Just days away from the start of the NBA's postseason, the league's biggest wild card might be the health of Andrew Bynum. The big center was supposed to be the difference for the Los Angeles Lakers this June, having missed last year's NBA Finals after midseason knee surgery. Bynum, as you know, then sprained the MCL in his right knee back in January, but finally returned to the lineup last Thursday. The lingering question is this: Can Bynum return to form in time to anchor the Lakers' defense and help L.A. win a 15th title?
To get a better idea of how long it takes players to shake off the rust, we compiled a list of 12 comebacks over the last decade that met two key criteria:
- An absence of at least a month.
- A return no more than five games before the start of the playoffs (Bynum has played three games in his return, with one more left on the schedule).
The best measure of how well these players rounded into shape is to compare their playoff numbers to their healthy, regular season stats, and determine by what percentage their production increased or decreased. Of note, most players ( injured or otherwise) tend to see their numbers decline in the playoffs because of tougher competition. So, we've also included a control group--the change in players' statistics from last year's regular season to the playoffs--for comparison.
Group TS% 2P% 3P% TR% STL% BLK% TO% PF% USG
Comebacks -10% -7.4% -15% 6% -31.8% -3.5% 6.1% 6% -15.4%
All Players -4.5% -5.6% -6.2% -3% -19.5% 5.5% -2.8% 18.7% -2.9%
The results are somewhat mixed, in part because the sample is relatively small. In general, the rusty players returning from injuries have tended to fair worse than their peers (though they have, surprisingly, picked up their rebounding). They also tend to see their rate of fouling increase less than the NBA as a whole does (there are more whistles in the playoffs, so foul rates go up across the board).
The biggest negatives for returning players were their shooting, their ability to generate steals and their usage rates. The shooting makes sense, since it takes a while for players to get their rhythm back, especially if they've suffered an injury that prevents them from shooting while sidelined. Steals could indicate a loss of athleticism, though that contrasts with the fact that the group tended to rebound and block shots.
The usage rate decline appears to be the most significant stat. It suggests that while these players were injured, their teams started going elsewhere and did not entirely shift back when the player returned for the postseason. Just two of the 12 players maintained or improved upon the regular-season usage. That could be a big factor for Bynum, whose post touches could be limited come the postseason.
But, in considering Bynum's situation, what's even more interesting than the stats themselves is the small sample size. Simply put, what he is attempting to do is extremely unusual. The 12 case studies--Vladimir Radmanovic (2001-02 and 2004-05), Brad Miller (2004-05), Brent Barry (2007-08), Dwyane Wade (2006-07), Andrea Bargnani (2006-07), Earl Boykins (2005-06), Bobby Jackson (2004-05), Jermaine O'Neal (2004-05), Richard Jefferson (2004-05), Scottie Pippen (2002-03) and Sam Cassell (1998-99)--were notable for two reasons. First, just Jackson and Jefferson missed as much time as Bynum. Secondly, hardly any of the candidates played for legit title contenders.
Still, lessons can be drawn. Jackson was unable to get his timing back after returning to the Kings for the last game of the 2004-05 season after missing four months because of an abdominal strain. The guard played just 15.2 minutes per game in a five-game series loss to Seattle, shooting 27 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three-point range. Dwyane Wade missed considerably less time (a month and a half) due to a dislocated shoulder, before playing the last five games of the 2006-07 season. Wade remained the focal point of the Heat's offense and averaged 23.5 points per game, but he shot just 42.9 percent from the field and failed to make an impact defensively as the defending champs got swept by the Chicago Bulls.
O'Neal is the only paint-oriented big man like Bynum in the group. Though his offense slipped when he rejoined the Pacers for the 2005 playoffs after being sidelined for a month and a half with a shoulder injury, he improved his rebounding and his shot-blocking, rejecting 2.6 shots a night while cutting his fouls. Surely the Lakers would be thrilled if Bynum were that kind of defensive force in the postseason.
The Lakers don't know how things will play out over the long haul (nor, frankly, do the Celtics, who are hoping Kevin Garnett can recover from his injury woes). But so far, so good for Bynum, who has averaged 15.7 points on 55.9 percent shooting in the three games since his return, while continuing to get his timing back. That's a positive sign that Bynum will be able to join the handful of players who have thrived in the playoffs coming off of an injury.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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