Adapt or die.
Such is the life of a recovering NBA superstar. They hurt themselves, bust their tail during rehab, return, and then it begins.
Resumption doesn't end when a star is "healthy." We're seeing that right now with the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade and the Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard. We're going to see more of it as Kobe Bryant navigates his return even further.
Serious injuries can change everything. Young or old, you're fair game, and the residual effects can be cruel and unforgiving, cold-hearted and career-altering.
Getting healthy is the beginning. Remaining healthy and effective is the subsequent process—the grueling battle.
Failure to adapt puts a recovering star at risk. Past dispositions, if unchanged, will either re-aggravate injuries or become impossible to reclaim, leaving those who have been harmed to adjust or bow out with their shoulders drooped and reputations permanently damaged.
Preposterous, right? Dwight Howard? Adapting? Believe it, bucko.
Back and shoulder injuries have curbed Howard's athletic abilities since 2011-12. The same kind of explosion and mobility just isn't there, forcing him to play a more gnarled style than he was before.
On the offensive side of the ball is where we see the greatest evidence of a change in Howard, though not necessarily a decline. His points per-game averages have been on a steady descent since 2010-11, gradually decreasing to what they are now at 17 a night.
Shifting from one team to the next definitely has something to do with it. Howard went from the Orlando Magic, where he was the focal point, to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was a marginalized component in Mike D'Antoni's offense. Now, he's with the Houston Rockets, where James Harden is the No. 1 option and he's surrounded by other ball-dominators.
But our biggest clues aren't necessarily in the raw numbers. They're not readily apparent in how much he's scoring every night. Evidence is found in how he's scoring.
Over the last three years or so, the percentage of points Howard has scored in transition and his number of dunks are down—in some cases, way down.
Play styles once again catch our attention. If teams don't run, the points in transition, and likely the volume dunks as well, won't follow suit. But the Rockets rank ninth in points scored in transition this season, suggesting the decline in totals is linked more directly to Howard's athletic state than Houston's offense.
Compensating for his new limits will require Howard do any number of things to remain the same, dominant big man he was in Orlando. Starting to hit a higher percentage of his free throws is a good place to start.
Teams foul Howard like crazy—I move that we call this strategy "Deck a Dwight" moving forward—and he's leaving points on the board. The 55.4 percent conversion rate he's posting at the charity stripe this season is his highest since 2010-11—and that's still pretty awful.
Becoming a more frequent pick-and-roll player would benefit the behemoth as well. Howard has always preferred post-ups to pick-and-rolls—going against the numbers—for some strange reason. Now, with his explosion ebbing, easy buckets are paramount.
The Rockets will want to see more passing out of Howard, too. Drawing in defenses, only to kick the rock out to an open shooter, is ideal. Basically, as his physical abilities continue to shift, you want to see Howard work more within the pick-and-roll as his post-up percentages decline rather then maintain a higher assist percentage consistently, which he hasn't.
Hoarding rebounds and playing defense renders Howard an asset, even if his offensive sets regress into occasions of uncoordinated mush. However, if he plans on staying at the top of his game and registering nightly double-doubles, he must make more adjustments or risk fading away.
Injuries, sminjuries. Wade is going to get the job done. That's what he does. It's like a cycle; an unfortunate, reliable cycle.
Wade plays well; Wade gets injured; Wade comes back; Wade dominates to no end.
Spring of 2013 revealed a different trend. During the playoffs, Wade was hurt, and it showed. Only this time, there were no miraculous, longstanding spans of dominance. Glimpses into what Wade is still capable of were seen, but those transitory ganders were just that—temporary and fleeting.
Health has continued to be an issue this season. Wade has already missed six games, as the Heat continue to take precautions, in order to ensure that he is available when it matters most. When Wade is available, he hasn't been as effective. His 52.9 percent shooting would be a career high, but his 18.5 points per game and usage rate (27.8) would both be the lowest that he's notched since his rookie season. The 33.6 minutes a night he's averaging would be a career worst as well.
Panic hasn't ensued because, well, LeBron James is still alive. Next to him, Wade is the perfect complementary piece as a quintessential No. 2. But what if he was even better?
