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July 8, 2011
Centers of Attention
Projecting Oden, Yao

by Kevin Pelton

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All week long, ESPN Insider has been focusing on projections for the upcoming season. Now, our attention turns to the most difficult predictions of all. Yao Ming and Greg Oden are two of the league's greatest enigmas. The same gargantuan frames that have made Yao and Oden so effective on the floor have also left them vulnerable to serious injury and put their futures in limbo.

The two centers have missed nearly all of the last two seasons due to a variety of ailments. After he missed all of 2009-10 with a hairline fracture in his left foot, Yao's comeback was cut short just five games into 2010-11 when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the same ankle. Oden hasn't taken an NBA court since December 5, 2009, when he fractured his left patella. While rehabbing the injury, Oden suffered cartilage damage in the same knee, requiring microfracture surgery--his third season-ending knee injury in four NBA campaigns.

As a result, when Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE Projection System suggests Yao could be expected to average 12.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 20 minutes a night or that Oden would put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 10.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the 23.9 minutes he averaged before his 2009 injury, those numbers are largely meaningless. Whether either player can return at all is the larger question.

Outside of using a crystal ball, there is no conclusive way to project the futures for Oden and Yao. However, history can shed some light on the subject. During the past three decades, we found 10 regular starters who were limited by injury to fewer than 25 games over a two-season span. (Oden has played 21 over the same time period, Yao just five.) Here's a look at that group:

Player                Season    Age   GP    Return   W% 1   W% 2
----------------------------------------------------------------
Alvin Robertson      1992-93   30.7    0   1995-96   .528   .472
Bill Cartwright      1983-84   26.7    2   1986-87   .604   .527
Jeff Ruland          1985-86   27.3    5   1991-92   .639   .284
Zydrunas Ilgauskas   1997-98   22.9    5   2000-01   .615   .516
Bernard King         1984-85   28.4    6   1987-88   .649   .425
Antonio McDyess      2000-01   26.6    6   2003-04   .591   .413
Micheal Williams     1993-94   27.7   10   1997-98   .597   .468
Alonzo Mourning      2001-02   32.2   12   2004-05   .569   .507
Gilbert Arenas       2006-07   25.3   15   2009-10   .678   .572
Grant Hill           1999-00   27.5   18   2002-03   .684   .616

In terms of injuries, Cartwright and Ilgauskas are the best comparisons for Yao. Both suffered repeated injuries to bones in their feet, costing them multiple seasons. Ilgauskas, considered the best-case scenario for players dealing with foot problems, actually missed nearly all of three years, playing just 24 games in his "return" season, 2000-01. Surgery to stabilize his foot with a screw has helped Ilgauskas since go on to a healthy and productive career. Cartwright too was able to put his injury woes behind him and played at least 78 games in a season three times in his 30s.

There isn't really a good precedent for a behemoth player like Oden suffering repeated knee injuries. The other microfracture patients on the list, Arenas and McDyess, both relied far more on their athleticism and less on size. Ruland's promising career was ruined by the loss of cartilage in his knees, as he retired before briefly returning years later, but this was long before microfracture had emerged as a viable option for NBA players.

The injuries suffered by the rest of the group range from Bernard King's torn ACL in the days before they were commonplace to Alonzo Mourning's kidney issues. While they may not be directly comparable to what Oden and Yao are dealing with, the effects of so long away from the game are instructive nonetheless. All 10 players were less effective in terms of Basketball Prospectus' per-minute win percentage rating when they returned to the court, many of them dramatically so. Inevitably, many players came back with less athletic ability.

Additionally, part of what makes long-term injuries so problematic is that players must spend their time working to get back to 100 percent rather than developing their game. It makes sense that Oden's best stretch of basketball came after his lone healthy summer.

The long-term effects are noticeable as well. Of the 10 players, only Ilgauskas ever again reached his pre-injury level of play. Hill and Mourning did eventually attain a level to be expected given their advancing age, but players like McDyess and Arenas--who does still have time to rewrite his story--were stars before missing extended periods and returned as role players.

This is probably less meaningful in Oden's case because of his youth. It is surely not a coincidence that Ilgauskas was the youngest of the players suffering through multiple injuries, and Oden is slightly younger than Ilgauskas was at the time.

Several of these players were ultimately able to avoid the injury bug. Before age caught up with him, Ilgauskas missed an average of fewer than three games per year from 2002-03 through 2006-07. McDyess played all 82 games in consecutive seasons; so did Hill in 2008-09, the start of a three-year span during his late-30s where he's missed a total of three games. Based on this, it appears proneness to injury is not necessarily permanent.

As a guide, history is helpful, but each player's situation is unique. Yao's most recent public comments expressed little optimism that he will be able to play next season, or ever. For Yao, who will turn 31 in September, coming back as the same kind of star player he was before his most recent bout with injuries would be largely unprecedented. The best the Houston Rockets or another team that signs Yao as an unrestricted free agent can realistically expect is for Yao to be productive in a more limited role, possibly off the bench.

At 23, Oden's future offers more upside and more uncertainty. Five years from now, his repeated struggles with injury could be a distant memory or a portent of a star-crossed career. Expectations for next season must be tempered by the amount of time Oden has been away from the game.

If he can ever stay healthy for more than a season at a time, however, Oden's production during the early stages of the 2009-10 campaign reinforced why the Portland Trail Blazers made him the No.1 overall pick of the 2007 Draft. Whether it's Portland or another team, someone will surely take a chance on finally making the most of Oden's potential.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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