Injuries take their toll

Injuries take their toll
September 10, 2013, 2:15 pm
Share This Post

In early February 2011 (Super Bowl Sunday, to be exact), Celtics small forward Marquis Daniels badly injured his neck in a game against the Orlando Magic. It was one of, if not the scariest on court injury in recent Celtics history — as Daniels collided with Gilbert Arenas on a drive to the hoop, then collapsed and laid motionless on the hardwood before being carried off on a stretcher. He would eventually be OK, and actually returned to the Celtics that next season, but his injury set off a chain of events that changed the course of team history.
That’s because Daniels was Paul Pierce’s back up. Even more, he was literally the only other small forward on the Celtics roster. As a result, and despite the fact that he was averaging only 19 minutes and five points a game, Daniels left a glaring hole. Danny Ainge needed to find another small forward. Either that or play Pierce 40 minutes a night and have him running on compost by the end of the season. Three weeks later, minutes before the trade deadline, Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green.
The Celtics, who were 41-14 and the No. 1 seed in the East at the time of the deal, eventually lost in the second round of the playoffs. Jeff Green was non-factor that season, didn’t play the next season and then signed a four-year/$40M contract to stay in Boston, where he’s now one of the faces of the franchise.
Does any of that happen if Marquis Daniels never runs into Gilbert Arenas?
Where am I going with this?
Glad you asked.
My point is that injuries are the single biggest variable in sports. The No. 1 wild card at the start of any year. They don’t only alter championships and ruin careers, but they, even in something as simple as losing a back-up small forward, can change everything.
And right now, there are three injuries in Boston on the verge of doing just that . . .
Since we started with the Celtics, let’s keep going with Rajon Rondo, and the big question: When will he be back?
Danny Ainge says he isn’t sure (after initially being very confident that Rondo would be ready for the opener. Then again, it’s Danny Ainge, so who knows). Brad Stevens won’t put a timetable on it. A few weeks ago, Jared Sullinger suggested that the Celtics might be without Rondo until December.
Either way, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be ready for the start of the season, and at this point — WARNING: about to make a big jump here — it’s probably in both sides’ best interests if Rondo doesn’t play at all.
I can only imagine the level of media assault that will rain down on No. 9 if he pulls a Derrick Rose. So, if this were really going to happen, Rondo would probably need to suffer some kind of “set back” in his rehab. But honestly, in a perfect world, that’s how the Celtics should handle this.
First, there’s no question that the worse the Celtics are this season, the better they’ll be in the long term. At the very least, they’ll be set up better for the long term. On the flip, there’s really nothing to gain from finishing next year as the seventh or eight seed. Sure, it might sell more tickets. It might help keep them relevant. But if the goal is for the Celtics to win another championship in any of our lifetimes, you want them to be bad next year. Real bad. I’m talking Phil Pressey-is-your-starting-point-guard bad.
Assuming that Rondo will start the year late anyway, the team will most likely start in a hole. Does it make sense for the Celtics to rush him back just in time to barely pull them out of it? Nope. And if you’re Rondo, it doesn’t make much sense either.
After all, he’s not going to be the same guy right away. When a player misses this much time, with that kind of injury, returning to the court isn’t the end of the journey, it’s the last stage of rehab. It takes time for a player to get up to speed and, more importantly, fully trust his body again. Point is that it won’t be easy for Rondo, especially playing with the roster that the Celtics have now. He might be better taking the year to just get stronger, study the game, scrimmage with the team to keep his timing, work on his jumper and spend five hours a day at the foul line. There’s a good chance that the team struggles even with Rondo, and playing poorly on a bad team isn’t a good look for any NBA point guard. Especially not for one on the verge of a contract year.
Rondo’s contract is actually the biggest story in all of this. For every enormous shoe that dropped this summer, the Celtics rebuild won’t really take shape until they figure what to do with their All Star point guard.
For now, Ainge continues to stand behind Rondo. He says Rondo is a player that the Celtics want to build around. But that line won’t work after this season. You can’t claim to be building around a guy who’s entering the last year of his contract. Or you can, but no one will believe you.
So what can the Celtics do?
1. They can sign him to an extension: Say, “This is our guy. He’s our leader and the future of this franchise.”
2. They can trade him: Throw in the towel and turn him into assets that can help more than he can. Or, as a fall back plan in case they want to sign him but get the sense that he wants more money than they’re willing to give him or just doesn’t want to be here in general.
3. They can let it ride into the contract year: Given Rondo’s personality and the state of the team, I don’t think this would be a positive experience for anyone involved.
What will the Celtics do?
My money’s No. 2. If not by this deadline, then by the start of next season. Just think Danny needs to go all in on hitting bottom if they’re going to get back up to the top, and moving Rondo is the way to do that.  
But it will obviously be a difficult decision. It’s the most important decision of Ainge’s next two years . . . and one further complicated by Rondo’s injury.
Speaking of contract years, Jacoby Ellsbury’s in one now, and damn good one at that. But his recent foot injury put a damper on all the contract talk and, if he’s unable to return, might kill the Sox chances to finish what they started this season.
I’m not a doctor, but from what I’ve read I believe that he’ll be back before the end of the season. Yeah, I know, given Ellsbury’s history he’ll probably be out until next May. And yeah, I know, given the Sox medical staff’s history, he’ll probably end up needing an amputation. But this is basically just a really bad bone bruise, and the fact that he played through it already leaves me confident that, with some rest, he’ll be able to play through it again. Especially in late-September and October.
In the meantime, while you’d rather have Ellsbury in the lineup, you can’t understate the opportunity that his injury has provided for Jackie Bradley and the Sox.
Suddenly, the presumed centerfielder of the future has a chance to show what he’s got right now. In the heat of a pennant race. Obviously, thanks to the Sox 7.5 game lead, it’s not too hot. But that’s even better. Less pressure on Bradley, but just enough to see what he’s made of and how much he’s really ready for. And still, this week’s series in Tampa is about as hot as it gets for early September.
Thanks to Ellsbury’s foot, the Sox have been granted a window into Jackie Bradley they probably weren’t expecting, and if the rookie can perform, it should give the Sox enough clarity to move on with Bradley next season. If he struggles, then maybe they have to put a little more effort into making something work with Scott Boras.
Then again, isn’t this latest injury just another example of why they shouldn’t appease Boras? Probably. Which is why I think Ellsbury moves on this offseason, and the Sox stick with the mentality that helped them turn this ship around so quickly.
I don’t envy Ben Cherington, though. Ellsbury is his Rondo. His next most important move as general manager, and questions surrounding his injury past and future are at the center of it all.

