IDK if this will lead us in a better direction
What to expect from Kobe Bryant.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It might come tonight, or more likely not for a few weeks. But at some point in the not-so-distant future, Kobe Bryant, who returned to practice last weekend, will play an NBA game. So what can we expect from Bryant? Along with the insight of medical professionals, the history of NBA players coming back from Achilles ruptures can offer a general guide.
With the help of a list compiled by the APBR's Robert Bradley, I've found 25 players before Bryant who suffered ruptured Achilles during their NBA careers since 1990. (One of them, 1990s center Stanley Roberts, did so twice.) Of them, eight never played in the NBA again or retired after a handful of games, producing the scary-looking retirement rate researchers at Drexel University cited in their study of Achilles ruptures. Other than Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who had announced his retirement before the injury, the other players were largely fringe types. Two of them, Courtney Alexander and Laron Profit, played in training camps or overseas, but they simply never made an NBA roster again.
Of the players that did return to the NBA, two more -- including Elton Brand -- came back too late in the season to produce meaningful statistics. I've also removed Roberts, who was two years removed from the NBA when he returned from his second Achilles rupture. For the remaining 14 players, I've compared their performance to what my SCHOENE projection system would have expected from them pre-injury to get a sense of how much rupturing their Achilles cost them in terms of performance.
Difference in injury vs pre-injury projections
Win% 2P% 3P% FT% FTA% Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% PF% Usage
-7.5% -4.9% +0.3% -1.6% -6.7% -7.7% +3.4% -4.9% -6.4% +5.4% +1.4%
As the chart shows, the average player underperformed his projected per-minute winning percentage (based on past performance and age) by 7.5 percent. In only one individual category (rebounding, which was down 7.7 percent compared to the projection) did players see so much decline, but the sum total of several small losses was a fairly large overall drop.
These numbers are interesting to contrast to what I've found in the past for players coming back from ACL ruptures. While players who undergo ACL surgery tend to recover their athleticism but struggle with shooting and create fewer plays, an Achilles rupture appears to have lasting athletic effects in terms of rebounding, steal and block rates going down, and foul rates going up.
The other enormous difference is in players' availability after they return to the court. On average, they played in a little better than three-quarters of their teams' games the remainder of their first season back. And their playing time dropped from 27.1 minutes per game their previous healthy season to just 20.5 MPG after the injury.
Because of his age, and because he was better in 2012-13 than the season before, Bryant's SCHOENE projection already suggested an 80 percent chance his performance would decline this season. Applying the average drop in various categories to his original projection yields the following expected stats, with 2012-13 performance for the sake of comparison:
Season Win% Usage TS% 2P% FTA% Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk%
2012-13 .618 .320 .570 .510 .128 .078 .070 .017 .006
2013-14 .529 .315 .523 .459 .106 .073 .067 .015 .005
Bryant's new projection shows his true shooting percentage dropping to the lowest mark of his career, albeit not far different from the .527 TS percentage he posted in 2011-12 while responsible for a much larger share of the Lakers' offense with a 35.9 percent usage rate. In particular, he's likely to have difficulty repeating last season's accuracy inside the arc, which saw him make better than half of his 2-point attempts for the first time in his career. Instead, Bryant's 2-point percentage figures to be more like his .464 mark from 2011-12.
Of course, these are merely averages, and investigating the players who returned on a case-by-case basis shows a wide range of possible outcomes in terms of responding to Achilles ruptures. The best comeback, as has been widely cited, belongs to longtime Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins. In coming back to make the All-Star team at age 32, Wilkins exceeded his SCHOENE projection by 6.0 percent, and he was one of just two players to average 30 minutes per game in his return season (LaPhonso Ellis of the Denver Nuggets was the other).
Behind the injury
Dr. Mark Adickes, a Harvard-trained orthopedic surgeon who also played seven years in the NFL, explains what's going on in Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon and whether Bryant could return in November. Read
Mehmet Okur represents the worst-case scenario. The former Utah Jazz center was still a productive starter when he ruptured his Achilles during the 2010 playoffs. After Okur returned, he was beset by back issues and played ineffectively over a limited period before calling it a career.
The other player besides Wilkins to surpass his SCHOENE projection was Chauncey Billups, then with the Los Angeles Clippers, though his playing time and availability were severely hampered by hamstring injuries. The experience of Wilkins and Billups, the two oldest players in the group, does seem to counter the notion that veterans lose more of their productivity, which appears to be the case with ACL injuries even when the typical aging process is factored in.
Because each player is unique -- and that's certainly true for Bryant -- history can only go so far in predicting the future. Nonetheless, managing expectations for Bryant's return is the right course of action. Being realistic about his likely decline will keep Bryant from disappointing if he does suffer a drop-off and gives him the chance to pleasantly surprise if he can return at anything resembling his previous form.
How they fared upon return
Player Date GP% Performance
Dominique Wilkins 1/28/92 86.6% 6.0%
Chauncey Billups 2/6/12 32.4% 3.8%
Jonas Jerebko 10/5/10 97.0% -1.3%
LaPhonso Ellis 4/4/97 98.7% -3.5%
Derrick McKey 4/11/97 100.0% -5.1%
Christian Laettner 9/1/98 57.1% -5.4%
Maurice Taylor 9/1/01 81.7% -5.4%
David Benoit 10/1/96 93.9% -8.1%
Mehmet Okur 4/17/10 23.2% -9.1%
Dan Dickau 12/17/05 100.0% -9.8%
Felton Spencer 1/13/95 100.0% -10.4%
DeSagana Diop 12/31/10 87.8% -15.1%
Darrell Arthur 12/19/11 72.0% -18.2%
Gerald Wilkins 10/20/94 34.1% -30.7%
Voshon Lenard 11/2/04 Returned at end of season.
Elton Brand 8/1/07 Returned at end of season.
Stanley Roberts 12/4/93 Re-injured in first game back.
Stanley Roberts 10/26/94 Returned after second rupture.
Courtney Alexander 10/14/03 Never played in NBA again, but was in camps.
Laron Profit 12/20/05 Returned to play internationally
Don Reid 10/21/02 Played one game before retiring.
Lawrence Funderburke 9/19/03 Played two games before retiring.
Jerome James 12/18/09 Never played in NBA again.
Sam Vincent 10/21/92 Retired
Isiah Thomas 4/19/94 Retired
Emanual Davis 12/21/02 Retired
Kobe Bryant 4/12/13 TBD
GP% - Percentage of team games played after returning from injury Performance - % above or below SCHOENE's projected Win %.