- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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I've had it. In all my incarnations -- be it Stein Line, Power Rankings committee (of one) and either Reverse Slams or these Slams and Dunks -- I'm officially at my limit.
I'm begging now: No more major injuries. PLEASE!
When someone named Ronald Dupree ran into Jermaine O'Neal the other night, I just shut the TV off. That was it. There are only so many setbacks involving big names that one neutral observer can stomach in one season.
This should have been a great season, and it still can be a great playoffs, but that's only if the plague migrates elsewhere -- soon -- and the contenders start finding a semblance of good health. Maybe my memory is sprained, but I honestly can't remember a season in my 11 covering the league when so many big names missed so much time. Or when the stream of major injuries was this unending.
O'Neal is likely out for Wednesday's ESPN showdown between Indiana and Dallas, and who knows how his knee will respond for the rest of what was thought to be the Pacers' breakout season. Those are the same Pacers who will have Ron Artest in uniform only because Artest came back weeks early from thumb trouble that would have shelved most guys with a human pain threshold for much longer.
The Lakers and Kings, meanwhile, are playing in the nightcap of Wednesday's ESPN doubleheader and -- big surprise -- the Kings still aren't at full strength, sans Bobby Jackson. As for the Lakers, they'll only have Kobe Bryant in uniform because Kobe plans to fly back from a court hearing in Colorado ... and because he's been playing with special padding and an extra layer of shirt over his messed-up shoulder.
You could call this boo-hoo whining, except that's merely the Big Name Injury Update for the evening's two games of note. The setbacks started early -- none of the West's Fab Five could seem to keep its full complement of stars together very long in October and November -- and the epidemic has raged on day after flippin' day.
I glanced up at the TV on Tuesday to see Baron Davis getting his ankle mangled, with the Hornets already having played the bulk of the season without Jamal Mashburn. The Nets just lost Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin and basically have to sit them until the playoffs to make sure they can play in the playoffs. The Spurs pray every night that Tim Duncan's suddenly wobbly knee will make it to the next night. The Wolves have lost Troy Hudson again, after waiting most of the season for Hudson, Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi to join in. Brad Miller got hurt in the All-Star Game and really hasn't been the same since, as if the Kings didn't already have to wait forever to bring Chris Webber back. Karl Malone missed nearly half the schedule after missing virtually none of it for 18 seasons, and his Laker backup -- Horace Grant -- is probably gonzo for the rest of the season.
Allen Iverson, like Malone, will also comfortably establish a new career high for games missed, and Glenn Robinson has been a sideline spectator far more than he's been the No. 2 scorer AI has always needed. Marcus Camby -- seemingly healthier than he's ever been -- just tweaked his groin when Denver needs him most. Allan Houston has been hobbled for weeks and could be out until the playoffs, too, and the newest Knick (Tim Thomas) just joined him on the list of unavailables.
T.J. Ford crashed to the floor and, until Tuesday's upset in Sacramento, seemed to take Milwaukee's season with him. Miami's Dwyane Wade might have made it a three-man race for Rookie of the Year had he not missed so much time, and reigning ROY Amare Stoudemire has likewise spent considerable time on the injured list.
Toronto wouldn't be scrambling so feverishly in the chase for No. 8 in the East if it hadn't lost Vince Carter and Jalen Rose for extended periods. Matt Harpring was lost for the season months ago, heaping more pressure on the amazing Jerry Sloan and Andrei Kirilenko in Utah, and poor Troy Murphy celebrated his (long-awaited) first 20-10 game of the season by lasting only one more game for the Warriors before his nagging ankle problem flared up anew.
Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz, Dallas teammates last season, share something else this season -- knee injuries that ended their seasons prematurely. Then there's Washington, where Jerry Stackhouse and Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes are constantly limping past each other in and out of the training room.
And none of the above, of course, even deals with the sad stories of Grant Hill, Todd MacCulloch and Alonzo Mourning, or Nick Collison's rookie season ending in training camp, or the way Scottie Pippen is going out.
Don't hit me with that Injuries Are Part Of The Game stuff. Don't blame it on international play, either, because lots of the aforementioned players had the summer off, and I'm not quite sure how Jermaine's stint with Team USA had anything to do with the Dupree collision. There is simply no rational explanation for the ongoing misfortune. All I know is we've all suffered enough, and we all deserve the same thing -- lots of healing between now and April 17. So when the playoffs start, it won't be a case of Healthiest Team Wins.
If you can stomach some rare doe-eyed idealism from this cyberspace: We deserve a playoffs where the teams have all their bullets. So the best team wins.
This was touched on in Monday's chat and last week as well, but it's worth repeating: One side impact of all these injuries is that several of the players who have already committed to Team USA for the Olympics might not be healthy enough to participate.
There are questions hanging over Kobe (health and legal entanglements), Kidd, Duncan, Malone, Ray Allen (because of his forthcoming marriage) and now Jermaine. Iverson and Tracy McGrady (back) are desperate to play even though they also have cause to take the summer off and rest their bodies. From the original core of nine players, only Mike Bibby is unconflicted at the minute.
Which creates two potential problems:
1. Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett, already both hesitant about accepting invitations to re-join the national team, might be even more hesitant to join in if too many of their contemporaries pull out.
2. If USA Basketball has to send an under-strength team to Athens, Team USA will not win the gold. Commissioner David Stern said Tuesday that he's "not worried about it," but those who cherish the Yanks' unblemished record in the Olympics with pros are bound to be seriously disappointed if they have to throw together a patchwork squad. To beat Serbia and Montenegro and Argentina -- just to name two teams -- Team USA needs its best players and guys who have played internationally before. Those countries, remember, make up the talent gap with all their years playing together.
As much as I believe LeBron James should be on Team USA, he needs to be there in a complementary role. You'd be asking an awful lot from a kid who has never played in the international arena to be one of the torch-carriers.
Ran into Paul Pierce the other night and tried to ask him if he still harbors any hope of making a Team USA comeback. It's obviously still a sore subject with Pierce, who said: "I'm not interested in the Olympics ... if they're not interested in me." Pierce went on to say that he plans to spend the summer in Africa.
Pierce, of course, emerged from Team USA's humbling sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis as the chief scapegoat, along with coach George Karl, after being accused of selfish play. More than one person who was involved with that team has sworn to me that Pierce was unfairly branded as the No. 1 problem child and deserves another shot to represent his country.
With all these injuries, perhaps it's not too late for Pierce to get that shot. But some hurt feelings obviously have to be mended.
Duncan dragged the Iverson-Chris Ford conflict back into the news late last week by coming off the bench in San Antonio's nationally televised home win over Minnesota. Which got us thinking: Anyone else believe that Ford insisted AI come off the bench simply to make sure Iverson wasn't suddenly ready to play -- minutes before tipoff -- because the Sixers' game in question was also a national TV game ... against Larry Brown's Detroit Pistons?
Just when stories began to circulate about Duncan's recent time off giving him some time to work on his shaky free-throw stroke, Duncan missed two biggies late Tuesday night in Minneapolis to remind everyone of what else haunts the Spurs besides knee nightmares. San Antonio has played Minnesota twice in Duncan's first three games back, and Duncan is 12-for-21 at the line in those games.
Crow-eating update: One Cav told me this team can't hold on and make the playoffs unless Jeff McInnis' shoulder heals. He's that important to what they're doing.
As long as we're begging for stuff, how 'bout some defense from the Kings and Lakers? Just like the Spurs have to get better at the line if they don't want to have playoff problems, both of those teams better start playing D unless they want their own problems.
11hMatt Walks, ESPN.com