Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: injuries

Every time you go (away), you take a piece of the team with you

Over the past three seasons, reigning back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry averaged 79 games-per-season and yet his ankles remain a delicate arc of his historical narrative. From the customized high-ankle-support Under Armour shoes to his lean build to his physical breakdown in the 2016 playoffs, Curry’s health seems to be a talking point that always lingers kind of like the vinegary sweat smell from my buddy G’s high school practice jersey. It’s a funk that still makes Golden State fans and league office employees cringe when Steph hits the deck.

Connected to Curry’s health is the direct correlation to the Warriors’ collective success. Health isn’t an absolute, but from the start of the 2014-15 season to Curry slipping on a wet spot against the Rockets in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, the Warriors won 156 of 185 games (84%). After Curry’s injury, they went 15-9 (63%).

Steph’s health, among so many other variables, is a critical piece of his team’s success. This isn’t a relationship unique to Golden State or Steph, but something that pervades any team sport, particularly those where each team only fields five players at a time. With that in mind, I looked at missed games over the previous three seasons in some attempt to understand who’s getting hurt, how much time they’re missing, and understand that every time they go away, what part of the team are they taking with them – be it potential or points-per-game or whatever.

Like many NBA fan, I’m intrigued by Anthony Davis’s young career. The most unique talents suffer under the greatest microscopes and so it is that we needle away at Davis’s four-year career. Sticking with the three-year baseline I established, Davis has missed 50 games with 15-16 being his most injurious at 21 games missed. But so what? What do the Pelicans lose when Davis is gone?

Depending on how you look at it, they miss a lot. By traditional measures, Davis takes with him 23-points and 10-rebounds, 2.5 blocks and nearly 1.5 steals while shooting 51% from the field and 78% from the line on nearly 8 attempts-per-game. (Or, he takes with him 50-points, 16-rebounds, and 7-steals; the line he audaciously produced in the 16-17 season opener.) But how does that impact the team? There’s no single measure to identify wins lost, but there are a handful of win-share or replacement-level stats that can be inverted into a form of loss-share.

There’s WORP/WARP which is Wins Over/Above Replacement Player that is an extension of VORP (Value over replacement player). Then there’s team record with and without a player which is a simplistic, raw way to look at impact which I’ve boiled down a single lost wins number based on variance in win-percentage in games the player played versus games he missed (example: in 2014-15, OKC won 66.7% of the 27 games in which Kevin Durant appeared. They won 49.1% in the 55 games he missed. Apply the 66.7% to the 55 games he missed and you land at ~37 wins. Subtract from that 37 the 27 wins OKC had without him and the lost wins comes out to 9.67.) And finally, there’s ESPN’s RPM (Real plus-minus) model which offers up a metric simply titled RPM Wins which estimates the “number of wins each player has contributed to his team’s total for the season” and includes RPM and a number of possessions played.

For each of the above stats (WORP, Raw Won-Loss, and RPM Wins), I’ve created a negative metric – WORP becomes WORP missed, Raw Won-Loss becomes Raw Wins Lost, and RPM Wins becomes RPM Losses. None of these should be viewed as standalone metrics, but rather as directional insights to get a sense of what’s being lost when a player sits.

If we stick with Davis, we see a fairly consistent measure across the three metrics. For the 15-16 season where he missed 21 games, his WORP landed at 2.1, Wins Lost was 2.3, and RPM losses was 2.4. While there are a silly number of variables that play into the actual on-court results (like Jrue Holiday missing 17 games and sitting back-to-backs while playing limited minutes or Ryan Anderson missing 16 games, Alvin Gentry as new coach, and on and on), by current available measures, the loss of Davis, while no doubt a disruption to continuity and scheme, likely cost New Orleans 2-3 wins.

If we think about how the weight of performance can sway these metrics, let’s compare Davis’s most recent three seasons:

ant-davis

Though Davis missed his most games in 15-16, the performance-based measures of RPM Losses and WORP Missed indicate a more significant impact in 14-15.

Davis is an instructive case for this exercise. He’s consistent both in terms of his on-court outputs and won/loss measures. To-date you can pencil him in for a PER over 25 and somewhere between 15-20 missed games while costing his team 2-4 wins through his absences. And given that he suffered a mild ankle sprain in the pre-season, it’s fair to assume that the trend will continue to some degree.

Conversely, there are players who have missed huge chunks of games that make this exercise completely futile or reveal the weaknesses in these measures. Paul George is the outlier of outliers, a player whose games played have wildly swung in both directions:

pg13

For players who miss a handful of games in a season, the resulting impacts are minimized as to barely register by any of the loss-based measures (see PG’s 13-14 and 15-16). Conversely, George’s 14-15 where he missed 76 games recovering from his gruesome broken leg in the Olympic trials, then came back and helped lead the Pacers to a 5-1 (83.3%) record in the six games he appeared, the value of the Wins Lost, while possibly accurate, is grossly skewed. Indiana was 33-43 (43.4%) in 76 George-less games so when applying PG’s 83.3% win rate to the 76 missed games, the model shows the Pacers missing out on 30 wins which means they would’ve gone 63-19. Meanwhile, his overall 6-game output is so small that his overall impact barely register on RPM or WORP.

To add additional context to George, his 30.33 wins lost is laughably higher than anyone else in this data set over the previous three seasons:

players-and-games

The data does help to illustrate some of my own misperceptions and nowhere is that clearer than comparing Davis to DeMarcus Cousins. The biggest knock against Davis to-date has been his inability to stay on the court. For Cousins, it’s his volatility, his lack of emotional maturity which reveals its ugly head in his missed games. Per Sportrac, Cousins has been suspended six games over the past three seasons. That doesn’t account for all 51 he’s missed in that time – which is one more than Davis – but it’s a significant number.

boogie-brow

While Davis is the superior player by nearly any measure, particularly any efficiency measure, the overall impact of Cousins’ missed games is on par with or exceeds Davis. Again, this isn’t to say Cousins is a better player as there are countless variables. It could entirely be that New Orleans has had superior coaching, an easier schedule, or are better equipped to maintain some degree of continuity in Davis’s absence. By most available measures though, Cousins is just as likely to miss games as Davis and those absences adversely impact his team more so than Davis’s with New Orleans. This isn’t necessarily how I’ve thought about both players and their impacts or reputations.

One ugly trend that stood out like a pus-oozing sore on a replacement player’s naked big toe was the Pelicans’ magnetism to injury. Five of their top players over the past three seasons have each missed 50 games or more which translates into a rough average of nearly 27 games missed per-player-per-season. The culprits have been Holiday (35 games/season, currently out indefinitely as his wife undergoes brain surgery), Anderson (32 games/season, gone to the Rockets), Eric Gordon (25 games/season, gone to Rockets), Tyreke Evans (23 games/season, out until maybe sometime in December and apparently had blood clotting in his calf), and of course Davis. The volume, consistency, and unpredictability (particularly Holiday) make this team a wild card in terms of predictability. And if the Pelicans’ first three games of the season were an indication, the non-injured supporting cast around Davis resembles a mix of flunkies and rotation players with Lance Stephenson vying with Tim Frazier as Robin to the Brow’s Batman. As I look over these numbers, it’s hard to fathom how they even made the playoffs in 14-15, though the semi-obvious answer is Davis’s historical season as he recorded a PER north of 30 for just the 18th time in league history.

pels

Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stood out for their respective impacts and consistency. For players I bucketed as “starters,” they finished 1st (MKG) and 5th (Bledsoe) in total games missed over the past three seasons. MKG missed 75 games last season with a shoulder injury, but it wasn’t exactly a new trend as he missed 27 and 20 games the previous two seasons. For Bledsoe, he’s had multiple meniscus injuries and missed 39 in 13-14 and 51 last season.

Both players accompany those costly missed game counts with significant impacts in the win/loss measures. MKG with his average-to-below-average stats doesn’t fare well in WORP measures (0.3, 0.7, 0), but looks tremendous in Raw Lost wins (3.3, 7.3, and 10.6 – though the last one falls in the Paul George 14-15 bucket given he only played 7 games). Additionally, MKG’s impact almost falls in the historic Shane Battier corollary of intangibles as articulated by coach Steve Clifford: “Last year, obviously, we played well without him. The first two years that we were here, literally when he played, we played well, and when he didn’t, we couldn’t win. He impacts winning in so many ways.”

mkg

Bledsoe’s won/loss impact is well-represented across any of the three measures I’m using:

major-blood

With Bledsoe on the floor, Phoenix is winning roughly 5-8 more games each season. Like New Orleans, the Suns have experienced maddening volatility over the past few seasons. In-season coaching changes, injuries, and locker room deterioration catalyzed by the Suns trading away one of the Morris twins destabilized the hell out of this team. Amidst all that disarray, Bledsoe, aka Baby LeBron, missing 91 games was the icing on the pain cake. As the Suns best player, he has the appearance of being the single most important player to the Suns’ success. What happened to the days of Phoenix’s training squad stitching together the careers of Steve Nash and Grant Hill? Where for art thou Eric Bledsoe’s health?  

