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Bogut's health comes down to one key question: can he play?

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Another day, another round of speculation about Andrew Bogut's health.

A week ago Bogut was supposed to be starting the Bucks' first exhibition opener, with Scott Skiles going so far as to say he expected the big man to play 20 minutes against Chicago. This in spite of the summer-long speculation that Bogut's recovery from finger, hand, wrist and elbow injuries was not going as well as hoped. But a swollen hand and seven days later, we have Bogut still sitting out practice and understandably playing it safe as he and the Bucks attempt to find the right balance between preparing for opening night and not unduly risking their most valuable player. That alone isn't a surprise, but quite understandably eyebrows are raised every time Bogut suffers a setback or brings up the possibility that his play will be somehow compromised by the lingering effects of his horrific fall last April. 

"The elbow, finger, everything . . . I won't be 100%, so I'll have to play through the pain through the season. Even once it gets better, I'm still going to be 90% for the year or 85%.

"I don't have my mobility and flexibility like I should, but I just have to adjust to it."

Jeremy has a terrific take on why Bogut's diagnoses-by-percentage aren't worth losing sleep over, and I have to think Bogut is also managing expectations to some extent right now. Bogut has shown he can play through pain, but that doesn't mean he's going to shrug off a major injury and act like it won't affect him. And understandably so. Like the rest of us, he won't really know how it will impact his game until the games matter on October 27, if not later, and acting like there's no problem doesn't really help anyone.    

More importantly, the latest talk also distracts a bit from the more important question of how many games Bogut will be able to play, period. Because whether Bogut is 50%, 75% or 100%, the reality is that the Bucks don't have a real answer for replacing him when he's not in uniform. Yes, Drew Gooden can play center and score from the post at times. And Larry Sanders provides the Bucks a second shot-blocker for the first time in who knows how long. But Bogut is Bogut. He's the team's best player, the fulcrum of a terrific defense, the Bucks' only go-to post scorer, and the team's leader on and off the court. As we saw while he struggled with the misdiagnosed back injury than eventually ended his 08/09 season, Bogut has the kind of savvy and toughness to be valuable even when he's not healthy.

Translation: the Bucks can live with Bogut being 10% or 20% below his usual lofty standards--whatever that means--but they probably can't live with Bogut in street clothes for extended periods. So far Skiles has emphasized Bogut would be able to play if push came to shove, so that's very good news. But it also raises the more difficult question of whether coming back sooner rather than later will increase the likelihood of re-injury. Five months ago, Bogut and the Bucks were hoping that a full summer of rest and rehabilitation would have him back to his best by the start of camp, or the regular season at the latest. In fact, at the Bucks' post-season media day on May 3, Bogut sounded bullish on his recovery, though still cautious about his broken finger and the chance it might be an issue going forward:

It's going to depend on how the finger heals now. The elbow is pretty much healed, I'm just getting the swelling down. The wrist feels good already. It feels like it's healed. The finger is the thing that worries the doctors because of the ligaments. There's a slight percentage chance that it can re-break very easily. It's a slight percentage, like five percent, but they say that there's a chance of that happening so they are kind of worried about me trying to push myself the first couple of weeks. Whether that's into June or early July, we don't know. I'll definitely be back in with a solid two months of basketball training before coming to Milwaukee.

If hastening Bogut's return meaningfully increases the likelihood that he re-injures himself and misses an extended period, then it's hard to justify him playing in any preseason games. Considering the Bucks allowed Bogut to start practicing a few weeks ago, one would hope that re-injury isn't a huge threat [and as Dave notes in the comments, the fact that it's his arm and not a load-bearing part of the body like the legs or back also helps]. Will he have to miss games here and there because of soreness or swelling? That might be the best case scenario right now, but it's not clear if resting him for another two weeks or another two months will demonstrably improve his long-term recovery.

At the end of the day, the Bucks will need him on the court once the games count, and keeping him in civilian attire for an extended period just to reach some theoretical 100% figure would likely be a self-defeating strategy for the 10/11 team. We all care about Bogut's long term health, but how conservative is too conservative? That's the question team doctors, coaches, and Bogut himself are wrestling with as the season opener draws near. So long as Bogut is unlikely to do himself any long-lasting damage, the Bucks will have a huge incentive to get him on the court as soon as possible regardless of whether he's 100%. And while there won't be any guarantees that Bogut can stay healthy--whether it's related to his arm, back, knees, etc--the Bucks may not have the luxury of playing it safe for too long.