Chicago Bulls Prove Health Is Under-the-Radar Factor in NBA Playoff Success

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 08: Enes Kanter #0 of the Utah Jazz shoots between Loul Deng #9 and Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on March 8, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Jazz 89-88. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This year, the Chicago Bulls have been plodding through a series of injuries. But right now, they are getting healthier, and they will prove that health matters in NBA playoff success.

The basic facts speak volumes. Just look at what’s happened when they are injured this year.

When the Chicago Bulls have had their starting five, they’ve been 18-8.  When they’ve been without one starter, they’ve gone 14-16.  When they’ve had three or fewer starters, they’ve gone 12-14. Amazingly they’ve been without two or more starters for 26 games this season.

And that’s not including the injuries to their rotation. In all, the Bulls have 98 games missed from key rotation players, a sum which does not include games missed by end-of-the-bench players like Vladimir Radmanovic or Marquis Teague.

And they don’t miss all players equally. This Mike McGraw tweet reveals what the Bulls record is in the games which each rotation player missed:

Bear in mind that you can’t take things in isolation. For example, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah both missed several games at the same time. Were only one or the other out, it would have been easier for one defensive-minded big to compensate for the other, but with both out they suffered more.

A fascinating blog entry from Jacob Grinyer at SB Nation reveals some interesting details about teams and injury history. He went through a decade of roster histories, compiled the data and analyzed it. This is his synthesis, with the italics being my oversimplification of his oversimplification.

Simplifying everything and ignoring all outside factors, basically this graph would tell you that the average team with zero injuries starts out with 49 wins. Then, for every game lost by one of the top 9 rotation players, a team loses on average 0.1 wins. Since the average team had around 80 games lost due to injuries per year, that means the average team won 41 games (internal consistency, huzzah!). Again, this is really oversimplifying it, but it provides a general idea of how injuries impact a team. The regression's r-squared is fairly low at just 0.16, but the coefficient of 0.1 is statistically significant from zero: the 95% confidence interval suggests between 0.078 and 0.128 wins are lost for each game missed due to injury. Ideally you'd specify a much more complete regression factoring in all the other aspects which impact wins and losses, but as a first approximation it's worth considering. Overall, the closer to the bottom left the more underachieving the team, the closer to the top right the more overachieving the team.

Based on his data, the most games missed by a winning team was the 2006 Dallas Mavericks, who remarkably went to the Finals in the same season.  .

Other teams with more than 100 games lost and a winning record were the the 2008 Cleveland Cavaliers, (127; 64-18), the 2009 Chicago Bulls, (116 games; 41-41), and the 2011 Celtics (110 games; 56-26).

The Chicago Bulls, including the absence of Derrick Rose, have missed a staggering 180 games due to injury, making them far and away the hardest-hit team with a winning record.  

What makes this even more impressive is that while the Cavaliers might have had a very impressive win total, they did it with the MVP of the league only missing eight games. Of course, it makes James MVP that much more impressive, too.

The Bulls have straggled their way to a winning record in spite of their injury woes. In fact, their last game, on April 15, was only the third time since Jan. 2 that they had their full nine-man rotation in the game.

But therein is the key. They had their full nine-man rotation (minus Rose) in their last game. Even if we discount Rose, using Grinyer’s conclusions, the Bulls “lost” about 9.8 games due to injury his season, meaning they are closer to a 54-win team than a 44-win team.

That’s also consistent with their winning record if their starting line played the whole season. Based on their winning percentage featuring the full allotment of starters, they would project to 57-win team.

Obviously, it would be overly optimistic to assign a “perfect” health season to a team, but even if you look at the Bulls' injury woes above the average 40 player-games lost due to injury, it translates to six more actual wins, meaning that the Bulls, when healthy and without Rose, are a 50-win team.

If injuries translate into wins and losses in the regular season, how much more is that so in the postseason? Last year’s injuries first to Rose, then to Noah, and then to Gibson was the negative proof of that.

It’s a strange place for Bulls fans to be in as the postseason is about to start. The Bulls are actually better than their record right now, for the first time since Vinny Del Negro was coaching. While Noah and Gibson might be available for limited minutes, they will be available. They are actually healthier than they’ve been in months.

Certainly, you have to be good to succeed in the postseason, but it doesn’t hurt to be healthy. Having their full rotation available to them make the Bulls a dangerous team, with or without Rose.