That much is a fact. That much we know.
Everything else about LaVine and the Timberwolves seems to be a sentence punctuated by a question mark instead of a period. It was already trending that way this season; the injury substantially added to that sentiment. Let’s dive into a few of the biggest ones:
*What kind of recovery can LaVine expect, and how soon?
This is an important question in the context of the future for the Wolves. While torn anterior cruciate ligaments used to be somewhat rare in the NBA, they are now far more commonplace. This list of NBA players who have torn their ACLS, which stops in 2014, is just as long from 1970-2002 as it is from 2002-2014.
Among the notable recent players who have had the injury: Rajon Rondo, Jabari Parker, Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Kyle Lowry, Brandon Rush and Ricky Rubio.
Those last two names are of course familiar, as both play for the Wolves. Rush had a bad tear that was more than just an ACL, and he said it took about two years for a full recovery. Perhaps Rubio’s injury in March of 2012 is a more apt comparison.
Rubio, like LaVine, was 21 when he tore his ACL. he had surgery on March 21, 2012, after tearing the ligament two weeks prior. (Aside: I was there, at that game against the Lakers, sitting on press row. It happened right in front of me, and it was awful).
Rubio made his 2012-13 season debut on Dec. 15, 2012 — a little less than nine months after surgery. On that timeline, LaVine — who is having surgery more than a month sooner than Rubio — could make it back near the start of next season. But it’s also important to note that Rubio came off the bench for the first 10 games he was back and missed five more. He didn’t really look like “himself” until at least early February.
Translation: the Wolves don’t know what they can count on from LaVine next season. It could be half a season close to 100 percent. It could be a full season. It could be much less if his recovery takes longer — particularly considering LaVine is a player who relies heavily on his athleticism.
The Wolves will know more about what to expect from LaVine as the season approaches, but by then most of their roster will already be set.
*How is LaVine viewed inside and outside of the Wolves’ organization?
This is a more interesting question, and one that existed before the injury. On one hand, the Wolves have been marketing and branding LaVine as part of a young “Big Three” along with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. LaVine was in the midst of a very productive third season — increasing both his scoring efficiency and overall average to 18.9 ppg. He had a 20-game stretch this season when he averaged close to 23 points per game. With a combination of explosiveness and shooting range, LaVine is certainly a threat.
That said, LaVine struggles defensively — to the point that it’s a joke. He has the worst plus-minus on the Wolves by a significant amount. The same was true last season. The Wolves tried him as a point guard in the past, a developmental move that helped LaVine get more confident with the ball but also proved he’s not an NBA point guard. His skill set overlaps to a degree with that of Wiggins.
He’s well-liked by fans and does some great things off the court, but there also didn’t seem to be the same mourning period that existed when Rubio went down with his ACL injury five years ago. It feels like inside and outside the organization, nobody is quite sure of LaVine’s place or role in helping the Wolves turn the corner. There are much stronger and clearer feelings about Towns and Wiggins.
*Is LaVine a candidate to be traded, and how does the injury impact that possibility?
Because of the uncertainty of exactly where he fits in — combined now with his defensive deficiencies while playing for a demanding defensive coach, Tom Thibodeau — LaVine’s name has seemed to be a natural one to include in trade scenarios. He would have been a logical piece in a draft day deal for Jimmy Butler last June – when the Wolves were reportedly willing to give up anyone but Towns or Wiggins – and remained as such as the Bulls struggled this season. If Rubio has, indeed, been actively shopped during this season, a trade involving Rubio and LaVine could fetch something valuable in return.
The injury would seem to put a damper on that kind of talk. Any team dealing for LaVine right now would be taking on some risk, even if the timetable and prognosis for recovering from an ACL injury is far better than it used to be.
In that regard, the Wolves are stuck with the worst of both worlds — likely unable to use LaVine as a valuable trade piece if they were inclined to do so while also being denied the ability to further evaluate his progress to gauge where he fits into future plans.
The Wolves likely aren’t going anywhere this season — they’re technically only four games back of a playoff spot in the West, but there are a bunch of teams in front of them and time is running out — but losing that evaluation time is significant nonetheless.
Suffice to say LaVine’s unfortunate injury is more than just an individual woe. It’s an organizational setback that adds to a growing list of questions.
The answers to all the questions won’t be easy or immediately apparent. Some things can be fixed by today’s surgery. Others will require an even more delicate touch.