Patrick Beverley and the fragile nature of NBA title hopes
It was announced Friday that Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley has suffered a torn meniscus and could be lost for the season, a significant setback for a Houston team that views itself as a title contender.
Chances are you’ve been down enough NBA rabbit holes to know who Beverley is if you’re reading this blog: a defensive-minded, pesky, ball-hawking crazy man on the court who’s built a reputation as an irritant to opposing guards in the league.
For the casual fan, however, it’s probable you had never heard his name prior to the first round of the 2012-13 playoffs when his fame, or infamy, spiked as a result of the play that left Russell Westbrook sidelined for the remainder of the postseason — ironically, with a torn meniscus.
Now the Rockets find themselves without a critical weapon in the landscape of the upcoming NBA Playoffs. The league has transformed into a point guard’s playground, and a quick look around the Western Conference certainly supports the idea of the position’s impact.
If the postseason began today, the starting point guards in the West (excluding the Rockets) would be Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Mike Conley and the Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe two-headed monster. There might only be three guys on that list you could argue isn’t the best player on his team.
Houston stands out of this pack a bit, though. Interestingly, as deep as the point guard position has become, the shooting guard slot boasts but a handful of elite-level talents around the league¹. When you think ‘shooting guard,’ you think Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Then who? It’s got to be James Harden. Hell, you’d have to put up a damn good argument to convince me he isn’t the best shooting guard in the league right now.
¹Much of this has to do with the position-less movement in the NBA, wherein hybrid-type athletes are blurring the lines of positional definition. We’re in an era that prevalently features small-ball, blended lineups and undersized front-courts relative to what’s traditional, so analyzing the structure of a roster based on defined positions can often be a fool’s errand. I mean, I’ll do it; but I’m a fool all too often.
I digress. The difference with the makeup of the Rockets is their ‘two’ operates as the initiator of the offense, not necessarily their ‘one.’ But much like other contenders prefer to fill that opposite guard slot with a ‘3-and-D’ role player, Houston plugged Beverley in to bulldog opposing point guards — the heads of their respective snakes.
Beverley hardly makes anything look good on the court. His herky-jerky, flailing, handsy style isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as a Kevin Durant crossover, pull-up jumper, but it’s a nightmare for the players he’s guarding. I’m not sure if the loss of Beverley is the difference between this team contending for a title, but I’m not prepared to definitively say it isn’t. He’s incredibly impactful for a team with some serious defensive holes his presence helps mask.
It’s just a reminder of the fragility of the title-contender status. One little crack on the surface can create a whole spiderweb of effects. Like an iPhone.
Yes, an NBA playoff roster is like an iPhone: a complex and entertaining sum of parts, especially when unblemished. But once you drop that thing and it cracks and SON OF A B**** NOT AGAIN!
Anyway, these teams are puzzles with unique individual parts that make up the whole. Beverley might not be the piece forming the base of your Arc de Triomphe puzzle, but he certainly might be the top of your Eiffel Tower.
Terrible analogies aside, the balance between true contender and pretender is delicate. You could argue that any team in the NBA has a role player whose absence would likely drop them below that championship threshold. For Houston, Beverley might be one of those guys.
With the salary-cap and roster restrictions the league has in place, roster design has come down to a science. Not everyone can have a Durant or LeBron to cover for injuries in the lineup, so those role players — especially the ones in the top six or seven of the rotation — are hugely important once you get to the pinnacle of basketball performance. Just think back to the Finals last season, where every single second mattered, and every single minute logged by individual players seemed to have an impact on the outcome.
The injury to Beverley isn’t nearly as catastrophic to the Rockets as one to, say, Dwight Howard would be, but it might be the difference for a young team that was already teetering on that theoretical edge.
I got to thinking about this the other night when Danny Green walked down the tunnel to the locker room after being removed from the game with a mid-foot sprain, because if the Spurs lose Green, they won’t win a title.
It sounds strange to word it like that, as there are probably five players more important than Green is on this roster, but that doesn’t diminish his value. (By the way, this is all just hypothetical conversation. I’m not trying to hex Danny here. I like Danny and his ability to throw a ball through a cylinder from 25 feet away.)
For instance, an injury to Green would mean an already tense matchup with the Thunder and their Westbrook-Durant duo would swing wildly in Oklahoma City’s favor. With Kawhi Leonard occupied by the task of guarding the league’s best scorer, Green has been the extra defender the Spurs can throw at Westbrook to make life difficult. Without him, nobody would be able to defend Russ, or even Reggie Jackson, for that matter.
A guy like Marco Belinelli can step in and pick up the slack offensively, but he’s not the defender Green is. Not to mention, who would then fill Belinelli’s spot off the bench?
It’s not necessarily the player’s direct impact, but it’s the domino effect his absence creates that would make the biggest difference. For San Antonio, it’s not just Green. You name the player: If Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli or Patty Mills goes down with any sort of serious setback, the Spurs are in serious trouble. They all play such important roles on this team, and those precious minutes they’ve provided this season would be missed when each second becomes all too valuable.
Again, the balance between being a contender and a pretender is often an incredibly delicate one. For Houston, that balance has been compromised, and another late-season moment featuring Patrick Beverley has again reminded us of just how fragile a team’s title hopes can be.