Injuries are the scourge of sports. They cost teams and cable networks money, muddy the waters of historical context, force us to question the outcomes of competitive contests; they’re annoying, they’re painful, heartbreaking dings, pulls, tears, and breaks that act as a kick to the groin or a slap upside the head. Injuries suck. And yet, our bodies are fallible and fragile; we live in the suck. And every game, every minute missed comes with some cost. Sleep well tonight friends, because we never know when our favorite player might step on a rake and have the handle swing up and smack him in the face and nose leaving them concussed with a broken nose and an uncomfortable seat at the end of the bench in street clothes.

 

Papier-mâché Muscles and Bones like Popsicle Sticks

Nothing like lusting over things that cannot ever be. The Blazers can’t redraft Kevin Durant over Greg Oden. Len Bias will never check into a game for Larry Bird or Kevin McHale. And a prime Michael Jordan will only face a prime Kobe Bryant on NBA 2k. Just because it can’t be doesn’t mean we can’t spend a few of our idle moments wondering if the basketball gods (if they truly do exist) or the genetic qualities of Brook Lopez, Al Horford, or Andrew Bogut may have reshaped the 2014 playoffs. It’s not just that they’re maybe, possibly, kind of injury prone, but that their injuries have bled over into potential playoff-limiting impacts which have (maybe) gotten a coach fired, (maybe) saved a number-one seed from first round elimination, and (maybe) destroyed any possibility of the Heat not making it to a fourth straight Finals.

While far from the injury-ravaged careers of Greg Oden or Brandon Roy, the three guys above have missed an average of 38 to 44 games over the past three regular seasons – the number rises into the 40s and 50s if playoffs are added.

Games Missed

Of the three, there’s a pair of all-stars and a former number-pick. Each of these players fills a massive, outcome-altering void on their respective teams.

As the Nets battle a Heat team susceptible to Roy Hibbert (of all people – of course, it was the old, pre-crumbled Hibbert), the giant Lopez would be a welcome asset. Instead he’s been laid up with a broken right foot (fifth metatarsal for those who were wondering) since December. He’s slow, somewhat lumbering, and clearly injury-prone, but he’s also the only seven-footer in the league not named Dirk or Andrea Bargnani to average more than 20ppg since he came into the league in 2008. Unfortunately, this isn’t the big Californian’s first go-round with right foot injuries. Back in 2011 when labor wars struck, Lopez broke the same foot in a pre-season game, missed 32 games, then sprained his right ankle and was shut down for the year. For any of us, feet take a beating, but for the center with existing foot injuries, constant pounding via running and jumping (basketball’s alternate sport name), feet can quickly become a merciless kryptonite.

brook hurt

Horford is the greatest wild card of this group. The Gator big man was the cornerstone of Coach Budenholzer’s team for 29 games before he tore his right pectoral muscle into bits like wet tissue paper. Prior to that, Horford was having a career season and Atlanta was winning 55% of their games. If that win rate holds up, they never play Indiana in the first round and maybe big Roy Hibbert isn’t skewered in the same savage fashion he was done in by Pero Antic’s long range antics (I meant tactics). Sadly, this isn’t Horford’s first go-round with torn pectorals. In January of 2012 he went down with a torn left pectoral muscle. It’s an odd coincidence that this random freak injury has struck twice. As an aside, Horford’s 2012 injury occurred while battling the aforementioned Hibbert for a rebound.

