Injuries don’t necessarily hurt a team

In 2000, Florida Marlins relief pitcher Ricky Bones played the part of bonehead when he miraculously managed to injure himself changing the channel on his television. The following year, Red Sox farmhand Paxton Crawford incapacitated himself by falling off his bed onto a drinking glass.

Injuries, however they arrive, are part of the nature of the beast that is sports. They can cripple a team’s dreams of success or they can provide a rallying point for those in good health and ultimately a chance for individuals to proverbially “step up” their games in the absence of their teammates. Some injury-riddled teams spiral downward and create a total mess that can spell doom for coaches and administrators (see Atlanta Falcons, 2003) while others do not deteriorate at all, seemingly screaming in the words of a great humanitarian, “I will never quit!” while moving on to bigger and better things (see New England Patriots, 2001 and 2003).

But why did the Jets and Falcons, teams that each advanced to last year’s Divisional Playoff round, implode so dramatically when their quarterbacks went down in the preseason while the Patriots circa two years ago took off on a wave of success as soon as their franchise quarterback was rendered incapable of playing? Why have the Sacramento Kings sans Chris Webber and the Colorado Avalanche minus Paul Kariya been just fine thus far this season while the Shaq-less, Kobe-less, Malone-less (talentless?) Lakers have been abysmal in recent showings?

Arguably the Lakers point rings hollow — the removal of three first-ballot Hall of Famers from any lineup undoubtedly wreaks havoc on a team’s fortunes — but what else plays in? Likely, a combination of coaching, depth and attitude play into the equation.

Coaching can’t be the entire solution — could Phil Jackson, a coach with nine NBA championships to his credit — lead Gary Payton and 11 role players to the playoffs in the Western Conference? Probably. But it definitely wouldn’t be a sure thing. Dan Reeves was probably on his way out in Atlanta even if Mike Vick hadn’t gone down, but he clearly did very little to help the cause down south. However, coaching definitely does have its place. And, in my weekly shameless fawning at the feet of Bill Belichick, I will use the Pats’ coach as an example. This year’s team used over 40 starters due to injuries to basically everyone not named Brady and has now won 14 in a row. Clearly the team is blessed with unusual depth, but the mastermind behind it all has deployed his troops in such a tactically flawless manner that each backup that has had to step in has scarcely missed a beat.

It’s tough to blame Andy Reid for the Eagles’ failure to advance out of the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive season (although his lack of ingenuity in terms of play calling could probably be singled out) because the injuries to Brian Westbrook and Donovan McNabb depleted his crop of skill position players to the point — not exactly Philly’s strength to begin with — of embarrassment. Depth would have been the determining factor here, as it has been with the Avalanche, a team that possesses a frighteningly potent array of forwards that can easily overshadow the absence of even as crafty an offensive playmaker as Kariya.

The Kings are a unique case in my estimation. While Webber is undoubtedly one of the NBA’s top players and the leader of the team, some have questioned for a while now whether the team would be better without him. Peja Stojakovic has emerged in Webber’s absence as one of the NBA’s top scorers while erstwhile forward Brad Miller has seamlessly filled the void created by C-Webb’s absence. The idea of a team being better minus its best player is nothing new — many would argue that the Knicks of the late Patrick Ewing era were more dynamic when the center was hobbled and the offense didn’t have to slow down in order to run through the big guy. But the Kings seem to have that intangible of wanting to prove to themselves and to everybody (especially the Lakers) that nothing will slow them down this season. Webber’s absence at the end of last year’s playoff series against Dallas might have contributed to the Mavs’ victory, but this year’s Kings squad with the addition of Miller seems to be on a mission with or without its top gun.

So, as always, this obviously leads me to Yale men’s basketball. In the second half of Friday night’s game against Brown, Dominick Martin tried to do his best Willis Reed impersonation and shake off injury to catapult his team to victory. At 36-36 in the second half, Martin entered the game for the first time, clearly hobbled by a bum ankle. Yale head coach James Jones ostensibly had tried to avoid using his starting center but was left with no choice when he saw the way the game was progressing.

Yale’s offense invariably flows through its center. There is little in the way of penetration or individual shot creation in the Elis’ game. The best looks come after a big man catches the ball and draws a crowd. With Martin on the bench in the first half against Brown and Sam Kaplan ’07 also sidelined, Yale often had four players passing the ball around the perimeter, and while the ball movement was crisp, it rarely led to a clean look. When Martin came into the game, not only did he contribute 10 points and seven rebounds in just 16 minutes, but he made the offense run immeasurably smoother.

Unfortunately, Yale’s defense wasn’t able to come up with important stops when it counted most. I’m not sure I quite understood the defensive strategy at some points in the game. At certain times, more Yale players ran at the ball than candidates ran for governor of California. This apparent attempt to flummox the opposition and create turnovers didn’t really mask an inability to stop dribble penetration, as again quickness appears to be this team’s Achilles’ heel. On the bright side defensively, Matt Minoff ’04 blocked more 3-point attempts than any player I’ve ever watched, and Casey Hughes also had some quick hands on display recording two blocks and two steals in 12 entertaining minutes.

Hopefully, injuries won’t derail Yale’s quest for an Ivy title and the loss to Brown will only be the hiccup of two years ago as opposed to the harbinger of last season’s struggles. Lucky for them, they have no more long road trips and can thus avoid the fate of Tom Glavine, who once broke a rib regurgitating airplane food.

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