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Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 9/19/05


At heart, I am a pessimist. I know this when I watch Dwyane Wade play. When most people see the Miami Heat's dynamic young guard, an All-NBA Second Team pick in just his second season out of Marquette University, they see one of the league's most exciting players. I see Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill.

Like Wade, Hardaway and Hill were once the toast of the NBA as young players before injuries robbed them of their explosiveness. Hill remains one of the league's better players when his chronic ankle problems have subsided enough to allow him to play, but he is no longer a superstar. Hardaway's knees have reduced him to one of the league's most highly-paid reserves.

As NBA fans, we generally tend to assume that players will develop in a predictable fashion. But while, on the whole, players improve dramatically in their first couple of seasons, peak around age 27 and gradually level off before falling off a cliff in their mid to late 30s, individual players exhibit all sorts of unpredictable development patterns. Amongst others, Willie Anderson (best season came as a rookie), Bruce Bowen (not an NBA regular until age 26, but still as good as he ever has been at age 33 last season) and Karl Malone and John Stockton (productive into their 40s) can attest to this fact.

While many of these developments are random, there are predictable trends in addition to the obvious aging pattern. Players who are productive regulars at a young age are usually derailed only by injuries, while youngsters who commit a lot of turnovers in an effort to do good things usually end up developing better than their more conservative counterparts.

Injuries remain something of a mystery to NBA analysts; there is no equivalent of baseball "medhead" Will Carroll. If there were such a person, however, my cynical side wonders if he wouldn't worry about Wade. Not only did the Heat star miss 21 games due to injury as a rookie, few guards take more punishment. Thanks to his lightning quickness, Wade attempted 762 free throws last year, the fourth-highest total in the league. The Flash mostly managed to avoid harm until the Eastern Conference Finals, when a strained rib muscle sidelined him for Game 6 and hampered him in Game 7 as the Heat was eliminated by the Detroit Pistons a game short of the NBA Finals.

To try to establish whether Wade's style will have any impact on his chances of injury long term, I decided to first look for similar players by identifying the leaders in free-throws attempted per game in a season by players 6-4 and under (Wade is 6-4) and in their first three seasons. I subsequently limited the study to players since 1967-68, ostensibly because the game changed but in truth because having seasons less than 82 games was too cumbersome.

The leaderboard:

Player         FTA/G   Year
---------------------------
Nate Archibald  10.8  71-72
Allen Iverson    9.9  98-99
DWYANE WADE      9.9  04-05
David Thompson   8.4  77-78
Kevin Johnson    8.1  89-90
Stu Lantz        7.9  70-71
Earl Monroe      7.8  69-70
Steve Francis    7.4  01-02
World B. Free    7.4  77-78
Geoff Petrie     7.3  70-71
Sidney Moncrief  7.2  81-82

The list confirms that Wade is indeed special in his ability to get to the free-throw line (and in the amount of punishment he takes in the paint). So to what extent were these other players affected by injuries? To answer this question, I looked at their games played over their first 10 seasons in the NBA (1998-99 totals pro-rated to 82 games). Zero indicates that the player was unable to play due to injury, while a blank space means they'd left the league for other reasons (or, in the case of Iverson and Francis, have yet to reach 10 seasons); these seasons were not used in the computation of averages. For the latter group of players, their totals are pro-rated to 10 seasons. I also include the summary statistics "full seasons" (in which the player missed five games or fewer) and "injury-shortened seasons" (in which the player played 50 games or fewer):

Player          Y1  Y2  Y3  Y4  Y5  Y6  Y7  Y8  Y9 Y10  TOT FULL INJ
--------------------------------------------------------------------
Nate Archibald  82  76  80  35  82  78  34  69  80  80  696   6   2
Allen Iverson   76  80  79  70  71  60  82  48  75      712   3   1
David Thompson  82  80  76  39  77  61  75  19   0   0  509   3   4
Kevin Johnson   80  81  74  77  78  49  67  47  56  70  679   4   2
Stu Lantz       73  82  82  81  51  50  75  53          684   3   0
Earl Monroe     82  80  82  81  63  75  41  78  76  77  735   6   1
Steve Francis   77  80  57  81  79  78                  753   5   0
World B. Free   71  78  76  78  68  65  78  73  75  71  733   3   0
Geoff Petrie    82  60  79  73  80  72   0   0   0   0  446   3   4
Sidney Moncrief 77  80  80  76  79  73  73  39  56  62  695   4   1
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Averages/Totals 78  78  77  69  73  66  58  47  52  51  664  40  15

Those are some interesting results. On their own however, they don't really tell us much. We have to have some comparison data. To produce that, I decided to create a control group. In the same season, I looked for players 6-4 and under who played similar minutes totals (to control for ability) and had lower free throw per game averages.

 Player         FTA/G   Year
---------------------------
JoJo White       4.3  71-72
Stephon Marbury  5.7  98-99
Ricky Sobers     5.1  77-78
Mitch Richmond   6.0  89-90
Norm Van Lier    5.4  70-71
Clem Haskins     5.2  69-70
Baron Davis      4.1  01-02
Quinn Buckner    2.5  77-78
Ron Williams     4.8  70-71
Kyle Macy        2.1  81-82

I should stop to point out a couple of problems here. The first is that, while I attempted to match quality as closely as possible, the players on the second list are likely worse than the players on the first list on average. In general, players who get to the free-throw line more often are likely to be better. The other is that the differences in getting to the line aren't always huge; Mitch Richmond, for one, wasn't far from the previous top ten list. (Richmond is also listed at 6-5 by most sources, but I have in my database at 6-4.) Still, here are the summary statistics for the control group:

Player          Y1  Y2  Y3  Y4  Y5  Y6  Y7  Y8  Y9 Y10  TOT FULL INJ
--------------------------------------------------------------------
JoJo White      60  75  79  82  82  82  82  82  46  76  746   6   1
Stephon Marbury 67  82  81  74  67  82  81  81  82      775   6   0
Ricky Sobers    78  79  79  81  82  71  80  41  81  71  743   7   1
Mitch Richmond  79  78  77  80  45  78  82  81  81  70  751   8   1
Norm Van Lier   81  82  79  80  80  70  76  82  78  38  746   7   1
Clem Haskins    76  79  82  82  79  77  81  70  55   0  681   6   1
Baron Davis     82  82  82  50  67  46                  682   3   1
Quinn Buckner   79  82  81  67  82  70  72  79  75  32  719   5   1
Ron Williams    75  80  82  80  73  71  46   9          645   3   2
Kyle Macy       82  82  82  82  65  82  76              787   5   0
--------------------------------------------------------------------
Averages/Totals 76  80  80  76  72  73  75  66  71  48  728  56   9

On average, the low free throw group played 63 more games than the high free throw group over their first 10 NBA seasons. They were more durable, with 56 "full" seasons to 40 for the high free throw group and only nine seasons lost to injury as compared to 15. Many of the perimeter players were extremely durable; Richmond only had two seasons where he failed to play in at least 77 games, while Kyle Macy was an iron man (playing all 82 games) five times in his seven NBA seasons, while JoJo White did five straight seasons.

What I find particularly interesting is a season-by-season comparison of the two groups:

Group    Y1  Y2  Y3  Y4  Y5  Y6  Y7  Y8  Y9 Y10
-----------------------------------------------
High FT  78  78  77  69  73  66  58  47  52  51
Low FT   76  80  80  76  72  73  75  66  71  48
-----------------------------------------------
Diff     +2  -2  -3  -7  +1  -7 -17 -19 -19  +3

Naturally, as players age, they miss more games because of injuries. While this progression was rather gradual for the low free throw group, however, it was rather rapid for the high free throw group. As young players, they played similar numbers of games before the low free throw players became increasingly more durable (before dropping off in Year 10, presumably a fluke but still perhaps an ominous sign for Stephon Marbury, who is entering his 10th season).

So what does this all mean for Wade? With such a small sample, it's not fair to draw powerful conclusions, but it does appear that his constant penetration puts him at increased injury risk going forward. I don't know that I would say it changes his chances of a major, Hardaway- or Hill-style injury; I suspect those are fairly random. An Allen Iverson or a Kevin Johnson might be a better guide. While Iverson has only missed a great deal of time once in his career, he's regularly bothered by nagging injuries and has only played more than 75 games once in the last six years. Johnson never played more than 80 games after his first two seasons.

There's no need to be a pessimist like me and see injured man walking. At the same time, it's worth remembering that while Wade is in his healthy prime, we should enjoy this opportunity to watch him play without taking him for granted.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA, including a first look at the Northwest Division.
He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com

Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds


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