Metrics 101: Which Teams Have Been Hit the Hardest by Injuries This Season?
They should go away forever. In every sport; not just the NBA. Nobody wants to see players dropping like flies, succumbing to the advances of the injury imp before sitting on the bench helplessly and watching their teammates do all the heavy lifting.
And yet, they're an unfortunate and inevitable part of sports.
The 2017-18 season has already forced far too many maladies upon the league's 30 teams. No one has completely escaped, though some squads have been hit significantly harder than others. It's those we want to identify, and we'll be doing so in entirely objective fashion.
To be clear (and this is extremely important), we're not projecting how long currently injured players will be out. We're looking only at value taken away from teams up to this point in the NBA calendar. Nothing that happens in the future matters, even for players like Gordon Hayward who were knocked out with season-ending blows.
Turning to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projections allows us to see the forecasted box plus/minus for each and every player—an all-encompassing box-score statistic that shows how many more points per 100 possessions the relevant player adds than a league-average contributor. A score of minus-2.0 is considered "replacement level" and serves as the expected output of someone teams could find off waivers, and it's that mark to which we'll be comparing the injured men.
Because roles in rotations are amorphous and largely unknown, we'll also be taking the necessary step of assuming each player receives 100 possessions in a game. They don't in reality. Few players ever suit up for long enough in a single contest. But they could, and that's the point.
So let's circle back to Hayward. His CARMELO projection pegs him as a borderline All-Star with an expected 2.9 BPM. That's 4.9 points per 100 possessions more than replacement level, and he's missed six of Boston's first seven games. Therefore, he contributes 29.4 injury points to Boston's tally.
Is that enough to push the C's to the top spot? Every injury matters, after all.
Unfortunately Honorable Mentions
Philadelphia 76ers: 23.0
Joel Embiid has only needed one maintenance day thus far, which prevents the Philadelphia 76ers from rising into a featured spot. The big man is so ridiculously talented that any extended absence would change the team's fortunes in drastic fashion, but the worst-case scenarios have all been avoided.
Instead, the biggest injuries have been Markelle Fultz's mysterious shoulder situation, Richaun Holmes' fractured wrist and back tightness for JJ Redick. Those are disappointing blows that suck away some of the team's depth, but none are disastrous—especially after Fultz has struggled throughout the opening salvo of his freshman campaign.
Chicago Bulls: 23.5
Technically, all the absences in the Windy City could be viewed positively.
The Chicago Bulls aren't going to contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, so injuries to rotation members just push them closer to earning the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Of course, that won't make them feel any better about the lost value stemming from Zach LaVine (ACL tear last year), Kris Dunn (dislocated left index finger), Nikola Mirotic (fractured bones in face) and Cameron Payne (fractured right foot) spending time on the pine.
Technically, Bobby Portis' suspension could be considered injury-related, as well.
Toronto Raptors: 23.8
Subjectively, the Toronto Raptors' injuries have been more impactful than their raw score would indicate.
Missing Jonas Valanciunas (sprained left ankle) and Lucas Nogueira (sprained left ankle) simultaneously created a gigantic hole at the 5, forcing the Canadian representatives to start Pascal Siakam alongside Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That didn't turn out too poorly, though, as Toronto first lost a close contest to the Golden State Warriors before beating the Los Angeles Lakers.
However, the Raptors have avoided other injuries to all of their key players, with Ibaka (right knee swelling) serving as the only other rotation member missing even a single contest. The ankle trouble of the centers is the biggest story, limiting them to a combined five appearances in the team's first six contests.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Biggest Loss: Isaiah Thomas
Notable Players Missing Time: Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade
Injury points lost: 26.8
In a 114-93 loss to the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers had to go in an unexpected direction.
When teams strode out to midcourt for the opening tip, the Cavs' leading quintet was comprised of LeBron James, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and...Jose Calderon. That's correct. The 36-year-old floor general who's far past his prime drew the start and was so ineffective that one game later the Cavs rolled out a makeshift unit against the Brooklyn Nets featuring James at the 1.
Cleveland expected to be without Thomas, since the ex-Boston Celtic is still recovering from a brutal labral tear in his hip that never seemed to generate a definitive timetable. That's still a massive loss—he ranked No. 13 overall in my season-end countdown of the league's best players in April and made the All-NBA second team during his final year in green—but at least it was known he'd be out of the lineup heading into the 2017-18 campaign.
More unexpected, though less detrimental, was Derrick Rose's absence.
Granted, the Cavs could've reasonably assumed Rose would miss a few games during his first season in Northeast Ohio. He hasn't exactly been the picture of health recently. But it took him just two games to sprain an ankle and miss time, and he's participated in only three of the team's seven opening contests.
Throw in Dwyane Wade's bruised left knee and Iman Shumpert's right knee soreness, and you have a contending team scrambling to find chemistry and cohesive minutes. The fact that two of the most significant maladies affected the same position is even more troubling, though that's a subjective factor that can't boost Cleveland toward the top (bottom?) of these rankings.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Biggest Loss: Kawhi Leonard
Notable Players Missing Time: Joffrey Lauvergne, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker
Injury points lost: 47.7
Losing Joffrey Lauvergne doesn't matter too much, especially given the wealth of bigger options head coach Gregg Popovich has at his disposal. Lest we forget, the 6'11" Frenchman split time between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls last season, averaging 13.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes but struggling with both efficiency and defense.
His BPM of minus-3.2 represented a big step back after his sophomore season with the Denver Nuggets (minus-2.3), and FiveThirtyEight's projection of minus-2.1 still didn't expect him to become better than replacement level (minus-2.0).
