Ryan Anderson's difficult season continues. (Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)
The New Orleans Pelicans announced Tuesday that forward and leading scorer Ryan Anderson will be sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk he suffered during the team's road win over the Boston Celtics last Friday, dealing a significant blow to their hopes of chasing down a playoff berth in the competitive Western Conference.
Anderson sustained the injury early in the fourth quarter of the 95-92 win, when he collided with Celtics forward Gerald Wallace while the two players both reached for an inbounds pass:
The two players went head-to-head on the play, resulting in Anderson lying nearly motionless on the TD Garden court for several minutes before ultimately exiting the court on a stretcher with his head and neck immobilized. The 25-year-old forward was taken to an area hospital for tests and treatment, and was diagnosed with a cervical stinger — essentially a pinched nerve in the spine. Anderson remained in the hospital through the weekend — his Pelicans teammates kept up with him via Skype while stuck in Indianapolis thanks to travel delays resulting from the massive snowstorm that pelted the Midwest — but tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he had been released.
That Anderson is out of the hospital is obviously great news, but his absence from the lineup for the foreseeable future figures to pose a significant problem for a New Orleans team fighting to remain within hailing distance of a postseason berth at 15-17, three games beneath the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference. From John Reid of the New Orleans Times Picayune:
"It's unfortunate; we'll miss Ryan for sure," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said after the team's shootaround. "But you can't worry about it. We've had so many injuries in my four years, but this year has been unreal as far as your top guys going down from Eric Gordon, Tyreke [Evans] to Ryan and A.D. [Anthony Davis]. I've learned how to coach through it and it's the next man up."
That next man figures to be center Jason Smith, who's expected to return to the Pelicans lineup on Tuesday night against the Miami Heat. If Smith's unable to log heavy minutes after being sidelined for the past four games with knee and shoulder injuries, though, Williams could turn to recent addition Alexis Ajinca, who got the start for New Orleans on Saturday night, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 31 1/2 minutes in a 17-point loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Smith's a reliable lunchpail-carrying big man who can step out on the floor and knock down a jumper, and Ajinca's a young, long-armed pivot with more athleticism than Anderson. But neither potential replacement option can hold a candle to the former New Jersey Nets and Orlando Magic forward's outside shooting and floor-spacing capabilities, which have been such an integral part of the Pelicans' offense this year.
Through 32 games, Williams' team has played roughly the same amount of minutes with Anderson on the court (795) as with him off it, whether due to injury or just rest (761). When Anderson plays, New Orleans scores at a rate that tops the Portland Trail Blazers' offense (110.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool). When he sits, New Orleans' O turns into a bottom-feeding unit whose scoring output would slot in between the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers and the Rondo-less Boston Celtics (100.4 points-per-100). That's the difference between the very best offense in the league and one that ranks between 22nd and 23rd among 30 NBA teams. That's a pretty big difference.
To be fair, the Pelicans' defense has also much been more permissive in Anderson's minutes (allowing 109.1-per-100, which would be far and away the worst mark in the league) than when he's off the floor (102.6-per-100, which would be 15th, right in the middle of the pack). But the offensive boost provided by his career-best 40.9 percent 3-point shooting — and, perhaps more importantly, the threat of that shooting, which stretches opposing defenses and worries them into paying less attention to Anderson's teammates, giving the likes of Davis, Gordon, Evans and starting point guard Jrue Holiday more room to operate — outweighs the negatives of his individual and team defense.
That threat, and that shooting, will unfortunately not be available for the time being. That takes away from Williams not only the option of running out the blistering offensive lineup of Anderson-Davis-Holiday-Gordon-Evans (averaging 123.5 points-per-100, but limited to just 91 minutes over 12 games due to a variety of injuries), but also the chance to deploy several other configurations that have outperformed the opposition, including a fun, long-armed and versatile small(ish)-ball unit with Davis at the five, Al-Farouq Aminu at the three and a Holiday-Evans backcourt that has shown promise in small bites, outscoring opponents by 12 points in 33 total minutes spread over six appearances. Increased doses of designated hitter Anthony Morrow (44.9 percent from deep this season) could help restore some of the spacing, but Morrow's also a defensive liability, and one who stands five inches shorter/plays a different position than the one he's replacing, meaning that Williams would have to get extra creative in terms of mixing and matching defensive assignments up front and around the perimeter.
In sum, there don't figure to be any ideal solutions to replacing a high-volume 3-point-shooting (and high-volume 3-point-making) matchup nightmare stretch four who helps activate the Pelicans' other best players, with whom New Orleans is two games over .500 and without whom they're four games below par. Williams' team will continue to compete — Davis and Holiday remain legitimate two-way forces, and Evans and Gordon have both started to come on of late. But how likely the Pelicans are to make a push for one of the last couple of playoff spots out west now seems very, very dependent on just how long "indefinitely" winds up being.
While the team does not yet have any timetable for Anderson's return, one generic estimate pulled up by Pelicans blog The Bird Writes indicates a four-to-six-week framework might be reasonable; if that holds true, we're talking about somewhere between 15 and 20 games, with the far end of the estimate pegging Anderson's return on the other side of the All-Star break. The Pelicans' upcoming schedule is not especially brutal — a pretty even split between winning clubs and sub-.500 teams over the next month and a half — but it includes a tough stretch that began with Saturday's loss in Indiana and features matchups with Miami, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, a Memphis Grizzlies squad that just added a backcourt contributor in Courtney Lee and might soon have Marc Gasol back in the mix, and a home-and-home with the No. 8-seeded Dallas Mavericks over the next two weeks.
If the Pelicans can stay afloat through that meat-grinder, they'll be rewarded with an East-heavy slate that takes them through the All-Star break, when a hopefully healthy Anderson could be back in the fold to help them make a second-half push. If they can't, they could find themselves too far out of the race to get back in it late, owing their first-round pick to a gleeful Sam Hinkie and staring down their third straight playoff-free season with nothing to show for it. It's a difficult predicament for a team that's seen its high preseason hopes stymied by injuries again and again, and a heartbreaking development for Anderson, who entered training camp grieving his late girlfriend, missed the first few weeks of the season with a fractured toe, and now finds himself laid low just as he was putting up career-best numbers. Such is life in the NBA, where "fair" and "deserve" don't often have much to do with matters.
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