Yesterday afternoon, the Timberwolves announced that Nemanja Bjelica will miss the remainder of the season due to a foot injury suffered in Wednesday’s loss to the Boston Celtics. The press release was short on details except to say that he underwent an MRI of his foot and he will be consulting with specialists to determine treatment options.
The common reaction on Twitter was disappointment for the injury and mention that “Belly” had been playing better basketball of late. The former point needs no discussion — nobody wants to see an injury, and we hope this isn’t too serious or career-threatening — but the latter one calls for a closer look.
What will the Bjelica absence mean for the Timberwolves and the remainder of their season?
On the season, Bjelica was averaging 6.2 points on 42.4% shooting in 18.3 minutes per game. He was hitting 31.6% from three and also averaging 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists. Per 36 minutes, his points/rebounds/assist averages increase to 12.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. Those numbers are fairly underwhelming, especially when you consider the low shooting percentages for a power forward with a reputation for being something of a marksman. His PER — a flawed measure of all-around play but decent indicator of statistical production — was just 11.1, well below average.
More recently, Bjelica’s playing time increased and there were some signs that he was becoming more helpful to Thibs’s rotation. In the 7 games played in March, his playing time went up to 25.5 minutes per game. Against quicker opposing 4s, Thibs often played Bjelica over Gorgui Dieng with the starting unit in the second half. In the high-profile win over the Golden State Warriors last week, Bjelica notched a 10 points, 12 rebounds double-double and proved an effective matchup against Draymond Green, who was held to 5 points on 1-8 shooting.
But despite an uptick in playing time and a couple of solid performances, it would be wrong to describe Belly’s recent play as some type of major revelation. It was more like modest improvement over a small sample. In March, he shot 44.4% from the field and 33.3% from three, pretty close to his normal averages. His rebounding and assists increased to 9.5 and 3.5 per 36 minutes, respectively.
Where do the Wolves go from here?
The short term issue is the run for the 8 seed in the West. That was going to be nearly impossible with a healthy Belly, and even more difficult with a shorter rotation. The Wolves are 4.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets while also trailing the Blazers and Mavs in the standings. I think they need to finish 12-3 in their last 15 against a difficult schedule to have any chance.
So, with Belly out, Thibs will probably ride his full starting five for longer stretches; that means Gorgui will be defending stretch 4s more than he has been, recently. It also probably means more Cole Aldrich off the bench, and perhaps more lineups that involve Shabazz Muhammad playing the small-ball 4 spot. How all of this plays out would be anyone’s guess. It was going to be extremely difficult to catch Denver in the first place. It’s probably even more of a challenge now.
The longer-term issue is Bjelica’s foot — as in, what exactly is wrong with it? Foot injuries are notoriously scary for basketball players, especially big basketball players like Bjelica. Hopefully some offseason rest is all that it takes. He is under contract for one more season at a hair under $4 Million. Bjelica
apologists fans would like to see him build on his recent improvement and earn a long-term spot in the team’s rotation. The likelihood of that happening was probably low to begin with, and a nagging foot injury wouldn’t increase it any.
The team’s press release indicated that there would be more updates to come on his condition. Best wishes to Belly in his recovery.