Ditto for Tony Parker, for whom the CARMELO metric forecasted a rise from a career-worst minus-3.0 to minus-2.5. The veteran point guard was far better during the San Antonio Spurs' 2017 playoff run, but it's still hard to objectively claim his absence was too detrimental when it paved the way for a partial Dejounte Murray breakout. Between the sophomore 1-guard, Patty Mills and a few lesser options, San Antonio still has firepower at the point.
But replacing Kawhi Leonard is impossible.
The presumed MVP candidate is still recovering from right quad tendinopathy, and his timetable is uncertain. Maybe he'll return in the beginning of November. Maybe he'll be out for a while longer. Either way, his absence has been felt.
The Spurs have been just fine on defense without the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but they can't replicate his shot-creation and high-scoring habits. Last year, they were able to put up just 105.2 points per 100 possessions with Leonard off the floor, and they've posted a 102 offensive rating during their first six games without him in 2017-18.
At this point, the 26-year-old small forward is just someone not even the Spurs can replace.
3. Charlotte Hornets
Biggest Loss: Nicolas Batum
Notable Players Missing Time: Nicolas Batum, Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone, Cody Zeller
Injury points lost: 48.5
The fact the Charlotte Hornets are a featured squad shouldn't be surprising.
Losing minutes from Michael Carter-Williams (sore knee) and Julyan Stone (strained left hamstring) is a big deal for a squad that was so notoriously dependent upon its starting point guard. Kemba Walker wore down as the season dragged on last year, and he's wholly responsible for Charlotte's offensive success. This season, we're seeing a similar trend, as the team's points scored drops by—I promise this is a real stat—35.8 points per 100 possessions without him.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned absences have already pushed Walker to play 35.7 minutes per game, and that's not a sustainable pace. Pair those injuries with Cody Zeller's bone bruise in his right knee and the torn ligament in Nicolas Batum's left elbow, and the Hornets are obvious inclusions.
What's more surprising is that Zeller's injury, which knocked him out of action for all but three of Charlotte's first seven outings, is deemed almost as impactful as Batum's, despite the French swingman not yet suiting up in 2017-18.
That gap will most assuredly grow as the season progresses. Batum was originally supposed to miss somewhere between six and 12 weeks, and his absence dragging on a while longer will force him to accrue more lost value. Zeller, meanwhile, has already returned to the lineup after his four-game absence.
But FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projections peg the big man as a "borderline All-Star" with a 2.6 BPM (he was at 2.1 last year) and forecast the smaller Hornet's BPM falling from 2016-17's 1.2 to 0.9 as an "average starter."
Even though Batum might enjoy the more sterling reputation while Zeller labors away in relative obscurity, content to do all the little things like functioning as one of the NBA's deadliest screeners, the latter is more valuable.
2. Boston Celtics
Biggest Loss: Gordon Hayward
Notable Players Missing Time: Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Guerschon Yabusele
Injury points lost: 59.6
Until another major injury occurs to a superstar (fingers crossed that never happens), the Boston Celtics will be the odds-on favorites to hold down the No. 1 slot in a future edition of these rankings. We're looking at only the lost value so far, but Gordon Hayward's absences will continue to pile up after undergoing surgery to repair the dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia suffered in gruesome fashion just minutes into his C's debut.
Hayward is likely to sit out for the remaining portion of the 2017-18 campaign. So given 81 missed appearances and a CARMELO projection of 2.9 BPM, he alone would lead to a score of 396.9 by the end of the year.
And Boston has already proved it isn't impervious to other attacks from the injury imp.
Guerschon Yabusele's rookie season got off to a delayed start after the big man fell ill at the start of the calendar. Marcus Morris' sore right knee has pushed back his Boston debut, and he'll likely provide some solid two-way value when he returns. Marcus Smart has already missed time with a sore ankle.
Injuries are part of the game, but the Celtics can legitimately feel like they've already had some rotten luck.
Fortunately, they have the depth to overcome the early blows. Losing Hayward and playing without Morris afforded Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown opportunities to develop on the floor, and they've both seized those chances in positive fashion. Daniel Theis has been a beneficial presence in the frontcourt, while Semi Ojeleye has acquitted himself defensively.
It's unfortunate Boston needs a silver lining this soon, but at least it has one.
1. Houston Rockets
Biggest Loss: Chris Paul
Notable Players Missing Time: Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Nene Hilario, Chris Paul
Injury points lost: 73.0
Chris Paul (projected by CARMELO at a staggering 6.2 BPM) is the big loss here.
The much-ballyhooed offseason addition suited up alongside James Harden for just one game before a left knee contusion sidelined him. And though the fit wasn't perfect during Paul's 33 minutes on the floor, perfection never should've been the immediate expectation. Paul and his bearded counterpart needed to learn how to play alongside one another, and no one should be rushing to judge the duo too quickly.
Even though Houston has found success with its new point guard wearing street clothes, this remains a massive loss—more on the level of Kawhi Leonard (an MVP threat) than Gordon Hayward (an All-Star falling just shy of the same type of celestial status).
But that's not the only blow the Rockets have been forced to endure.
A sprained left foot forced Trevor Ariza to miss two contests. Illness knocked Eric Gordon, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, out of the lineup. The 35-year-old version of Nene Hilario dealt with a sore left Achilles that prevented him from providing steady minutes behind Clint Capela. These are all big losses to legitimate rotation members, which makes it even more impressive Houston has raced out to a 5-3 start.
The short-term timeframe of Paul's knee trouble should eventually let this bunch move out of the top spot. None of these injuries should have long-term repercussions, which can't be said about Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, Nicolas Batum and others already shelved.
But thus far, no other squad has had to deal with injuries to a star and three other rotation members.