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April 6, 2011
Measuring Health
Quantifying Injury Impact in the NBA

by Kevin Pelton


If there is one subject that has gotten insufficient attention from basketball analysts, it's the role of injuries in teams' success and failure. Every once in a while, teams that have had an exceptional number of players sidelined will get a leaderboard of games missed from Elias and include it in their game notes. Beyond that, I can't think of an organized effort to quantify the cost of injuries along the lines of the Adjusted Games Lost metric tracked by our friends at Football Outsiders.

To try to change that, I spent yesterday going through the media notes for all 30 teams to compile every game lost to injury, illness or suspension this season. Here is the complete leaderboard in terms of both games missed and number of players to miss at least one game (a number that tends to be larger for teams who made midseason trades).

Team    Players   Games
MIL       15       267
POR        8       240
BOS       13       233
TOR       13       203
DAL       11       167
CHA       12       164
DET       11       158
LAC        8       151
WAS       12       151
HOU       14       148

Team    Players   Games
UTA       13       144
LAL        6       139
CLE       11       136
MIN       10       131
GSW        9       130
NJN       11       129
ORL       10       124
DEN       12       119
MIA        9       116
NYK        9        95

Team    Players   Games
MEM       10        91
SAS       11        90
SAC        8        89
PHX        9        84
ATL        9        66
IND        9        63
CHI        4        58
NOH       10        53
OKC        7        53
PHI        7        41
Average   10       128

Nobody has had it worse in terms of the sheer number of injuries than the Milwaukee Bucks. Basically, every player on the Milwaukee roster has missed time, including extended absences for Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. The Portland Trail Blazers haven't been beset by injuries quite as badly as they were a year ago, but a pair of Portland players (Greg Oden and rookie Elliot Williams) have missed the entire season due to knee surgery. So has Jeff Pendergraph, who doesn't count here because he was waived after tearing his ACL. Having centers Oden, Pendergraph and Joel Przybilla all sidelined at the start of the year forced Nate McMillan to rely on Sean Marks and Fabricio Oberto for rotation minutes.

At the other extreme, good fortune with injuries has been one reason the Philadelphia 76ers have turned things around this season. That changed slightly with last week's ill-timed strained hamstring that will likely end Louis Williams' regular season and might sideline him during the playoffs. Regression to the mean in terms of injuries figured to bring the Oklahoma City Thunder--one of last year's healthiest teams--back to earth, but Oklahoma City has been nearly as healthy as a year ago.

The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, represent why talking about injuries is so difficult. Overcoming injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has been cited as an explanation for why Derrick Rose is a deserving MVP candidate. Replacing players like Boozer and Noah is difficult, but otherwise Chicago has enjoyed amazing health this season. Just two other Bulls players have missed time: Taj Gibson for two games and Rose himself for one. Nobody in the NBA has had fewer players suffer injuries, and the Bulls rank near the bottom of the league in terms of games missed.

Clearly, treating an injury to Daniel Orton the same as one to Dwight Howard is silly. For a better perspective on the actual cost of injuries to each team, let's consider the minutes lost: Minutes per game when healthy multiplied by games missed. Also listed is the number of players who average at least 25 minutes who have missed time.

Team    Minutes    25+
MIL       5512       5
BOS       4887       4
TOR       4784       5
DET       3993       4
WAS       3866       6
POR       3837       3
LAC       3633       5
CLE       3633       6
DAL       3594       4
CHA       3104       2

Team    Minutes    25+
MIN       2954       4
HOU       2936       4
DEN       2918       9
MIA       2889       4
UTA       2524       6
NJN       2465       4
NYK       2389       5
GSW       2315       2
MEM       2079       4
CHI       1903       3

Team    Minutes    25+
LAL       1894       1
SAC       1783       2
IND       1573       5
ORL       1560       5
SAS       1492       5
ATL       1441       6
OKC       1291       4
NOH       1092       4
PHX       1005       4
PHI        788       2
Average   2671     4.2

From this perspective, three teams have been hit much harder by injury than anyone else. We've discussed the Bucks, but the Boston Celtics have had a variety of rotation players sidelined throughout the season. Of course, given the risks the Celtics took on injury-prone veterans (notably the O'Neals), this isn't particularly surprising. The Toronto Raptors have had six rotation players miss at least 10 games.

The Sixers' incredible good fortune with injuries is even more evident from this perspective. Other than Andre Iguodala, the Philadelphia players who have missed time have generally been deep on the bench. The other team that stands out is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have lost just one of their top eight players for any games at all (Andrew Bynum). Every other starter, plus Lamar Odom, has played every game, meaning Phil Jackson has had the luxury of changing his lineup just once all season. That's remarkable.

For one final look at the issue, let's rank teams by the WARP they've lost, using the same method of per-game averages when healthy multiplied by games missed. (Using 2009-10 figures for a handful of players and 2008-09 performance for Kelenna Azubuike, who has missed the better part of two years because of a ruptured patella tendon, as well as zeroing out the figure for players below replacement level so as not to imply that their injuries are a good thing.)

Team      WARP
POR       13.0
HOU        9.0
MIL        8.3
DEN        6.7
CHI        6.2
TOR        6.2
LAC        5.5
BOS        5.5
LAL        5.4
CLE        5.1

Team      WARP
DET        4.4
NYK        4.0
CHA        3.7
UTA        3.6
MEM        3.5
DAL        3.4
ORL        3.1
IND        2.5
SAS        2.5
MIA        2.4

Team      WARP
MIN        2.3
ATL        2.2
NJN        2.2
SAC        2.2
NOH        2.1
GSW        1.9
WAS        1.9
PHI        1.8
PHX        1.2
OKC        0.9
Average    4.1

The two most painful injuries, by this measure, were the Blazers losing Oden and the Houston Rockets losing Yao Ming. Based on his dominant but brief 2009-10 performance, Oden alone rates as more valuable than any other team's combined injuries, while Yao's value is not far behind. My friend M. Haubs of The Painted Area, who inspired this study, has pointed out that the two centers being sidelined may not get enough play given how well their teams have played recently without them.

Emphasizing quality over quantity of injuries also tends to give more credence to the notion that the Bulls have had a lot to overcome in terms of health. They vault all the way to fifth in the league. Noah ranks as the third most significant injury behind Oden and Yao. Of course, this doesn't take into account the quality of the replacements Chicago had on hand. The Bulls scarcely missed Noah because Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik played so well in his absence.

Which of these injury measures is the best? On their own, I don't think any one of them tells a complete story. Using WARP understates the problems created by injury cascades at the same position and other scenarios that reduce the quality of the available replacements. Looking at minutes tends to overstate the value of players on weaker teams who are seeing extended playing time largely for the lack of a superior alternative.

Fortunately, most of the time the three different measures are in relative agreement. We can safely agree that Milwaukee's poor season explained at least in some part by injuries, while staying healthy has been a major factor in the success of the 76ers and the Thunder.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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