Vast majorities of Wade's points come at the rim, off of reckless attacks that the almost-32-year-old with an extensive history of knee problems has no business in waging. At this point in his career, Wade would be best served as a predominant jump shooter and secondary playmaker, who is able to explode from the outside while showing off his acute court vision.
So far, so good on the distribution front. Wade's handing out more than five assists per game, and his assist percentage is above 25 for a third consecutive season.
Shooting still isn't his strong suit, though, and never has been. He's knocking down just 25 percent of his three-balls, and most of his baskets continue to come within eight feet of the rim:
For further reference, here's how he's performing within different ranges this season:
|Less Than 8 ft.||57||88||64.8%|
|24+ ft.||2||8||25.0 %|
While Wade continues to favor point-blank opportunities, this season has seen more of his attempts come outside of eight feet. Since LeBron's arrival in 2010-11, at least 50 percent of all of Wade's shot attempts had come within that range. This year, only 42.7 percent of his shots are coming within eight feet.
If nothing else, that's a good start, and proof that Wade is changing, even if only slightly. But more adjustments need to be made. Wade is shooting just over 44 percent outside of eight feet, and he's terrible from deep. That must change.
Adapting to dwindling athleticism by becoming a more frequent and efficient jump shooter—especially from deep—saves him a lot of wear and tear.
It might even help add a few seasons to his abating shelf life.
Cue the Darth Vader music.
Officially back, the Black Mamba finds himself in a similar situation as that of Wade. Diminished athleticism and explosion will have him searching for different ways to score, and for different ways to remain effective.
Bryant is seeking different ways to prove himself worth every penny of that $48.5 million extension he received.
Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni has already indicated that will entail the Mamba playing some point guard.
"Kobe will play some point guard because of Farmar's status and Steve Nash's status," he said, according to the Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.
Manning the point will be good for Kobe. It doesn't take the ball out of his hands, but it also doesn't demand that he attack the rim like it's 2006. This was a role he familiarized himself with only last season, too, tying a career high by dishing out six assists per game.
Then there's the whole shooting thing. Unlike Wade, Kobe has already started to doctor his scoring tendencies. Prior to his injury, attacking the rim was still Kobe's bread and butter, but not as many of his shots were coming close to the basket.
In his lone game since returning from injury, we saw the same shift, only more so. Barely 20 percent of Kobe's shot attempts came at, or around, the rim. The rest originated from the perimeter, including 33 percent from downtown.
Kobe has been already preparing for this shift. Age got to him before injury. Last season, he wasn't a perpetual rim-rocker. He had his moments, but he developed into more of a perimeter-oriented scorer and a passer.
This transition must continue now that he's both older and working his way back from a career-threatening injury. Unless he wants his production and (on-court) value to perish amid physical regression and rising limitations, he must continue to adjust.
He must adapt.
Athletes cannot stay young forever. They aren't invincible or divine—they're human.
Age will get the best of NBA stars. There comes a time when there's no escaping it. Injuries are a similar evil. They change everything, even if subtly.
It doesn't matter if you're Howard, who's not quite as spry; Wade, who's fluently battled injuries for over a decade; or Kobe, a 35-year-old oddity, trying to show superstars can be superstars long after their "time."
Which injured/still-recovering superstar will remain the most effective moving forward?
Injuries, if they get you, don't end with that moment or that final rehab session. They don't step aside as you re-enter the lineup for the first time. After a serious setback, you're never fully healed. That injury is always there, impacting the way or frequency in which you play.
We're seeing plenty of stars skirmishing with this theory and the reality right now. Upon return, Rajon Rondo will be crossing swords with the same foe. Derrick Rose, too. They'll want to be themselves, the same players they were before.
But they won't be. It doesn't work like that—ever. Adjustments, however minor, must always be made and embraced. The graver the injury and older the player, the more drastic the change that needs to be made.
"But if it’s not there, I’m ready to adapt," Kobe said of his return, per B/R's Howard Beck.
He has to be. Howard has to be. Wade and so many others have to be. The injured or recovering must adapt or fade.
They will, adapt or die.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports (subscription required) and NBA.com (subscription required), and are accurate as of Dec. 10, 2013 unless otherwise noted.