horford hurt

DeAndre Jordan just spent seven games kicking the crap out of Golden State’s collection of bigs who more resembled the cast of Night of the Living Dead than challengers worthy of Jordan. I love Jermaine O’Neal, and Mareese Speights at least attended the games, but let’s stop being polite and start getting real. The Warriors missed the hell out Andrew Bogut who was unable to play due to a fractured right rib positioned so closely to his lung that he ran the risk of puncturing it if he played. The big Aussie appeared in 67 games this season and led the Warriors in defensive rating (96) and defensive win shares (4.1). He was the team’s best rebounder and shot blocker and did all those grimy things O’Neal’s not capable of and Speights is unwilling to do. Things like going nose-to-nose with Jordan, being a reliable rim protector, and challenging the Griffin/Jordan duo on the glass. Alas, Bogut was in absentia with yet another freak injury. In 2010 it was a hideous wrist/hand/elbow injury that I’d advise you to avoid witnessing. January of 2012, when Horford was dinged up with a torn pectoral and Lopez was having screws inserted into his right foot, Bogut fractured his left ankle. Like a man who offended the wrong basketball deity, Bogut is clearly cursed.

bogut hurt

Freak and chronic injuries, broken bones and torn muscles. The impermanent fragility of these flawed frames reroutes history like a flood washing away the only road home. Since we’re not indestructible beings, I could write a form of this post every year from now until my knuckles are gnarled, immobile joints, until my sight fades, until my voice is lost to mercilessness of time. Injuries will always be a part of this game like death is a part of life. So enjoy the moments you have with your favorite players while you have them because tomorrow they might just be DNPs.

Pain: Defining our Future one Injury at a Time

I definitely have multiple fascinations and mini obsessions in my life. In this space here and in the space residing in the smooth casing of my skull I like to imagine how the NBA could be different and by different I mean in a plausible sense. I don’t mean I want to see how Dwight Howard would compete in a league with Hakeem, Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo, etc; although if my mind’s in the right place, I do like to imagine how players would overlap generations. But alas, today is about plausibility, disaster, fragility and mortality—but not in the literal sense on that last piece, more in a basketball sense.

A month or so ago, I explored the ongoing agonies of number one overall picks; a pick that’s had to endure what seems like an abnormal amount of injuries relative to the rest of the pro basketball playing universe. When injuries happen, it’s not just the players and the organization that suffer; but rather it’s a massive boulder being tossed in a kiddie pool and me and you, the fans and writers and hoop heads are the little kids sitting around in our swim trunks, wondering what we’re going to do now since the water’s all gone and that boulder simply can’t be moved—because we can’t, with all of our will power and technological advances, make Greg Oden get well soon. This business about number one overall picks having health issues is nothing more than a sad coincidence, but when the wheels in my mind start spinning, I begin to obsess, little by little, with possibilities, alternate realities, the what could’ve been and that’s how I arrived at the post today. My mini obsessions take hold in daily emails to friends of hoop, take root in my mind, are validated through Basketball-reference.com’s encyclopedia of NBA information and finally flushed out here in some polished format … or not depending on your definition of “polish.”

Today, I’m exploring the impact bad luck or bad genes (it’s something bad) have had on all of us as basketball fans and the course of the league as a whole. I’m not making a case for butterfly effect theory on an NBA level, but rather investigating the massive ripples stemming from the painful belly flop of a few of our brighter, yet possibly cursed, stars:

Pain In words, numbers and images

Besides being ridiculously cluttered, the image above is somewhat functional. It tells the story of six men, six men blessed with unique combinations of size and athleticism who proved, at varying degrees, that they not only belonged in the NBA, but could actually thrive (and some may still thrive) as faces of franchises. These are all stars and guys who could’ve given induction speeches in Springfield in some kind of strange future, but instead they’ve danced with pain and lost. Some have given up, while others keep at it with mixed motivations of love, need, pride and stubbornness. No one’s here to judge the reasons of the retired or the motivations of the mad, but just to stroke our wise basketball beards and wonder what could’ve been, what we lost:

Andrew Bynum: Bynum, like Eric Gordon, is less tragic than the other members of the All Pain team because he’s younger. But his youth doesn’t take away from his injury-prone lower body which has been plagued by floating kneecaps, dislocations, surgeries, injections and probably crueler fates that we haven’t heard about (alien dissections, anyone?). Bynum’s highly decorated with rings, All NBA (2nd team) honors and an all-star appearance, but descriptions of his NBA existence or his immense potential are prefaced with references to his oft-injured body and missed games; a preface Philly fans likely precede with a “See, told ya so.” The Atlantic Division with Boston, the new-look Knicks and Nets and a Bynum-led Sixers squad should’ve been one of the more competitive divisions in the NBA this season; instead it’s all about New York and Brooklyn while the other three teams bore us with their flat storylines (no offense as in I didn’t mean to offend, not a reference to basketball scoring ability). And the tragedy here doesn’t end at the city limits of Philadelphia. It stretches across the country to Los Angeles where Jim Buss is likely still shedding tears over Bynum’s departure. It looms like an afro-wearing shroud over a league bereft of talented big men. What does health mean to Andrew Bynum? Would he still be in LA? Would he be dominating an Eastern Conference that has no answer for his 22 points/game and 12 rebounds/game? Will we ever know or will we all be swallowed in Bynum-less lament?

