John Stockton (here in 2002) played in every game in 17 of his 19 years with the Jazz. (Sam Forencich/NBAE)
Regardless of how many tools your go-to handyman has in his belt, no matter his craftsmanship and creativity, it doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t show up to work. The same holds true for chefs, pilots, cubicle drones and, yes, NBA players.
“Staying healthy is a skill” is the way some old-school types have put it, and while that might be too broad – neglecting simple ingredients such as luck and good genes – there is no doubt that durability is an asset. To a player and to his team.
Injuries are back in the headlines due to Kevin Durant’s foot fracture, Bradley Beal’s wrist, Rajon Rondo’s hand, Paul George’s leg and assorted dings, bruises and sidelining setbacks around the league. The key word, unfortunately, is back.
In the first few months of 2013-14, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Russell Westbrook were ailing. The toll across several seasons before that included Rose, Horford, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Andrew Bynum, Chris Paul, David West and the sad arcs of Brandon Roy’s and Yao Ming’s careers.
Despite heavy media coverage, the NBA’s analysis suggested that the injury rate remained largely unchanged across multiple years. Numerous theories were floated in search of an explanation for what injuries there were. Too much year-round basketball at a young age, some said. Too many games in the NBA season, from pre- through regular right onto post-, argued others. Shoe technology, court size, strength training, nutrition — all were factors examined by some, ignored by others, without much consensus, never mind solutions.
And maybe that’s all the explanation we’ll ever get: Athletes get hurt.
“It’s not like they just started happening,” Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday, before his team’s preseason home game against Denver. “This is the way it’s been. If you look at anyone who’s played 10 years in this league, they usually have dealt with something. They had to get past something. Whether it was a knee injury, an ankle injury, a shoulder injury, wrist, finger, something. OK? So it’s all part of it.
“Hopefully you have the mental toughness to get through adversity. Most of these guys have it – you can’t get here without having that. But the injuries, it’s not like all of a sudden … we react like, we collect more data and injuries all of a sudden are something new. No, they’ve been a part of this league for a long time.”
How much a part? One way to gauge the durability of players is to check the rate at which they “showed up” for their teams on a given night. Call it a player’s “availability average,” as determined by his appearances as a percentage of his team’s total games during the same period.
Using regular-season games only, here are the availability averages for 25 NBA greats, all enshrined or likely to be in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame:
- 98.6%: John Stockton (1,504 of 1,526)
- 98.0%: Gary Payton (1,335 of 1,362)
- 97.5%: John Havlicek (1,270 of 1,303)
- 97.2%: Bill Russell (963 of 991)
- 96.7%: Karl Malone (1,476 of 1,526)
- 96.2%: Reggie Miller (1,389 of 1,444)
- 95.1%: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560 of 1,640)
- 93.4%: Michael Jordan (1,072 of 1,148)
- 92.7%: Wilt Chamberlain (1,045 of 1,17)
- 92.1%: Jason Kidd (1,391 of 1,510)
- 92.1%: Magic Johnson (906 of 984)
- 91.8%: Isiah Thomas (979 of 1,066)
- 91.7%: Oscar Robertson (1,040 of 1,134)
- 89.6%: Dominique Wilkins (1,074 of 1,198)
- 86.5%: Scottie Pippen (1,178 of 1,362)
- 85.7%: Hakeem Olajuwon (1,238 of 1,444)
- 85.3%: Moses Malone (1,329 of 1,558)
- 84.1%: Larry Bird (897 of 1,066)
- 82.2%: Jerry West (932 of 1,134)
- 81.9%: Allen Iverson (914 of 1,116)
- 79.4%: Tracy McGrady (938 of 1,182)
- 79.1%: Shaquille O’Neal (1,207 of 1,526)
- 78.8%: Charles Barkley (1,073 of 1,362)
- 75.7%: Elgin Baylor (846 of 1,117)
- 67.9%: Grant Hill (1,026 of 1,510)
