Grading the Performance of Every NBA Star Who Returned from Injury 2005-13
Every player recovers from injury differently. And while we always hope that injured players will come back better than ever, some players just can’t reach the level that they once did. It’s impossible to tell what Derrick Rose’s return will be like, but it’s at least worth looking at how other great players have performed after coming back from a serious injury recently.
It’s not all just about what the player does over the next season or two—it’s about how they perform over the entirety of their career (or their career so far). It’s all about bouncing back from injury without missing a beat.
(Note: Whether or not a player gets re-injured has no bearing in their grade. This is simply a measure of how well they were able to play following their injury.)
There was a time when Gilbert Arenas could drop 30 points without blinking and was known more for his explosive drives to the hoop rather than a silly locker room dispute. You can probably guess what happened.
At the tail end of the 2006-07 season—a season in which he was averaging 28 points per game—Arenas tore the meniscus in his left knee and required surgery. It ended up being one of three operations performed on the knee in just a 17-month span. Arenas played in just 15 games from 2007-09 and was never the same again.
The surgeries sapped “Agent Zero” of his quickness and athleticism and—combined with the aforementioned locker room incident—caused him to quickly wear out his welcome with the Washington Wizards. After largely forgettable stints with the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies, Arenas signed with a Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks, in November of 2012 (per ABS-CBNnews.com).
The good news is that Arenas seems to be having fun again. He recently told SlamOnline.com’s Karan Madhok that he’s enjoying the game in China, saying:
You know, that’s all basketball is. If someone loves something, and you take it away, it’s like, what does he do now? What does someone do? That’s what happened with me in the last couple of years in the NBA when I went to Orlando, and then I got benched. And I was in Memphis and I wasn’t playing. It was just like, why do I wanna keep doing this? So then when I got the chance to come to China to play…OK! As long as I get to play.
Even the newest of fans know Brandon Roy's story, so there's no real need to rehash it. And while the story is, as of yet, incomplete, Roy has indicated that he may be ready to move on from his playing days (via Chris Haynes of Comcast Sportsnet).
Statistically, Roy has come nowhere close to where he was before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees in 2011. He averaged just 12 points per game during the 2010-11 season and just six per game last season (though he chipped in almost five assists per game to go along with that).
But, you know what? Roy avoids a failing grade anyways, if only because of his Game 4 performance against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals, where he went off for 18 points in the fourth quarter.
If you're an NBA fan, you've probably seen the highlights a bazillion times, but watch them again anyways. If the sight of Roy heading toward the locker room, fist in the air as the Rose Garden roars its approval for one of the last times doesn't give you goosebumps, then I don't know what will. That was a moment.
Tracy McGrady never seemed to have any luck. A pure scorer in the mold of George Gervin, McGrady spent the majority of his prime carrying an abysmal Orlando Magic team to the playoffs and getting beaten and bruised in the process.
In fact, it wasn’t until the seventh year of McGrady’s career—when he teamed up with Yao Ming on the Houston Rockets—that he was paired with a second star who could help him out. But by then, it was too late.
My first year here, I felt like I was that same type of guy that was in the Magic uniform, that I could go out and get 30 or 40 every night. At this point right now, I don't feel that way. I feel like the last few years my game has diminished a little bit. I don't know if it's because I'm older, because of the injuries or what, but I feel that I'm a step slower.
But though McGrady was able to somewhat battle through his back issues (he was still averaging over 20 points per game despite deferring more to Yao), he required surgery on his shoulder and knee in 2008 (per the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen) and was never the same.
McGrady spent just one more year in Houston, followed by stints with the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks—none of whom he was able to average double figures for. However, McGrady gets a near-average grade because though he certainly performed worse after his 2008 surgery, he was on a slow decline regardless of the operation.
He was simply asked to do too much for too long. Can’t fault him for that.
Deron Williams is a tough guy to hand a grade to.
There's no question that Brooklyn Nets guard's play has suffered since he had surgery on his right wrist following the 2010-11 season. The question is: How much of that has to do with the injury, and how much of that just has to do with other factors?
Williams has struggled with the Nets. His basic numbers look okay—he's averaging 19.7 points and 8.2 assists per game in the two seasons following the trade—but he's shooting terribly and clearly isn't the same player who some once considered the best point guard in the game.
While a lot of people have blamed injuries, Williams himself said that he simply preferred the Utah Jazz's system, telling the New York Times' Howard Beck:
That system was a great system for my style of play. I’m a system player. I love Coach Sloan’s system. I loved the offense there.
The numbers would appear to back Williams' claims. He's taking just 2.6 shots per game at the rim this season (his career low in Utah was 4.2 attempts per game according to HoopData), and he would have no real reason to hide his injuries. It could just be that Williams wasn't what he was cracked up to be in the first place.
Whatever the reasons, Williams' play has suffered tremendously since his surgery. Only time will tell if he ever gets back to what he was in Utah.
By the end of the Miami Heat’s 2005-06 championship season, Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t the dominant force he once was.
He was still a great player—no doubt about that—but Shaq averaged just 20 points and nine rebounds per game throughout the year and seemed more than willing to let Dwyane Wade do a lot of the heavy lifting for the squad.
That’s why it comes as no surprise that Shaquille O’Neal’s play dropped after he needed knee surgery at the start of the 2006-07 season (per ESPN.com). The year marked the first time in Shaq's career that he failed to average 20 points per game (he averaged 17 points), and his 7.4 rebounds per game were by far his career low.
You could choose to blame that (and his fairly average stints with the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics) on his injury, or simply chock it up to what it probably was—age. Shaq was 34 years old. He’d been tasked with being “the man” on his team for 14 years at that point.
Shaq was as dominant as they come, but that was eventually going to wear him down. And that’s why he gets a relatively solid grade. It doesn’t seem fair to slam him for not tossing up 30-20s at that stage in his career.
I know what you're thinking and, no, the injury in question has nothing to do with a fire extinguisher.
Back in 2005, Amar'e Stoudemire was just 22 years old, coming off of an outstanding statistical season and developing a reputation for doing stuff like this.
Unfortunately, Amar'e was also having ongoing knee problems and had to have microfracture surgery on his left knee in October. It resulted in his playing just three games throughout the 2005-06 season.
The good news—Amar'e didn't lose any athleticism at all. At least, not in the short term. He posted stellar statistical seasons from 2006-11, continued to wow fans with his hops and put more than a few guys up on posters.
It's impossible to toss Amar'e an “A” because his knees have really slowed him over the past two years. He just underwent another surgery two weeks ago, and concerns over his knees were actually so bad that contract with the Knicks isn't insured (per Sporting News). Still though, Amar'e's post-surgery time with the Suns is easily enough to earn the big man a passing grade.
If you forgot that Kevin Garnett had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2009, it's probably because you were still reeling from the incredible Boston Celtics-Chicago Bulls series that had taken place just before. Don't worry; you're forgiven.
The surgery (as well as a hyperextended right knee) slowed Garnett for the early part of the 2009-10 season and primarily prevented him from crashing the glass. However, as the season went on, Garnett looked more and more like himself (per ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg).
Even four years later, there's been very little decline in Garnett's game. He's averaging just 0.5 less points and boards per 36 minutes than he did in 2008-09 (via Basketball-Reference), and while he can't play the sideline-to-sideline defense that he could in his prime, that's more a product of age than anything.
Garnett's still blowing up pick-and-rolls, playing outstanding man defense and acting way too intense at all times. In other words: He's playing just like Kevin Garnett.
Paul's game used to be based around his speed and his first step. For the first few years of his career, there wasn't a defender alive who could stay in front of him. It just didn't happen. That's not the case anymore. He's still able to beat defenders off the dribble, but there are guys who can stick with him. Not many, but some.
