On just the fourth day of training camp, it seems that the injury bug that's been swarming the Lakers for the past two seasons has already descended upon them.
Likely starting small forward Nick Young has been sidelined for 6 to 8 weeks with a tear of his radial collateral ligament in his right shooting hand. He reportedly was injured while defending Kobe Bryant in practice in what seems to be a complete fluke accident.
This, my friends, could very well kill this Lakers season even before the first preseason game.
Nick Young, an almost lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary last year, was coming into this season as either the second or third most important man on the roster. Despite missing 18 games in 2013-2014, Young set career highs in points, three-pointers made, assists and steals. By almost any definable metric, as well as the simple eye test, Young played arguably the best defense of his career, most of which could probably summed up to him finally giving a crap. In many ways, he was the Lakers' most complete player on the court, as well as, unbelievably so, a locker room leader. There is almost no way I could properly convey just how valuable he was to a putrid Lakers squad last year, and also no way I could properly convey just how utterly shocked I'd have been last year if I knew I'd be writing these words 12 months later.
Young will reportedly only miss roughly two months after surgery, but for an injury like this, it could be a while until he's back to normal. Torn thumb ligaments surprisingly aren't that common amongst NBA athletes, though Chris Paul and Joakim Noah both suffered similar injuries in the past several years. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina tore the same ligament in his throwing hand this season and while he made his return several months ago, has had a difficult time simply gripping the ball. Once unarguably the best defensive catcher in the league, Molina hasn't been able to return to full effectiveness because of the same injury Young will have to recover from.
My concern is that even when the guard returns, the fact that this injury was in his shooting hand may limit how much Swaggy P we're actually getting back. Kobe played through a fracture in his shooting hand several seasons ago, but even the great Bean Bryant had some amount of adjustment time. In other words, this is a 6 to 8 week injury, but when coupled with recovery and adjustment time, I wouldn't expect Young to be anywhere close to his 2013-2014 self until the new year.
Without Young, one of the Lakers's secret biggest offseason blunders may very well be exposed. As my colleague Ben Rosales pointed out on Twitter yesterday, compared to last season, the team's floor spacing is in a seriously sorry state. Other than Young, the Lakers have one above average three-point gunner, who is the 68-year-old Steve Nash. If he isn't available, which I fully expect he won't be throughout the season, the team's next best shooter from long is either Ryan Kelly (33.8% for his career), Bryant (33.5%), Jeremy Lin (34.3%) or Xavier Henry (32.5%). Even IF Young was healthy, the Lakers would have no more than two above average long range snipers on the floor, alongside Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre, each of which is decent to poor from mid-range. Gone are Jordan Farmar and Jodie Meeks, both of whom were able to stretch the floor better than any of the incumbents left in purple and gold.
For the next couple of months, we're going to be left with either Nash off ball to provide some spacing or will be forced to leave guys like Wesley Johnson, Henry, Lin or Kelly as their perimeter jump shooters. It's a bit early to speculate on just how much this will hurt the team, as we're not quite sure of the types of schemes that new coach Byron Scott is going to use. However, in this modern NBA, it's nearly impossible to think that this won't hurt the Lakers in terms of sheer scoring.
Defensively, the team has now lost its (again, shockingly) best perimeter defender, a real blow to an already suspect (a kind word, to be sure) defense. Now the Lakers will have to lean on Lin, Bryant, Johnson and Henry as their best "stoppers", a scary proposition even without taking into account the zero experienced shot blockers on the team. Young is long and athletic with solid lateral movement and with his newfound penchant for exerting effort on that side of the floor, was one of the only reliable defenders for last year's horrid lockdown unit.
Which brings me to the line-up. With Young out, the Lakers are going to have to rely on a group of players that are less than ideal fits. The natural replacement is Wesley Johnson, a development that will hopefully lead to everyone using my nickname for Johnson, "Mr. Replacement Level". I hate to bag so much on Wes, mostly because he's such a stand-up citizen and by all accounts, a really nice guy. But he's a streaky shooter with an unearned reputation as a "defensive stopper". There is essentially nothing he does as well as Young, with the exception of rebounding.
Xavier Henry could be another player to start in place of Young, but with injuries stalling his participation at the beginning of training camp, there are real questions as to whether or not he'll be ready to start the season. Training camp invitee Wayne Ellington could be another option, which may make his inclusion in the team's opening night roster much more likely. The former Tarheel is a very solid shooter from long range, but truthfully can't do much with the ball other than that. However, that may just be enough to get him some minutes while Swaggy is sidelined.
An out of the box option may have manifested itself the other day at camp, when Jeremy Lin practiced at small forward. To me, this has to be an emergency-only contingency plan. Lin is just 6'3", 200 pounds and simply isn't equipped to defend players at the average small forward size. Putting him at the three would put the Lakers into a corner defensively, not to mention would diminish Lin's best basketball attribute, which is his ball handling and ability to penetrate interior defenses.
The most likely scenario to me would be putting Kobe at small forward often, with Nash, Lin, rookie Jordan Clarkson and training camp invitee Ronnie Price getting time at the guard positions. Ultimately, whatever the solution that coach Byron Scott conjures up will put several players into roles beyond their comfort zones. Without Young, the team will need to replace his shooting and spot at small forward. Unfortunately, the team's best shooters are their ball handlers and their replacement starting small forwards don't deserve that type of floor time.
Whichever way you cut it, losing Young is a gigantic stumbling block for a Lakers team that's already compromised defensively and offensively. If Nash isn't healthy, there are only two Lakers that can easily get their own shot in Bryant and Lin, and none that are above average shooters. The offense almost invariably will revolve around Kobe, but who knows how much he'll be able to execute without another solid scorer on his wing. Lin will have to step up substantially in order to offset the loss of Young, the same which could be said of Nash if he's upright.
The Lakers will have 15 games before Young comes back, and another 10-15 more with him recovering and re-adjusting after his injury. Swaggy will return obviously, but what state will the team be in when he gets bac? It was going to be a struggle for the team to get out of the gates unscathed with Young. Now? A perilous road becomes even more rocky.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino