It's with great anticipation that the 2012-13 NBA season approaches, free of all the labor-related disruptions of last fall and with lots famous new faces in new places. After welcome summer of a draft, mega-trades and free-agent signings, the hierarchy of the league has been shuffled, and we're busy trying to figure out who has landed where. Complicating the process is an unusual number of major injuries to upper-crust stars. When will they return? How effective will they be? How will they hold up?
These aren't the kind of questions we're really prepared to answer when it comes to generating statistical projections. We do know this: Whenever the surgeon's scalpel slices the skin of a person dependent upon his body for a living, there are inherent risks and a fair amount of uncertainty. Fortunately, as with so many things in the health industry, innovation follows the money and so sports medicine has made rapid advances since the days when the great Bernard King missed nearly two seasons in the mid-80s after blowing out his knee. Players recover faster and retain more of their original athleticism than ever before. That's good news for the likes of these guys:
Derrick Rose--One year he's becoming the league's youngest MVP; the next he's hobbling off the court in Chicago's first playoff game after jumping out of his knee in a scene eerily reminiscent of the injury King suffered more than 28 years before. We don't know when Rose will be back, but his prognosis is better than King's ever was and let's not forget that the latter came back and averaged more than 28 points per game one year.
Dwight Howard--Tinseltown is so atwitter over the arrival of the Lakers' latest mercenary big man, that people seem to forget that he had surgery in April to repair a herniated disk in his back. He's just now working his way back to game shape and may not be ready for the season opener. And, you know, it's his back. It's hard to dunk from the free throw line when it hurts to put on your pants.
Ricky Rubio--Like Rose, Rubio suffered a major knee injury when he went down in March after colliding with Kobe Bryant, as if the Lakers haven't done enough to undermine professional basketball in Minneapolis. Rubio had the "good" fortune of having his injury several weeks before the season ended, so the Timberwolves are hoping to have him available for more than half the season. But it's a knee injury, so you just don't know.
Dwyane Wade--The Heat won the title despite some uncharacteristically rough performances from LeBron James' running mate. Playing on a bum left knee, Wade shot 2 for 13 in one game against Indiana and put up just a .526 true shooting percentage -- the lowest he's ever had in a playoff or regular season. He went under the knife in July and spent the late summer promoting his book on fatherhood. How all this translates to his 2012-13 performance is a big, fat wild card.
So what's a forecaster to do? SCHOENE, our projection system, has method for projecting games. Of course. Here's our standard explainer for that: "Games played are projected for each player using a baseline estimate of 76 games played. From there, players are penalized one game for each six missed last season and one for each 20 missed two years ago, based upon research done by Houston Rockets analyst Ed Kupfer on projecting games played."
We also take into account injuries that we know will linger into the season, as well as any other game-draining factor like suspensions. When you roll it all up, we end up with the following games played forecasts: Rose 23, Howard 74, Wade 73 and Rubio 50. These projections feel about right but of course they have very wide error bars. One setback could cost Rose the entire season. Howard might hobble around like Herman Munster and go back on the shelf. Wade might write another book. Who knows?
While we can systemically estimate games played, what harder is to predict changes in performance level. We have an injury database and have studied the issue of diminished performance, but the fact of the matter is that there is as yet no method that can accurately project a player's post-injury level of play. Part of it is the old statistician's saw about small sample size, but another factor is the rapid evolution of sports medicine. A knee injury suffered today in very different than one suffered 10 years ago, much less 30 years ago when microfracture sounded more like a geological term. And then there is the matter of individual variation. Do you know Rose's capacity for quick healing? We sure don't.
These injuries provide a fascinating sub-current to the coming season because of the teams in play. The Bulls, Heat and Lakers would all be considered prime contenders for the title at full strength. Miami and Los Angeles will be a popular preseason pick for next June's Finals and those forecasts will be made under the assumption that Wade and Howard land somewhere close to the games-played projections we've got. The Bulls have been written off precisely because Rose isn't expected to contribute much in terms of court time and also because it's expected that he won't "be" Derrick Rose immediately upon returning. And let's not forget about Rubio because SCHOENE has pegged the Timberwolves as the breakout team in the league this season. That's a lot easier to envision with Rubio dishing it off Maravich-style to his new deep roster of teammates.
There is one final complication that these injuries serve up to forecasters: Picking a champion. Usually, the team you pick to win it all is the team that projects to win the most games. We know that doesn't always happen, but if a forecast represents a true talent level of a team, it in some ways can be more informative than even a team's regular season record, which can be affected by a billion hard-to-foresee factors. In the NBA, it's about getting your roster healthy and humming by the time the playoffs start.
That being the case, it will be important to remember that no matter how many games these players miss how good their teams are with them in the lineup. How good? If we go in and manually tweak those games played forecasts to 82 games for the four players we're discussing here, all of their teams project to win 56 or more games and finish with a top-two seed in their conference. Yes, that includes Minnesota. (Told you SCHOENE likes them.)
It's almost certainly not going to be the case that the Bulls, Lakers, Heat and Timberwolves will be viewed as the four likely conference finals entrants by the time next April rolls around. Not after a regular season blighted by injuries, rehab and the inevitable ramp-up period necessary for when these guys actually get on the court. However, don't forget what these teams are when they're fully intact. While the Heat and Lakers may well end up with one of those power seed, Chicago and Minnesota may struggle to get there with their star point guards missing so many games.
The end result may be some high drama in the early rounds. If Rose and Rubio return to full strength, look out -- no matter what your seed is, you won't want to face Chicago or Minnesota early in the playoffs. And if the injuries to Howard and Wade linger and force the Lakers and Heat down a seed or two, don't worry. As long as those guys return to form, their teams will still be the title contenders you expect them to be.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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