ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Larry Drew has gotten quite used to uttering the phrase “game-time decision” this season. He isn’t trying to yank anyone’s chain or hide anything, the Bucks coach has truly gone into all nine games not knowing who he has available.
Nine of the 15 players on Milwaukee’s roster have missed time with injuries in a season just three weeks old.
The Bucks have had their intended starting lineup fully healthy for less than two minutes of game action, while one of their top reserves is out for the season. Combine all that with the fact they have had to rely on a rookie second-round pick as their only healthy point guard for most of the year, the Bucks having a 2-7 record isn’t surprising.
Drew has been forced to use seven different starting lineups in nine games and hasn’t had one player start all nine.
“That’s very challenging,” Drew said. “When I come to work in the morning, I don’t know who is going to be able to participate.
“It’s a challenge to our guys and it’s a challenge to me. That’s what we are faced with right now, but it will not frustrate us to a point to where we aren’t out there competing.”
Milwaukee had a slim margin for error heading into the season and can’t afford to fall further down the standings if it hopes to compete for a playoff spot when everyone is back.
All three of general manager John Hammond’s offseason signings have sat out with pre-existing injuries, as Zaza Pachulia missed most of the preseason still recovering from Achilles surgery, Carlos Delfino will not play a game this year because he needs another surgery on his right foot and Gary Neal is battling plantar fasciitis.
The injury bug first struck the starting lineup when power forward Ersan Ilyasova went down with a sprained ankle in the first exhibition game that caused him to miss the entire preseason. Ilyasova returned for the first three regular season games but aggravated the injury and has missed Milwaukee’s last six games.
Point guard Brandon Knight was bothered by a sore left hamstring in the preseason and went down less than two minutes into the opener with a strained right hamstring.
Like Ilyasova, Knight has played in three games but has been unable to play in the last three games after the right hamstring injury popped up again. Backup point guard Luke Ridnour missed the first seven games of the year with back spasms and practiced Monday for the first time in three weeks.
Ekpe Udoh only recently returned from right knee surgery, Caron Butler has missed the last two games with a sprained left shoulder and Larry Sanders is out six weeks after tearing a tendon in his right thumb during an altercation at a local nightclub.
“What we have to do is put together two game plans,” Drew said. “OK, if these guys are able to play this is what we’ll do here and if they are not able to play this is what we’ll do. That’s a challenge, but it’s just something we have to adjust and adapt to.”
Milwaukee went into its Nov.13 game in Orlando with just eight healthy players and had to finish with seven after Butler hurt his shoulder. The Bucks built a double-digit lead only to lose after running out of gas playing back-to-back nights with a limited roster.
The impact injuries have on games is easy to see, but Drew has been unable to fully implement his system or make too many adjustments because of how much he’s had to alter his practices in his first season with the Bucks.
He’s had to hold certain guys out of practice either to rest, recover or prevent further injury countless times already. Preparing for a game is nearly impossible when a team doesn’t even have 10 healthy bodies on the practice court to go 5-on-5.
“You want to play, you want to compete and work on some things you need to get better at,” Butler said. “But if you only have eight, nine live bodies and the 10th and 11th guys really need that break so they can be ready for the game instead of practice, it’s just a delicate situation.”
The light at the end of the tunnel is near, as the Bucks are beginning to get fully healthy. While the team won’t be back to full strength until Sanders returns in roughly five weeks, Milwaukee is expected to get Ilyasova and Butler back Wednesday against Portland.
The Bucks now won’t have to rely on just Nate Wolters at point guard with Ridnour back and Knight making progress toward a return.
“You just have to weather the storm and then when you get everybody back, try to make a push,” Ridnour said. “You just have to get used to playing together. We haven’t had a full team in quite a bit, so it’s going to take time for guys to get used to each other and figure out what we can do and what we can’t, what works and what doesn’t. I think you’ll just see us get better and better.”
Drew says it almost feels like training camp all over again with everyone returning and needing to be caught up to speed on the plays, coverages and calls implemented while they were out.
“That’s exactly what we are going through now,” Butler said. “With the basketball minds that we have, we have to do it on the fly because you just don’t have time to make so many adjustments or have time to sit still when you do it. I think coach Drew is doing a great job on the fly of getting guys acclimated to the offense, putting new things in and adapting to the new personnel we have.”
At the bottom of the Eastern Conference and tied for the second-worst record in the NBA, the Bucks are watching their season slip away just as quickly as the injury list filled up.
Milwaukee is 28th in the NBA at 90.2 points per game and has been unable to overcome the loss of most of its offensive firepower. To their credit, the Bucks have played hard enough to hang around with Dallas, Miami, Indiana and Oklahoma City before fading late and losing.
“We were right there in all of those games,” Drew said. “We had just a few bad pockets of where we had defensive breakdowns or offensively we had some bad possessions.
“We have to gain the experience of playing those types of teams, particularly shorthanded. From an adversity standpoint, as I told the guys before the season started, there are going to be times where you are going to face adversity. This is one of those times for us and you have to be able to respond to it.”
Is it too late for the Bucks to recover? Butler doesn’t think so, as he’s experienced a year in which injuries have crippled a team and another where Washington overcame numerous ailments to make the playoffs.
The Wizards had All-Stars Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Butler play together for just nine games during the 2007-08 season but still made the playoffs with a 43-39 record. Arenas missed 68 games with a knee injury, Etan Thomas sat out the year after undergoing open heart surgery and Butler missed 20 games with a labral tear.
“We lost guys who were extremely important to what we were trying to accomplish,” Butler said. “We just stayed with it and weathered the storm. We lost seven, eight in a row and then we went on a streak and then started playing .500 basketball.
“Guys started coming back and the coaching staff was preaching ‘We have a cavalry over the hill coming to help us. Just stay with it. We’ll be alright.'”
Injuries piled over into the following two seasons for Butler and the Wizards, as Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, Jamison and Arenas all missed significant time. Washington couldn’t overcome the injuries in 2008-09 and went 19-63, following that up with a 26-56 record in 2009-10.
Based on his experiences at both ends of the spectrum, Butler doesn’t see the red flags he picked up on when injuries crumbled things during his last two years with the Wizards. That means there will be no rah-rah speech from him just yet.
“I feel like that’s one of those conversations you have if all is bad,” Butler said. “I see a lot of good things, so it’s not time for that. It’s not time to pull all of the things out of the bag and get guys on that journey yet. I think we’re playing good basketball.”