Bynum Dreams:

  • Do the Lakers trade a healthy Bynum? If no, then this Lakers team looks the same, but with Bynum instead of Howard. Not sure that solves their problems though.
  • No Dwight in Los Angeles means the dominoes fall in a different direction; one that I can’t possibly be expected to imagine since four franchises were involved.
  • And of course, Doug Collins agrees Bynum’s healthy presence would change things in Philadelphia, the Atlantic and the East.

Brandon Roy: I remember watching Roy at the University of Washington. He patiently waited his turn while more extroverted personalities like Nate Robinson’s shaped the team. But he waited and in his senior year, I recall seeing a kid possessed of absolute control, both physical and mental, whose game flowed like water, contorting himself to whatever the situation required, coolly flowing in waves or droplets—depending what look the opposition presented. He arrived as a pro in Portland with the same composure and pace. He spoke softly and was capable of the always-enjoyable “quiet” 35-40 point night. Genetics or fates weren’t having it though and young Roy’s knees began to deteriorate, or perhaps disintegrate is a more appropriate term (or perhaps someone injected his knees with cartilage-corroding acid), at the tender age of 24-25 and eventually resulted in retirement at 27 only to attempt a comeback this year at 28—a comeback with Minnesota that’s sadly been marred by more knee issues. But what could’ve been in Portland if Roy had been gifted with health instead of chronic pain? Stretch your imagination like one of those physical therapy rubber bands … pull it, stretch it and think of a Portland team starting Roy at the two (and don’t forget, he was a three-time all-star by age 25), Batum at three, Aldridge at four and a defensive anchor in Oden (more on him below) at five. Alas, my tears are dripping on the keyboard and it’s not because I have a Pacific Northwestern loyalty to the Blazers, but because as an NBA fan, I want a chance to witness what should be and what should be is the team I just described; instead it’s LaMarcus running with Wes Matthews and JJ Hickson.

Roy Dreams:

  • A title-contending nightmare in Portland with Oden, Aldridge and Batum
  • No Damian Lillard in the Rose Garden—because of course they never end up with that pick; unless the Nets are feeling generous all over again.
  • A Pacific coast rivalry with the Lakers: Roy vs. Kobe, Oden vs. Bynum

Eric Gordon: He’s back and since I built out the graphic a couple weeks ago, it doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that Gordon has actually appeared in games this season after curious rumors about microfracture surgery never came to fruition. He’s never made an all-star game or the playoffs, but he’s undeniably talented. At 6’3”, 220lbs, he’s the NBA’s answer to Earl Campbell; a battering ram of a two-guard with a smooth stroke that looks like it was crafted by the basketball gods of the Hoosier State. Three years into the league and the 23-year-old Indiana native was scoring 22/game and well on his way to something exciting, something special, some kind of explosive basketball device tucked in a compact package of muscle and talent. Of course, that was until he started breaking down with an assortment knee and wrist injuries. Gordon’s the youngest player on this list at 24-years-old which means he has the greatest opportunity to right any wrongs attributed to faulty genetics or mutations. In Gordon, New Orleans trusts and prays.

Gordon Dreams:

  • If he’s a healthy all-star guard, do the Clippers send him to New Orleans in 2011?
  • If the Clippers pass on the CP3 trade, then they move forward with Blake Griffin and Gordon at their core and Lob City becomes nothing more than the Lost City of Atlantis; an unverified utopia that gains beauty as time passes.
  • No Clippers-Hornets trade throws a wrench in the league’s attempts to sell the New Orleans franchise and puts David Stern in a tighter spot after he became inexplicably involved in the CP3-to-Lakers trade veto. Like the Dwight scenario above, there are too many possibilities to explore.
  • A healthy Gordon in 2011-12 (he played in just nine games) means the Hornets likely finish with a better record which means the Hornets don’t luck into Anthony Davis which means Davis likely ends up somewhere like Charlotte—a city desperate for a pro basketball savior. Instead they’re suddenly a tandem in New Orleans and David Stern is … well, I don’t know, but it feels like Stern’s name should be mentioned.