However, I do envy Bill Belichick. What with his three Super Bowl rings, fancy fishing boat and next level fashion sense. But right now, Team Belichick’s is being ravaged. Shane Vereen is out for a few weeks with a broken finger. Danny Amendola is likely out on Thursday with a groin injury. Zach Sudfeld is questionable with a hamstring injury. Stevan Ridley is probable with butter fingers. It’s a mess.
But this season, and the future of the franchise, is still all about Rob Gronkowski. He’s the piece that Brady was missing on Sunday (OK, Welker too. But he’s gone. We have to get over this.) and regardless of who else is out there, Gronkowski is the weapon that takes this offense to the next level. Specifically in the red zone, but also just in general. They need his energy. His personality. His presence. He gives them an identity. He strikes fear in a defense.
You know, assuming he’s the same Rob Gronkowski. And while we wait for him to recover from the last of his five recent surgeries, that’s the biggest concern facing the organization.
After all, so much of Gronk’s success was/is rooted in his freakish physical gifts. That he was bigger and stronger than a safety, faster than a linebacker and gave himself up for the team without any regard for what it might do to his body.
But these days, I’m sure he has regard. It can’t be easy to maintain that No Fear mentality after spending the last nine months in and out of a surgical beds, and now when he (hopefully) realizes how important he is to the team.
Especially after the back surgery, part of me wonders whether we’ll see a tamer, more measured Rob Gronkowksi out on the field this year.
Given his personality, that’s unlikely. But given his history, I also wonder how long that Rob Gronkowski will last using this Rob Gronkowski’s body.
Best case-scenario is another three to four years, but for now, let’s start with one.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine