Trainers can impact stretch run as much as trades

By RANDY HILL
FOXSportsArizona.com

Jan. 21, 2011

As the NBA continues its rumor-riddled crawl toward next month’s trading deadline, fans of contending teams hope personnel executives rise to the level of deal-making saviors.

But another caliber of league employee could become just as important in altering the balance of pre-playoff power. And we’re not referring to another referee scandal. No, the frequently overlooked team members are the trainers and physicians responsible for escorting currently injured players back into the postseason chase.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, these professionals will play even greater roles in the physical well-being of NBA players than the stylish, wrist-rockin’ rubber bands that are believed to alleviate everything from balance issues to poor shot selection.

The biggest (literally) on-court return is expected in Boston, where center Kendrick Perkins reportedly may return for a Feb. 4 date with the Dallas Mavericks. It would mark Perkins’ first appearance of the season for the Celtics, who managed to win 32 games by the schedule’s halfway mark.

With Shaquille O’Neal assuming Perkins’ spot in the Celtics’ lineup and becoming an even greater force than a lot of observers expected, you may be wondering why having Perkins back is important.

Well, what the NBA’s preeminent scowler brings to the Celtics’ bountiful table is playoff-caliber depth. Now before you start going all metric and screaming about rebounding statistics, please realize Boston’s rank of 30 in total rebounding is not as bad as you might presume. Actually, we should go more metric than we’re usually cozy with and remind you the Celtics’ defensive-rebounding percentage is better than they finished with last season. They currently rank ninth in that category after checking in at 14th (with Perkins) last year. They’ve slipped from 28th to 30th in offensive-rebounding percentage, although coach Doc Rivers’ commitment to court balance when transitioning from offense to defense means his team sends one fewer player to the offensive glass than most teams.

Anyway, while Perkins can be a load on the glass for a team that’s not exactly killin’ it in rebounding, his greatest impact will be on team defense. Again, the Celtics are really good at guarding the opposition, despite losing Perkins since late in the 2010 NBA Finals and watching schematic mastermind Tom Thibodeau leave for Chicago.

Perkins provides superior help defense to what Shaq can muster and makes the Celtics far more versatile in the major NBA issue of pick-and-roll defense. O’Neal is not unlike a rhino on roller skates when involved in a pick and roll. Perkins, who’s considerably younger and more committed on that end of the floor, is agile enough to enable Rivers to mix up his ball-screen coverage.

Beyond the tactical advantages in having another huge body with experience in their defensive system, Perkins gives the Celtics six additional fouls during potential showdowns with Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic. And it won’t hurt to have one more battering ram if Boston is obliged to exploit the Miami Heat’s soft middle.

Having Perkins also will come in handy as the regular season winds down and Rivers attempts to freshen Shaq for a title run.

The Celtics’ inside power could be the difference if they meet the Chicago Bulls, who’ve been without center Joakim Noah (thumb) since mid-December. While the Bulls have demonstrated enough resolve to post 13 victories in the first 19 games they’ve worked without Noah, it should be noted that only four of those foes have winning records.

In the 24 games the Bulls played before Noah was injured (they won 16), 13 of the opponents currently are registered above .500.

So, even though Thibodeau receives solid inside work from second-year power forward Taj Gibson, 7-foot rookie Omer Asik and veteran Kurt Thomas, nobody on the roster comes close to providing Noah’s defensive length and range. Mix in his status as the team’s emotional leader, and his anticipated Feb. 24 return should enable the Bulls to make a season-closing push for a high seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls’ defensive numbers have been pretty solid without Noah; credit much of that to competition and week-to-week improvement in grasping Thibodeau’s pack-line-style system. They actually seem to miss Noah more on offense, where his high-low passing skill creates point-blank opportunities for Carlos Boozer, and aggressive slips on ball screens create help situations in the lane that lead to open jumpers on the perimeter.

Although the stats seem skewed at each end of the floor, don’t underestimate Noah’s defensive chops and communications skills when the playoffs arrive.

Another Eastern Conference baseline player whose return figures to make a considerable impact is Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem. Haslem has been out since late November with a foot injury and is hoping to return in late March. Before sitting down, Haslem was giving the Heat 8.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in an 8-5 start.

They’re 22-7 without him, including an eye-popping run of victories and a recent skid propelled by nagging injuries to each member of the Big Three.

Haslem’s ability to hit the elbow jumper and chase versatile power forwards gives an unbalanced roster a proven veteran to rely on during the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers small forward Matt Barnes (torn meniscus) is another injured component on a contending team. Although he comes off the bench, Barnes represents a safety net for Ron Artest (how could that be bad?) and a really strong reason to keep Luke Walton on the DNP list.

The Portland Trail Blazers currently are sitting in the Western Conference’s eighth seed and are hoping to hang on long enough for veteran big Marcus Camby (partially torn meniscus) to return, reportedly in slightly more than a month. The Blazers’ success in the coming weeks may determine how quickly franchise player Brandon Roy (arthroscopic surgery to clean out both knees) goes through rehab in an anticipated, second-half comeback.

The Dallas Mavericks have lost small forward Caron Butler for the season, but they could make up for some of that lost firepower when Roddy Beaubois (foot) finally suits up this season. While the Mavs certainly could use his explosiveness, it’ll be interesting to see how coach Rick Carlisle can (once again) ration minutes for a rotation that will feature four smallish guards.