Paul doesn't explode to the rim anymore—he weaves his way there or dances through defenders until he's open for a mid-range jumper. Ryan Schwan of Hornets247 wrote about this very thing for ESPN.com a few years back, saying:
He's still quick, elusive and able to free himself and his teammates for baskets, but these days, his play in the half court is almost entirely reliant on misdirection and clever ballhandling. He goes to the basket less, but compensates by shooting at a better clip than ever before. With his strength and low center of gravity intact, he often relies on running into opposing players to force them to retreat and give him room to shoot.
This sequence against the Los Angeles Lakers is a great example. Pre-injury Chris Paul would have just blown by Andrew Bynum. Post-injury Chris Paul chose to fool him with some crafty crossovers and then hit the mid-range jumper.
Ultimately though, the result was the same—two points for Paul. And that's still the most important thing.
Now that LeBron James is helping him and the Miami Heat roll opponents nightly, it's difficult to remember a time when Dwyane Wade had to carry the Heat alone. But from 2006-10, that's what Wade was tasked with. And he took an absolute beating trying to do it.
Most of Wade's injuries were minor and limited him for games at a time. But he also had surgery on his left shoulder and knee following the 2006-07 season and surgery on his left knee again over this past offseason. The result? No change in Wade's game whatsoever.
Wade averaged 25 points, seven assists and four rebounds the year after his first two surgeries, and had his greatest statistical season ever (he averaged a 30-7-5) the year following that. And if the Heat's success this season isn't enough to convince you that Wade is feeling good right now, he's also averaging a 22-5-5 and posting one of the highest True Shooting percentages of his career (per Basketball-Reference).
It's actually remarkable that a player like Wade—who's never even been an average outside shooter—has been so effective despite all of his injuries. Truly awesome to watch.
There's not much new to say about Kobe Bryant when it comes to playing through and recovering from injury. Just know that he's been in the league for 17 seasons, has had multiple serious knee surgeries, and he's still enjoying one of the best offensive seasons of his career at the ripe age of 34.
Also, he might be a cyborg.
Though Yao Ming was fully healthy over the first three seasons of his career (he missed just two games), numerous foot, ankle and knee injuries caused him to miss over 200 games from 2005-11, including the entire 2009-10 season (per ESPN.com).
But even though Yao's injuries forced him to sit out a lot of games, they never seemed to slow him down when he did lace up. In fact, Yao's per 36 minute numbers during his injury-plagued seasons were actually better than his three healthy years.
According to Basketball-Reference, from 2005-11, Yao never averaged less than 20 points or 10 rebounds per 36 minutes and dipped below 50 percent shooting just once (and that was only a five-game sample in 2010-11).
Unlike big men like Dwight Howard or Amar'e Stoudemire, Yao's game was based entirely on finesse (and height) rather than athleticism. No one in the league was more skilled than Yao on the low block, and his turnaround jumper belongs in the Unblockable Shot Hall of Fame with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook. In all honesty, post-injury and pre-injury, Yao was pretty much the exact same player.
His career may have been injury-riddled, but Yao always delivered the goods. That's for sure.
Dealing with a potential loss of athleticism would be difficult for any player. Recovering from a loss of vision would be downright impossible.
But that’s exactly the situation that San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker was facing after he suffered a bizarre eye injury at a nightclub over this past offseason. Parker had to have eye surgery after a fight broke out in the club and a shard of glass “penetrated 99 percent” of his left eye (per ESPN.com).
Parker said (per ESPN.com):
Fear sets in. An eye is so fragile. ... I couldn't believe it. But that's life. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn't have luck, but I came out well from my misfortune. It could have been worse. The rest of my career is not in question. I just have to wait for the injury to heal itself.
Parker sounded pretty sure that he was going to make a full recovery, but he came close to completely losing his eye. It’s not far-fetched to think that his game could have really suffered. Of course, he’s currently putting up 21 points and eight assists per game while posting a True Shooting percentage of 60 percent (per Basketball-Reference), which is easily his best season ever. So maybe thinking that was far-fetched.
Anyways, needless to say, Tony Parker’s getting top marks.