TGS SPECIAL REPORT...THE INJURY MYTH IN THE NBA
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
Back in 1974, TGS founder Mort Olshan wrote Winning Theories of Sports Handicapping, the first study of the art of handicapping sports contests. In that volume was a chapter entitled “The Injury Myth” in which he laid out the idea that, in general, injuries were vastly overrated in handicapping football. Mort detailed numerous accounts of how rumors of injuries, deceitful coaches, cases of mistaken identity, and miraculous recoveries from bogus hard knocks had done far more to cloud than to clarify the analysis of sporting events. He recounted many instances of teams that were missing key players or had cluster injuries that overcame those problems and won their games (or, more importantly, covered the pointspread) despite the handicap of injuries.
Sunday afternoon’s Pittsburgh-Denver NFL Divisional playoff game was a good example. Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown, who expected that he would play shortly after being knocked out of his team’s first round playoff victory in Cincy, failed to pass the required concussion protocol. The source on this information was good, for it came from Brown himself. QB Ben Roethlisberger had an injured shoulder, and it was widely reported the range on his passes would be severely limited. Without Brown, who had an amazing 136 catches and 1834 yards this season, the Steelers were without their prime offensive threat. Earlier injuries to running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams magnified the importance of the loss of Brown. Pittsburgh led the game with less than 7 minutes remaining, outgained the Broncos 396-324, and Denver needed a crucial Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble (the only turnover of the contest) to set up the win late in the game. However, the oddsmakers had it almost exactly right, making the Steelers a 7-point favorite, with some 7½ available on Sunday for those interested in backing the injury-riddled visitor.
Mort’s chapter was targeting football, and a valid argument can be made that injuries in basketball should have much more impact on the games than in football. Losing a hoop starter, on the surface of it, represents 20% of a lineup. In football one starter represents about four-and-a-half percent of an 22-man lineup on offense and defense. However, we feel there are still similarities in the impact and adjustments that make us take injuries with a grain of salt.
First, in most cases, the odds will be adjusted, if not over-adjusted. In our TGS NBA ratings, we allow for 2-5 point adjustments for the absence of star players. A near all-star such as Miami point guard Goran Dragic or Memphis’ point guard Mike Conley are worth 2-3 points on our ratings. A top-level star such as New Orleans power forward Anthony Davis or Cleveland’s LeBron James command four or five points, and often more.
The oddsmaker adjusts the line as well, and in our experience the compensation is more than the reality of the injury warrants. It makes sense that if a bookmaker knows a star will be out, it behooves him to allow a larger adjustment than might be necessary because bettor’s knowledge of the injury itself will push money to the other side. If LeBron James is out, it would be unusual for there to be more money bet on the Cavaliers than their opponent. If the bookmakers perceive they will be stuck with a side due to injuries, they anticipate having to ride the injured team and often pad the pointspread adjustment to give themselves an extra edge.
The reality is that all teams have backups of varying skill levels. In some cases, an all-star is backed up by a once or future all-star. In college, a four-star recruit might have a three-star recruit breathing down his neck. Those reserve players want their chance, their minutes on the field or court. It’s not as if a basketball team is going to play with four on the court if a starter is injured. An NBA backup was likely a high draft pick who’s also a professional and probably thinks he should be starting.
In many cases, other players rally due to the injury and come up with above-expected performances. One famous example that jumps to mind occurred in Game Six of the 1980 NBA Finals. Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had an injured ankle and was left home when the team went to Philly with a 3-2 series lead. Rookie point guard Ervin “Magic” Johnson, who stood 6-9, played center for the Lakers against Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins (who recently passed away). Johnson scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and handed out seven assists and was named MVP of the series for his effort.
Friday night TGS was involved in a couple of NBA games that brought to mind Mort’s writings on the injury topic so many years ago. The Dallas Mavericks were at Chicago, and Miami was at Denver that night. In the Dallas-Chicago game, TGS was on the Bulls, who were admittedly limping heading into that matchup. Bull guard Derrick Rose and center Pau Gasol had missed their game the night before in Philadelphia, Rose with knee tendinitis and Gasol with shoulder and Achilles injuries. Friday both Rose and Gasol played, but it made no difference, as Dallas overcame a 10-point halftime lead and nailed down an 83-77 victory. Chicago was healthy, but couldn’t sustain its energy in the 2nd half. Scribes blamed the scheduling, saying the Bulls ran out of gas, but Rose and Gasol hadn’t played on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Miami-Denver game presented a different scenario. At lunchtime Friday, unbeknownst to almost everyone, Dwyane Wade had a conversation with Heat power forward Chris Bosh. Wade, an all-star who’s the team’s second-leading scorer at 18.4 ppg, told Bosh he was just going to play through a shoulder issue and gut it out. Bosh urged him to take the night off and rest his ailing shoulder. Wade took the suggestion, and it was announced a short while before the game he was a scratch. Coupled with a previous injury to PG Goran Dragic, who was left home from the road trip with a calf strain, Wade’s decision left the Heat without their starting guards. Further compounding head coach Erik Spoelstra’s problems was the fact that center Hassan Whiteside had been battling knee tendinitis recently. Smash-cut to the game, decided as Bosh scored 24 points and Whiteside had 19 pts., 17 rebounds and 11 blocked shots, and Miami rallied to win with a makeshift backcourt.
We did a bit of research and found a mixed bag of pointspread results examining how teams fair playing with out a key cog. Following are team’s record without some of their top players:
Chicago—5-2 vs. the points without Derrick Rose; Charlotte—7-14 without Al Jefferson; Cleveland—0-1 without LeBron James; Dallas—2-1 without Dirk Nowitzski; Golden State—1-1 without Steph Curry; Houston—3-3 without Dwight Howard; L.A. Clippers—8-2 without Blake Griffin and 1-3 without Chris Paul; Miami—1-1 without Dwyane Wade; New Orleans—3-2 without Anthony Davis; New York—1-3 without Carmelo Anthony; Oklahoma City—1-6 without Kevin Durant; Portland—5-2 without Damien Lillard; Sacramento—3-5 without DeMarcus Cousins; San Antonio—1-1 without Kawhi Leonard, 3-0 without LaMarcus Aldridge, 3-0 without Tony Parker, 5-1 without Tim Duncan.
A few observations. Certain teams predictably can’t compensate for the loss of talented players and/or certain players who are so dominant they can’t be replaced. For example, there aren’t many players with the combination of size and skill as Kevin Durant. The Thunder are just 1-6 with K-D on the sidelines despite the presence of his runningmate, fellow all-star, point guard Russell Westbrook. Charlotte’s 7-14 spread mark without Jefferson indicates Cody Zeller and Spencer Hawes can’t replace “Big Al” even though Jefferson’s production has dropped off dramatically this season.
The L.A. Clippers would seem to be more in need of PG Chris Paul (team 1-3 without him) than Blake Griffin (8-2). San Antonio’s deep bench can compensate for HC Gregg Popovich’s penchant for resting his key players in an attempt to keep them fresh for the playoffs. Surprisingly, thin Portland has overachieved when star point guard Damian Lillard is absent.
The results are somewhat inconclusive, but Mort’s original premise, that the effect of injuries is overrated, seems to be true in many instances but must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Some teams have the depth to overcome an injury to a superstar. Cleveland comes to mind, as the Cavs have three all-stars, any one of whom could take over a game. Other teams are not so blessed with talent, and a team (like Charlotte) can’t compensate very well when it loses a player who fits a key spot in the puzzle.
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