The end of the third quarter of the NBA season happened to coincide with the conclusion of the eight annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. During the conference former Suns GM and current broadcaster Steve Kerr served on a panel discussing basketball analytics. Eventually the topic of injuries and injury data was brought up. During the discussion Kerr stated that, “We’re having more injuries than ever this year.” When moderator and Grantland writer Zach Lowe questioned the comment, Kerr responded by saying, “I don’t know, but it feels true.” Kerr’s comments reflect a common misconception felt league-wide, a perception not backed up by statistics especially over the last 40 days.
The third quarter was marked by a loss of 1,148 games due to injury. The number is higher than the second quarter (1,120) but lower than the first quarter of the season (1,187). These totals put the league on pace to finish with 4,319 games lost to injury for the year. Kerr is right to believe this number appears high but compared to the last five seasons, the 2013-14 is actually now on pace to finish below the league average for the previous five seasons.
However the third quarter of the season was the most expensive quarter of the year in terms of dollars lost to injury. Teams lost over $85 million in the third quarter, $7 million higher than the second quarter and nearly $6 million more than the first. The reason for the jump in expense is easily connected to the price tags associated with the injuries to superstars Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose. Each former MVP missed 19 games during the third quarter and cost the Lakers and the Bulls, $7 million and $4 million respectively. With the odds of Bryant or Rose suiting up again this year quickly declining, the cost for the final quarter of the regular season should remain high.
These particular injuries are not only financially costly but also help fuel the perception expressed by Kerr that injuries as a whole are up. When MVPs and All-Stars miss games, it garners more headlines than when rookies and role players appear in street clothes. Bryant and Rose are just two names on an expansive list of former All-Stars to miss substantial time this season. Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez and Atlanta’s Al Horford are both done for the season while Boston point guard Rajon Rondo missed the first half of the year recovering from an ACL tear. Steve Nash (45 games), Marc Gasol (23), and Russell Westbrook (29) have all missed significant stretches with injuries, further enhancing the opinion that injuries are on the rise. Even LeBron James’ one game absence for a nasal fracture was a hot topic and discussed and dissected on every form of media. However just because several newsworthy injuries have occurred, does not mean the NBA is in the middle of an injury epidemic.
One additional factor that may be contributing to the belief of an injury increase is the number of “significant injuries”. If you consider an injury forcing a player to miss 10 consecutive games or more as significant, then the league has suffered 96 significant injuries this year. If the trend continues in the final quarter of the season, then the NBA will finish with roughly 120 significant injuries or 16 more than the league average for the previous five seasons.
Refocusing on the third quarter alone, the data shows that it was a particularly tough quarter for the Lakers. The team lost a league worst 86 games to injury from January 20 to March 3. The team has now lost 219 games to injury, 36 more games than they lost all of last season. Los Angeles only trails the 76ers and the Bucks for most games missed due to injury. Even worse, the third quarter pushed the Lakers total dollars lost to injury just north of $30 million, the highest total in the NBA. The Nuggets are the next closest team with over $17 million lost, a total expected to rise with Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, and Nate Robinson all out for the remainder of the season.
On the flipside the Pacers and Heat had the best third quarter, each losing just three games to injury. The totals accomplished by both teams were the fewest games missed by any team during any quarter this season. The Pacers passed the Thunder and Raptors to move into the top spot in fewest games lost to injury for the year.
As the playoff race tightens the margin for error diminishes and teams can ill afford an injury, particularly in the Western Conference. The most impactful injury of the season may have already occurred when Marc Gasol sprained his MCL. Though the team has the 11th best record in the NBA, they currently do not qualify for the postseason. Memphis’ total number of missed games is slightly below the league average but the team struggled without Gasol finishing 10-13 during his 23-game absence. The team surrendered 98.3 points per game during that stretch, nearly five points higher than when Gasol has been available to play. His return has also marked a noticeable improvement in team defense efficiency, bumping them up from 23rd in the league with a rating of 105.2 to 12th with a rating of 102.6. With a Win Share Rating of 3.1 and an obvious impact on defense, it is not inconceivable to imagine a healthy Gasol improving the Grizzlies by at least one game during his time out. A single win would currently elevate Memphis to eighth in the West, just ahead of Phoenix.
While Kerr and others may assume injuries in the NBA are considerably up, the overall numbers paint another picture. The final weeks of the season will be interesting to watch to see if the injury rate remains consistent or if it changes as the playoff picture and so called “tank race” begin to become more apparent.