MikeCheck on NBA: Enthusiasm over start of NBA season tempered by demoralizing rash of opening-night injuries

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Five minutes.

That’s all it took. Pregame warmups last longer. Television commercial breaks almost take up just as much time. We’re talking the duration of a popular song on the average person’s personal playlist.

Five minutes were all it took for that freakish and frustrating fracture Gordon Hayward suffered in his left ankle to shatter the ambitious championship hopes of the Boston Celtics, and also break the spirits of many players, coaches and executives around the NBA.

Five minutes into the NBA’s opening night showcase – not even halfway through the first quarter with his new team – Hayward’s season was derailed by an awkward landing from a botched lob attempt. Now two days later, Hayward and the Celtics are still in aftershock following the kind of grotesque injury that certainly jeopardizes a season, and possibly a player’s career as an elite level performer.

Hayward underwent surgery Wednesday night to repair a broken tibia and dislocated ankle, and his agent told ESPN the 27-year-old forward is likely to miss the remainder of the season.

Almost in a flash, teams throughout the league were reminded how fragile a season can be. The harsh reality now, though, is that just days into the start of the 2017-18 campaign, the season has already been largely overshadowed by a trend of demoralizing injuries.

Hayward’s brutal fall was the worst of them. But both of the NBA’s marquee games on opening night saw stars unable to finish. Chris Paul’s debut in Houston was cut short by a knee injury in a game against defending champion Golden State. And the Warriors’ ring night enthusiasm was doused by not only a setback to the Rockets, but also the early departure of star forward Draymond Green to a knee injury.

The blows kept coming on Wednesday as the struggling Brooklyn Nets lost their most popular player in Jeremy Lin for the season to a ruptured knee ligament. Not even the Grizzlies were spared from the opening night wrath. Starting power forward JaMychal Green is now likely to miss a few weeks with a sprained foot and ankle from an injury he sustained just four minutes into the season opener.

At a point when the NBA has invested more resources and time into health management than at any point in league history, there’s just very little that can be done to combat the randomness of freak injuries. Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said his team had three players tweak ankles in practice on the eve of Wednesday’s season-opening win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Fizdale thought Memphis avoided the scare heading into the game, only to deal with the reality of a tough blow to the roster when Green went down just minutes into the game.

“The first thing I said to them was ‘practice gratitude,’” Fizdale said of his message to the team amid the slew of early season injuries. “I know they think I’m corny as hell. But at the end of the day, you wake up every day and practice gratitude. Because any of those tweaks could have been the same exact thing.”

At the time, Fizdale was referencing the Hayward incident. It’s one that hit home with the Grizzlies on many levels. First, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was among a handful of coaches from multiple sports that Fizdale sought out over the summer to spend time with and share philosophy and concepts.

Boston forward Gordon Hayward underwent season-ending surgery Wednesday, a day after suffering a gruesome leg injury five minutes into his Celtics debut. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fizdale saw and heard first-hand from Stevens about the creative ideas and strategy he expected to use this season when he reunited with Hayward. Stevens coached Hayward in college on Butler’s NCAA Final Four team and also played a key role in recruiting him to Boston when the former Utah Jazz All-Star was one of the biggest free agents on the market last summer.

“For a guy of that caliber and that character, a worker, to have an opportunity to be in the situation he was in with Boston, with his college coach – I knew he was excited,” Fizdale continued. “I spent some time with Brad this summer, and I know how he felt about it. So it’s just really unfortunate that he has to go through that. But that’s this league, man, and the test is how you respond. I know Brad will have those guys ready to go. I’ve got a feeling you’re going to see Boston step up and respond.”

There’s also a bit of scheduling irony for the Grizzlies. When counting Boston (Hayward), Golden State (Green), Houston (Paul), Brooklyn (Lin) and San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard), Memphis faces all of the teams most impacted by early injuries within the next 30 games of the season. That stretch starts Saturday when the Warriors visit FedExForum and continues Monday when the Grizzlies go to Houston.

There was also plenty of support for Hayward throughout a Grizzlies’ roster that has endured plenty of season altering injuries of its own in recent years. Last season, forward Chandler Parsons was shut down for a third knee surgery in as many years back in March. The previous spring, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Mario Chalmers all sustained season-ending injuries, including a torn Achilles that kept Chalmers out of the league for 19 months until he was re-signed by Memphis before training camp.

Gasol said that although the sports world is witness to many of the initial rough injuries on the court, most don’t know the extent of the emotional and physical anguish players go through while trying to recover behind the scenes.

“That’s the worst part about our sport – it’s injuries, especially long-term ones,” said Gasol, now two seasons removed from season-ending foot surgery. “It’s a long process for you to get back and there’s uncertainty, and your confidence goes down. That’s a reality. Once a couple of days pass, the ones that are going to take care of you are your family. The media won’t talk about it for a few months and you kind of get forgotten. But your family are the ones with you every day, and that’s all that matters.”

Boston was considered a top contender and the biggest threat to dethrone Cleveland as Eastern Conference champions after signing Hayward to a max contract and trading for Kyrie Irving. Now, with Hayward out of the equation as he recovers, Boston must fast-track some of its younger talent in lottery picks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Houston has legit title aspirations, too, after landing Paul over the summer. Golden State is the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champions this season, but Green is an essential piece of that mix.

Unlike with Hayward and Lin, Paul and Green aren’t feared to be lost for the season.

But what isn’t lost on anyone in the NBA right now is how quickly a ligament – and a season – can take an ugly turn before it really ever gets going.

Grind City’s NBA Power Index

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Defending champs were humbled a bit on ring night after squandering a late lead, but there’s no reason to panic about performance just yet. Draymond’s knee? Well, that’s another issue.

  3. Cleveland Cavaliers
  4. When LeBron James is flirting with 30-point triple doubles on opening night after skipping most of the preseason and complains about being out of shape, that’s absolutely scary for the NBA.

  5. San Antonio Spurs
  6. Hard to determine which was more impressive: the pregame social awareness tribute about equality or the fact that they knocked off a legit projected contender in Minnesota without Kawhi?

  7. Houston Rockets
  8. Mike D’Antoni opened the season with two impressive wins on a back-to-back against the Warriors and Kings, largely with stretches of impressive defense. The balanced Rockets are dangerous.

  9. Oklahoma City Thunder
  10. By my book, this is the most intriguing team in the league, because coach Billy Donovan will be challenged to find a way to keep Westbrook, George and Carmelo happy with touches all season.

  11. Washington Wizards
  12. John Wall and Bradley Beal are coming off a season in which they each averaged 23 points. The seasoned and savvy Wizards are in prime position to replace Boston as Cleveland’s biggest threat.

  13. Boston Celtics
  14. The Gordon Hayward injury removes Boston from serious contention for a title – this year. But the silver lining is that it will fast-track the star development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

  15. Toronto Raptors
  16. Toronto has spent the money in free agency and has also made bold trades to bolster this roster and keep it relevant among the East contenders. Now, it’s time to deliver north of the border.

  17. Minnesota Timberwolves
  18. Tom Thibodeau has everything he needs on the roster for the Timberwolves to make one of the biggest jumps from lottery team to playoff contender this league has seen in quite some time.

  19. Milwaukee Bucks
  20. It’s official. Giannis Antetokounmpo has replaced Anthony Davis as the most amazingly talented and versatile young basketball cyborg in the NBA. Make room on your MVP ballot this season.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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