Gilbert Arenas:  Over a three-season span at what appeared to be extremely near his prime (or anyone’s prime), Arenas had point averages of 25.5, 29.3 and 28.4. Over that span he scored 6,489 points in the regular season and scored 34/game in the 2006 playoffs while playing 47 minutes/game in that first round series. At the peak (this is an assumed peak because after the injuries was downhill, but it’s OK to wonder if he could’ve gotten even better) of his career, his primary rival was LeBron, he scored 61 in LA against Kobe and was the king of all that is swag in the NBA. And then all the weight of those self-created expectations collapsed inward and took him with it, robbing Gilbert of his all-important swag and once that was gone, it was time to move on (to China). It started with a torn meniscus and ended with a gun suspension. For a player of Gilbert’s showman caliber, it’s not that big of a surprise that things devolved the way they did. He could only be a comet; never meant for longevity, but given his upward trend and relative youth at the time of his meniscus injury (25), it’s appropriate to wonder where Arenas could’ve taken the Wizards or his own career. Could he have been a 30-point-per-night scorer? Would he have had an existence comparable to Dominique Wilkins? Or would he have gone the other route and provoked Javaris Crittendon into killing him?

Arenas Dreams:

  • Five more years of oodles of points, threes, clutch buckets and quotes that beg for attention. If he played 70+ games/season, it’s likely we’d just now be entering the downward arc of his career—he just turned 31 two days ago! Please consider this when you see the Wizards leaning so heavily on Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal (nice shot last night, kiddo).
  • No bad meniscus means no John Wall means John Wall’s somewhere else.
  • Of the nightmarish variety; with the cast of characters this Wizards team employed, it’s not hard to imagine a prank gone terribly wrong and resulting in death or dismemberment.
  • The course of the Eastern Conference might not be altered with a healthy Arenas, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Greg Oden: It’s hard to dive as deeply into the pool of Oden’s potential and possibility as it is the rest of these players simply because he’s endured more physical challenges and his broken body of work as a professional is a fraction of theirs. I included him on this list because any discussion of injury-prone players of the past twenty years must include him. The ceiling was high: He played a total of 82 games in the two seasons he appeared in Blazer games and shot 57% from the field while averaging 15pts, 12rebs and 2 blocks per 36 minutes over that pain stained stretch. Assuming the worst, that we saw Oden peak as a 22-year-old (highly unlikely), if he can produce 15 and 12 and change games on the defensive side of the ball, he’s a more offensive version of Tyson Chandler. We all missed out on this career and it’s truly tragedy in the greater theater of basketball.

Oden Dreams:

  • I mentioned the Roy/Aldridge/Batum/Oden Blazers above; a lineup that would challenge any team in the Western Conference and would likely have ended a in similar situation to OKC in being forced to move one of their primary producers because the cost would’ve been too great.
  • The league would no longer have been dominated by a singular center and this would’ve been a good thing for Dwight for multiple reasons.
  • It’s easy to forget Oden is only 24-years-old. We’d just be entering the beginning of his prime. And at this point, I can’t help but drive down to the Columbia River which sits at the border of Washington and Oregon and toss a single rose into the rushing water and watch it sail away into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and take some kind of poetic comfort in its fleeting beauty.

Yao Ming: Yao’s tale is sadder than Oden’s, but less mysterious. He proved himself as a dominant post in the NBA with that massive backside and lower body and his elite skill around the rim. He had better touch than his peers and learned how to use his size as a great advantage. We knew what he was capable of; we just didn’t get the opportunity to see it all the way through. Over the course of his first five seasons, Yao improved statistically every season and then at age 25, his body (mostly his feet) began to break down. Those feet just weren’t made to support a frame that big running, jumping and pounding on a hardwood floor 35 minutes a night for hundreds of games and eventually the feet rebelled without mercy; the bones cracked and fractured and simply gave out. His last full season was 2008-09 when he averaged ~20, 10 and 2 blocks. This was casual for Yao, but only one player in the league has been able to equal this consistency since and that’s Howard.