Here, for comparison’s sake, are 25 of the league’s top active players (we’re assuming Ray Allen signs with someone) and their rate for “showing up:”
- 97.1%: Kevin Durant (542 of 558)
- 95.5%: Dwight Howard (768 of 804)
- 95.0%: LeBron James (842 of 886)
- 94.0%: Dirk Nowitzki (1,188 of 1,264)
- 93.2%: Tim Duncan (1,254 of 1,346)
- 93.1%: Paul Pierce (1,177 of 1,264)
- 92.4%: Russell Westbrook (440 of 476)
- 91.2%: Kevin Garnett (1,377 of 1,510)
- 91.0%: Ray Allen (1,300 of 1,428)
- 90.8%: Vince Carter (1,148 of 1,264)
- 90.2%: LaMarcus Aldridge (577 of 640)
- 89.5%: Tony Parker (940 of 1,050)
- 89.2%: Carmelo Anthony (790 of 886)
- 87.2%: Kobe Bryant (1,245 of 1,426)
- 86.2%: Pau Gasol (905 of 1,050)
- 85.5%: Chris Paul (617 of 722)
- 85.3%: Steph Curry (336 of 394)
- 85.2%: Steve Nash (1,217 of 1,428)
- 82.1%: Manu Ginobili (795 of 968)
- 81.2%: Dwyane Wade (719 of 886)
- 78.9%: Rajon Rondo (505 of 640)
- 78.2%: Blake Griffin (308 of 394)
- 76.5%: Kevin Love (364 of 476)
- 75.9%: Amar’e Stoudemire (735 of 968)
- 60.7% Derrick Rose (289 of 476)
Durant’s average is going to take a hit as soon as Oklahoma City’s schedule begins without him in two weeks. His sidekick Westbrook will have to pick up slack for the Thunder – and Westbrook’s rate actually might be better than you expected, since his most notable breakdown came in the 2013 postseason.
Rose will be trying to boost a number that, historically, has him well below one of the NBA’s poster guys for bad luck, Grant Hill. Meanwhile, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan — even if they never reach Stockton’s or Payton’s mad numbers — probably don’t get enough acclaim for enduring the rigors of their work as well as they do.
“I think your mindset has to be right,” Thibodeau said. “They say Duncan never leaves the gym. And when you look at great players, that’s usually when you read about guys who have achieved something great. It’s usually them getting past adversity, then making great effort, and their readiness to accept the challenge.”
Asked whether good fortune or good genetics plays the greater role in good NBA health, Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy said: “Both. There’s also work that goes into it. The more you take care of your body year round, offseason and in-season, it directly affects your health, how many games you’re able to play and how many games you miss. But you can do the best job of that in the world and you can still get hurt.”
Nuggets coach Brian Shaw subscribes to the AAU-crazed, overuse theory and won’t let his kids play just one sport all year long because of that. He and his team are back after a 2013-14 season beset by injuries (Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and others).
Shaw sees more attention focused on injury prevention and body maintenance, even if that gets circumvented by one awkward move or fluke moment. An NBA point guard for 14 seasons, Shaw said: “Before we kind of just did some jumping jacks, went down and touched your toes a few times, and went out and played. Now there’s a 15- or 20-minute period every day where the strength and conditioning coach activates the players’ muscles and warms them up.
“It takes some discipline to do those things that are monotonous to warm yourself up properly and cool yourself down after a practice, to ice and do all the things that are necessary for you to come back the next day.”
Thibodeau talked of two competing “schools of thought” for coping physically in the NBA. One loads up players with minutes and practices almost like weighting a baseball bat in the on-deck circle, so they’re in peak condition for what the schedules throws at them. The other preaches rest, recuperation and easing through the preseason and even the regular season to be as healthy as possible for the playoffs.
It’s no secret which school Thibodeau graduated from.
“The only way you can guarantee a guy not getting hurt is, don’t play him,” the Bulls coach said. “Don’t practice him, don’t play him. Don’t play him in the preseason, don’t play him in the regular season. Just don’t play him and he won’t get hurt.”