The ceremony lasted seven minutes, long enough for a video montage, ring presentation and several refrains of “We Are the Champions” to serenade the Miami Heat. But even after the Heat raised its second straight NBA championship banner before Tuesday’s season-opening win over the Chicago Bulls, there was one valuable commodity that had yet to be unveiled.
After being sidelined for the last 18 months with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Derrick Rose was returning to action. As the only player not named LeBron James to win the MVP award in the last five years, expectations for this season are high for the Bulls superstar, who scored 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting Tuesday. Not only are Rose’s toughness and durability at stake, but so too is the 25-year-old’s legacy, which, as history has demonstrated, can be greatly dictated by a player’s health.
Several other household names will be placed under a similar microscope when they return from devastating injuries, including Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (torn Achilles’ tendon), Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook (knee injury) and Celtics floor general Rajon Rondo (torn ACL), forming a star-studded list that features just as many MVP candidates as it does Comeback Player of the Year nominees.
In becoming the NBA’s current standard-bearer, perhaps the most underrated tool in James’s arsenal is his health. The longest stretch of missed games in his 11-year career is five, because of a finger injury suffered in 2008. According to a 2012 study done by Weak Side Awareness, the average NBA career lasts about five seasons, while the average NBA all-star plays just about 12 seasons. At just 28 years old and possessing the second-best player efficiency rating in NBA history, James’s health has served as one of his greatest advocates in becoming one of basketball’s greats.
Outside of a broken foot that sidelined him for 64 games in his second season, Michael Jordan had a similar clean bill of health, missing no more than three games in a season during his 13-year prime with the Chicago Bulls.
On the other hand, Ralph Sampson, considered by some to be the greatest college basketball player ever, missed 379 games in an injury-plagued 10-year NBA career.
While Bryant has made a habit of shaking off painful ailments throughout his 18-year career, the Achilles’ tear sustained in April marked his first major injury, raising the question of how his body will respond. In Sampson’s case, attempts to rush back from a knee injury in 1987 resulted in his production dropping from 18.9 points in his first six seasons to 3.9 in his final four years.
The same fate doomed Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the Orlando Magic guard who went from an all-NBA selection in 1996 to an injured spectator for 63 games during the next season. The advanced technology and overnight rehab trips to Germany that this year’s quartet of returning stars has at its disposal was foreign to Hardaway, who in 1997 became one of the first players to undergo microfracture surgery.
As Hardaway told SLAM Magazine in a 2012 interview: “I went from being very athletic, one of the best guards in the NBA, to barely making it. No speed, no agility. I had to change how I played because I couldn’t exercise or train because my knee constantly hurt.”
Judging by Rose’s aggressive approach on Tuesday and his comment to media members during the preseason that he’s a “better player” coming off of his injury, he has no plans to change his style. Whether Rose can sustain a high level of play will ultimately determine the Bulls’ title hopes as much as it does Rose’s legacy.
BY THE NUMBERS
9: Steals recorded by Philadelphia 76ers rookie Michael Carter-Williams in his Oct. 30 debut against the Miami Heat. The guard’s output in victory is the most in a debut since steals became an official stat in 1973-74, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
42: Points scored by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant in Wednesday’s season-opening win against Utah. The Montrose Christian alum is the first player to score at least 40 points in an opener since 2010, when then-Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis dropped 40.
5: Number of MVPs in NBA history who have never won a title — Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Karl Malone, Steve Nash and Derrick Rose.
“I gave everything I had to basketball. The passion is still there but the desire to play is not. It was a great ride”
— Former Georgetown and Philadelphia 76ers player Allen Iverson during his retirement ceremony on Wednesday.
“When I stood there and looked around, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got an amazing opportunity here, and I’m not going to let it go to waste. It hit me there: This is what I chose. This is what I decided to do”
— Houston center Dwight Howard to Yahoo Sports following his 17-point, 26-rebound performance in his Rockets debut.