History not kind for ruptured Achilles recovery
Knee injuries are more dreaded, but the Achilles tear has been one of the toughest for NBA players to overcome.
When Wesley Matthews' legs gave out from under him and he immediately grabbed for the back of his left foot Thursday, everyone dreaded the worst-case scenario for him. Those fears were realized when an MRI confirmed a ruptured left Achilles for Matthews, who now faces one of the toughest tests any basketball player can come back from.
Achilles injuries aren't quite as common as other catastrophic injuries, but it seems like we have had a rash of them lately. Over the last four years, Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant, Brandon Jennings, Anderson Varejao, Jeff Taylor, Pierre Jackson, Xavier Henry and Elliot Williams have all dealt with this devastating injury, and the returns have not been great. Billups and Bryant suffered their tears toward the end of their careers, but saw a massive dip in both their production and availability in the following seasons, and the rest of the players are largely still recovering from their injuries.
Matthews is still in what should be his athletic prime, but he will face an uphill battle in his return to form. Using information compiled from Deadspin.com and BasketballProspectus.com, I was able to track down a list of 14 players since 1992 who have suffered a torn Achilles and returned to action in the NBA; I specify that these 14 have returned, because according to a study from doctors at Drexel University cited in the Deadspin piece, seven of 18 players who suffered the injury from 1992 to 2012 never returned to the NBA at all.
The list ranges from stars in their prime like Elton Brand and Christian Laettner to role players like Stanley Roberts and Jeff Taylor, and everyone in between, and it does not paint a pretty picture for Matthews next season. On average, players returning from a ruptured Achilles saw their minutes per game average drop 27 percent from their last full season to their first following recovery. Not a single one of them averaged as many minutes as the previous season, and only Chauncey Billups, Laphonso Ellis and Dominique Wilkins even played 90 percent as much in their first full season back.
Wilkins is the obvious best-case scenario, as he kept a string of seven-straight All-Star game appearances alive in his return from the injury in 1992-93. He actually averaged more points in his first season back, improved his shooting, continued to get to the free-throw line, and barely saw dip in his rate stats. He stands out as the outlier, and is basically the only player to return from a ruptured Achilles at something close to his previous form.
On the worst-case scenario side of the ledger, Kobe Bryant stands out, though he was significantly older than Matthews at the time of his injury. Bryant famously played just six games in his return before a knee injury sidelined him for the season again. Billups was in and out of the lineup for a few months before being shut down as well upon his return. The injury also essentially ended the NBA careers of Voshon Lenard and Mehmet Okur, and Dan Dickau lasted just three more seasons as a role player, after averaging 29.4 minutes in an age-26 breakout.
All in all, players who returned from a ruptured Achilles didn't see a huge dropoff in their rate stats in their first season back, surprisingly. On the whole, these players' usage, rebound and assists rates generally stayed constant. However, their efficiency took a hit, as the collective dropped from 45.9 percent shooting to 40.9 on average. That could be the result of players settling for more 3-pointers as they tried to get their legs under them, as the average 3-point rate rose 21 percent.
The NBA doesn't have a publicly available database for injuries, so this is not likely to be a complete accounting of every player who has dealt with this injury, so take the numbers with a grain of sand. Still, the attrition rate is astounding, even when you just consider the success stories; just getting back to a full-time role makes you a success story with this kind of injury.
With the Blazers looking like a borderline title contender and Matthews set for unrestricted free agency this summer, this injury couldn't possibly come at a worse time. Matthews has his work cut out for him to get back to full strength next season and beyond.
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