Sometimes, timing is everything. Between when I wrote today’s piece on the Orlando Magic and whether the team’s style could win a championship and when you read it, Jameer Nelson‘s shoulder injury may have rendered the question moot. An MRI today showed that Nelson has torn his rotator cuff and will at some point need surgery. The question now is when he has said surgery. Nelson can opt to rehab the shoulder and attempt to return, a la Dwyane Wade two years ago, or opt for immediate season-ending surgery.
I e-mailed Prospectus injury expert Will Carroll (quickly growing as tired of fielding my questions on NBA injuries as I am of having to ask them), and the timeline of 3-6 weeks for rehab the Magic has put forward is not unreasonable. Wade injured his shoulder on Feb. 21 and returned on April 8, giving him five warmup games prior to the postseason. While playing without surgery leaves the shoulder susceptible to popping out, there doesn’t appear to be a significant long-term risk to trying to rehab.
The bigger issue is that it sets the clock back on rehabilitation from the surgery, which the Magic is estimating at four months. That seems a little optimistic; if Nelson has surgery in June after Orlando’s postseason run is complete, he could miss the early portion of the 2009-10 season while rehabbing. Still, that’s a risk he and the Magic have to take to have a chance to compete for a championship this year.
In Anthony Johnson, Orlando was already weak at the point behind Nelson. Johnson has a True Shooting Percentage of .470 and has rated below replacement level over the course of the season. The Magic also does not have a third point guard on the roster, with Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu likely to share ballhandling duties until or unless Orlando signs or deals for a replacement.
One encouraging note: While Johnson’s net plus-minus is dismal (the Magic is 10.0 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor), Orlando has actually played pretty well with lineups of Johnson/rotating SG/Tukoglu/Rashard Lewis/Dwight Howard. Those units (with either Lee, Keith Bogans or Mickael Pietrus at two guard) are outscoring opponents by 20.7 points per 100 possessions with Nelson at the point; with Johnson running the show, they are still +18.1 points per 100 possessions. The slight caveat is that a lot of those minutes came when Nelson was sidelined for five games with a strained hip flexor. The Magic went 4-1 in those games, albeit against less-than-stellar competition (wins over Washington, Indiana, and Minnesota and Philadelphia teams that were struggling at that point).
Whether Orlando GM Otis Smith makes a move or not, to compete with Cleveland and Boston in the Eastern Conference the Magic will surely need Nelson in the lineup. His injury also all but guarantees the Magic will have to go on the road for both series, likely locking Orlando into the third seed in the East (the Magic’s nine-game lead over fourth-seeded Atlanta probably remains safe). With a healthy Nelson, that would have been a grueling task. With him at less than full strength, it is all but impossible.