tim Thomas got hurt in there, but I won't put him in the 'starter quality' category. Unfortunately, that was the longest contiguous streak of health enjoyed by the team in the last five seasons, and it lasted less than two weeks. At that point, the Clippers made a trade, Mobley and Thomas for Zach Randolph. The next three games they were below full strength not due to injury, but due to the fact that completion of the trade was delayed because of Mobley's physical in New York with the Knicks (his heart condition). When the Knicks finally signed off on the deal, Randolph made his Clippers debut on November 26th - in a game in which Kaman played 12 minutes before leaving with a strained arch, an injury that eventually cost him the next 48 games. Call the game on 111/26 one at full strength since Kaman and Randolph both played, but obviously Kaman didn't even finish that one. After Kaman's return, the top six Clippers appeared in six more games together before a handful of other injuries knocked one or another of them out of the lineup. All told, I have them at full strength for 16 games in 08-09 - half of them before the Randolph trade, and most of the rest long after the season was completely meaningless.
2009-2010 season - It's pretty easy to calculate the number of games the Clippers played at less than full strength in 09-10. Blake Griffin was injured just prior to the beginning of the regular season and missed all of it. So that's zero out of 82 games at full strength.
2010-2011 season - Compared to so many other seasons of recent memory, this season seemed like a relatively healthy one. But that's mainly due to the level of expectations that has been set in recent years. Blake Griffin started all 82 games in his delayed rookie season, but the three other most important Clippers, the All Stars Kaman and Davis as well as the Team USA cold medalist Eric Gordon, all missed significant time. By my count, they had everyone available for:
- the first three games (at which time Davis was far from 100%, but was at least in uniform);
- two games in early December, at which point both Baron and Kaman were coming off the bench as they tried to return from injury. (These were the two games when Kaman tried to play through his injury, but he would shut it down for another 34 games after this pair, so again you can argue that they weren't at full strength, but they did have access to these players for these two games.)
- two games in early March, when Eric Gordon returned to the lineup only to get re-injured in his second game back;
- six games in later March.
That's a total of 13 games at full strength this season, with most of the time being lost by last season's leading scorer Kaman, and this season's leading scorer for most of the season, Gordon.
Perhaps more frustrating to Clipper fans than the sheer number of games played with one or more starters out (and there were long stretches when it was two or three guys sitting all at once), is the things we never got to see. Chris Kaman had his breakout while Brand was recovering from his injury - we never saw Kaman 2.0 and Brand play together, because of Kaman's late season injury and Brand's offseason defection. Likewise, we never saw Camby and Blake Griffin play together. And although they technically were together for three games this season, we never actually saw a full strength Baron Davis with all of his weapons around him, and we never will.
Is 100% health a realistic expectation? No, it's not. But there's a lot of room between 100% and 8%. It would be great to see how the Clippers can do with a reasonably healthy roster at some point. Maybe next year.