Ming Dreams:

  • His last full season was 2008-09, so that’s three-plus years we’ve missed out on Yao delivering fits in the form of 30s and 10s to the rest of the Western Conference.
  • In this re-imagined West where bigs stalk the paint, demanding respect and instilling fear, the game is altered and while it’s still a guard’s league, the Lakers, Blazers and Rockets each has an oversized weapon with which to do battle.
  • If Yao’s healthy, Daryl Morey’s still going to be Daryl Morey which means he’s still going to make ballsy moves, moves that I can’t possibly predict, but it’s safe to say the Rockets would have a radically different roster today—no Jeremy Lin, James Harden or Royce White.
  • Thanks to the China voting bloc, Yao would’ve continued to represent the West in the All Star game; whether he earned it or not.

This entire post has been built in a combination of facts and speculation and assumptions on what could’ve been. There isn’t any extra effort here to apply advanced forecasting models to project what kind of numbers these players could’ve achieved or how many wins they could contribute over players who replaced them. I thought about including Jay Williams and a case can be made for Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, but I decided Williams’s career was too short and not as impressive as Oden’s, McGrady wasn’t racked/cursed in the fashion of the players above, Hill and Penny came too early and I just thought about Francis while I’ve been writing. Additionally, it’s a creepy coincidence how some of these guys have played together and single franchises and fan bases have lived through the agonies right alongside the players (condolences go to Houston, Orlando and Portland)—and often felt the pain even more deeply than the men sustaining these future-ravaging injuries.

Injuries always have and always will be a course-altering part of sports. It’s a death of sorts for all athletes and one of the greatest obstacles preventing athletes from realizing potential. I’m not making a case to the AMA or the league’s doctors and trainers to do a better job of injury prevention, but rather taking this long moment to acknowledge the unfair impacts injuries have on the league while considering how our world of basketball could’ve (plausibly) been a different place.

Original photo by Richard P. Fennimore

Original photo by Richard P. Fennimore

The Pain of Being Number One

Injuries are the bane of an athletic existence. When our favorite athletes (in any sport) get hurt, everyone loses: The players and teams lose out on money, investments and glory. The fans lose out on entertainment and glory and are forced to wonder what could’ve been which leads to wild speculation and imagination. And injuries come in all shapes and sizes: Shoulder strains and contusions, patella injuries, concussions, colds, flus, torn ACLs, torn Achilles tendons, hamstring injuries, slipped disks, back injuries, stress fractures, broken bones, HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, diarrhea, migraines, scratched corneas, stabbings, shootings, sprains, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and on and on. All players are vulnerable to injuries and the recent revelation that Andrew Bogut underwent the dreaded microfracture surgery in April opened my eyes to something I already knew: The top draft picks in the NBA haven’t had a great run of health over the past decade.

The injuries plaguing these young players run the gamut from freak (Bogut’s fall that led to a horrific broken wrist) to chronic (Yao Ming and Greg Oden) and have hit players of varying race, age and position. Injuries don’t give a fuck what God you pray to or what block you grew up on or how much pain you’ve already experienced in your life. Injuries are lurking … just ask the top picks from the past decade:

  • The table above looks at the percentage of games a player could have appeared in (% Possible = 100% for each player) and the percentage of games he missed (% Missed).
  • Graph doesn’t include playoff games.
  • A rookie like Anthony Davis is unfairly represented due to the small sample size.
  • Yao Ming appears twice. The first Yao Ming (without asterisk) represents his career pre-retirment. The starred Yao Ming* includes games he missed since he’s been retired with the assumption being that without injuries, Yao would still be with us today and the NBA would be a radically different place.
  • The total numbers for all players are: 6,147 possible games played, 4,455 games missed for a total of 27.5% missed.
  • If you remove the top (Dwight Howard, 2.9% missed) and bottom (Greg Oden, 80% missed), the percentage of missed games drops to 26.5%.
  • I’m uncertain about league averages for games played/missed, but my gut reaction is that missing 27.5% of possible games is on the high end. Additionally, teams drafting a player number one overall likely have the expectation that these players will be suiting up more frequently than the numbers here show.

Lastly, if anyone out there has access to injury data or DNP reasons, that additional information could add quite a bit of insight into the causes for the numbers above. As it stands, let’s all have a moment of silence for the careers of Greg Oden and Yao Ming.

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