Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Superhuman Highlight

In the days since Kobe Bryant unexpectedly crumbled at Harrison Barnes’ feet, in hopes of unearthing a clue as to what lays ahead for the Laker legend, an army of amateur physicians has mobilized, scrambling to bone up on possible causes of torn Achilles tendons and the impact of said tears – short and long term – on the effectiveness of NBA players so unfortunate as to feel their sting. For anyone hoping to once again witness Kobe at the peak of his breathtaking power, the findings are, by and large, less than encouraging: 

  • As vicious a competitor as the league has known, Isiah Thomas suffered a torn Achilles in the final days of the 1993-94 regular season. It ended his career. 
  • Once a rising star and a major contributor to the first-ever 8-over-1 upset in the NBA playoffs, LaPhonso Ellis – who was capping off a strong season, averaging 21.9 points and seven rebounds – ruptured his right Achilles on April 4, 1997. The injury did not end Ellis’ already injury-marred career – he bounced around the NBA for another six seasons – but he never came close to regaining his mid-90s form. 
  • Though not the star many had expected him to become based on his Duke days, Christian Laettner was building a very solid NBA career, having averaged at least 16 points and eight rebounds in each of his first five seasons and earning a spot in the 1997 All Star Game. However, an Achilles tear suffered late in 1997-98 season marked the beginning of the (rather protracted) end for Laettner. He spent another 6+ seasons in the NBA, but only once more had a double digit scoring average and only twice averaged as many as six rebounds per game. 
  • In August 2007, Elton Brand, then a member of the Clippers, ruptured his left Achilles tendon during an offseason workout. An MVP candidate and top-three power forward at the time of the injury, Brand missed all but eight games in 2007-08. He remains an active NBAer and still an excellent rebounder and solid interior defender, but has not come particularly close to recapturing past glory. 
  • On April 17, 2010, in the Utah Jazz’s playoff opener against the Denver Nuggets, Mehmet Okur ruptured his Achilles. He missed the remainder of that postseason, as well as that summer’s World Basketball Championships, but managed to make his way back on to an NBA floor in exactly eight months, returning on December 17, 2010. Sadly, Okur was never again an effective NBA player, scoring 194 points in 30 games after the injury. He retired last November. 
  • On February 7, 2012, while playing for the Clippers in Orlando, Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles tendon. He’s had an extremely tough time bouncing back, taking part in just 21 games since, averaging 8.0 points in 19 minutes per game. It’s unlikely that he’ll play at a high level again. 

Not a pretty picture, huh?

Which brings us to the curious case of Dominique Wilkins.

On January 28, 1992, in the second quarter of a home tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, like Kobe and the half dozen gentlemen mentioned above, Wilkins, tore his Achilles tendon. The injury, which left the tendon in his right leg looking, as he described it, “like a shredded mop," occurred a decade into the Hawks’ superstar’s career, at age 32. With Kobe, also an explosive wing scorer, clocking in at 34 years of age, Wilkins has emerged as the best case scenario. Now, it’s worth noting that despite the proximity in age, their respective odometers bear little resemblance to one another. At the time of his injury, Dominique had logged 27,482 regular and postseason minutes over 10 seasons, while Kobe, in his 17th season, has played 54,041 NBA minutes. Putting this aside – because, frankly, what the fuck do we know? – at the time, questions abounded – as they do about Kobe now – regarding Dominique’s future in the NBA, if he was to have one at all.

According to Wilkins, it took nine months and whole lotta patience before he fully regained confidence in his body’s ability to answer the NBA bell. By the start of the following season, ‘Nique had his mojo back. What followed, beyond serving as something for which Laker nation will spend the coming months crossing its collective fingers, remains, two decades hence, perhaps the NBA’s most remarkable (and, really, under-celebrated) triumph over injury – Adrian Peterson on the hardwood: Dominique Wilkins’ 1992-93 season.

His return to the floor brought with it not only external doubt and – one can only imagine – at least a little bit of internal fear, but also the band of bullies known as Pat Riley’s Knicks, ‘Nique came out swinging, however, making half of his 26 (!) shot attempts, en route to 30 points, albeit in a losing effort.

If his post-injury debut was a thrill, Wilkins’ second game back, the following night at Chicago Stadium against Michael Jordan and the now-two-time champion Bulls, was downright euphoric. While the reigning king managed 35 points, making 13 of 29 shots, and 11 assists, the night belonged to ‘Nique, who scored 33 on just 20 shots and grabbed seven rebounds in a 100-99 Hawks win. And he was off. Wilkins would score 30+ in four of the Hawks’ next six, capped off by a 41-point, 16-rebound explosion in a 116-107 home win over the Boston Celtics.

By the time all was said and done, Dominique had not only answered any questions regarding his ability to once again compete in the NBA, he’d summarily dismissed them and put together perhaps the greatest season of his Hall of Fame career. Dominique took part in 71 of the Hawks’ 82 regular season games in 1992-93, starting 70, playing an average of 37.3 minutes per game.

He finished behind only Jordan in the league’s scoring race, averaging 29.9 points per game, surpassing 20,000 career points in the process. A model of consistency, he scored at least 24 points in 58 of 71 games, 21 times going for at least 35, hanging 40+ on eight of those occasions. More remarkably, ‘Nique was as efficient as ever, shooting 46.6% from the field (his career average was 46.1%), with a career-best True Shooting Percentage of 57%. He posted a PER of 24.3, the second highest of his career (26.4 in 1989-90), good for fifth in the NBA, and well above his career average of 21.6. Per Basketball Reference, 1992-93 ‘Nique posted a career-best Offensive Rating of 119 and .191 Win Shares per 48 minutes – the second best mark of his career (.197 in 1986-87), FAR outstripping his career average of .148, and placing eighth in NBA. He was named an All-Star for the eighth time in his career, selected All-NBA Second Team for a fourth time (in addition to his First Team selection in 1985-86) and, again per Basketball Reference, finished the season fifth in MVP Award Shares.

The injury did force him to become more of a perimeter scorer, a conversion he managed with great effect. In ’92-93, Wilkins averaged 4.5 3-point attempts per game – up from 3.0 the season prior to his injury – of which he made a then-career best 38%. Now, lest you think a little bed rest had sapped the aggressiveness from ‘Nique’s game, it’s worth noting that only five NBAers attempted more free throws in 1992-93 than his 627, of which he made 82.2%. As already evidenced by his playing time and gaudy production, Wilkins’ role in the Hawks’ offense was not impacted in any meaningful way in the aftermath of his injury. In 1992-93 his Usage Rate – a whopping 31.9% – exceeded his career average of 30.3%. That this is only the sixth highest Usage Rate of his career speaks more to his insane run from 1984-85 through 1987-88 (USG%’s of 32.5%, 32.9%, 32.3% and 35.2%; that’s four of the top 64 Usage Rates, including the 13th highest, since 1977-78), than any lingering effects.

In terms of rebounding – an area presumably vulnerable to the lasting physical effects of an Achilles tear – ‘Nique lived up to his usual standard, averaging 6.8 per game (v. his career average of 6.7), 2.6 coming on the offensive glass. His Offensive Rebound Rate slipped (7.6%, v. his career average of 8.5%), while his Defensive Rebound Rate ticked higher (12.9%, 12.5% for his career). Overall, Dominique grabbed 10.1% of available rebounds while on the floor in 1992-93, in line with his career rate of 10.4%. He also became a more willing – and effective – passer, handing out 3.2 assists per game (compared with his career average of 2.5) and posted an Assist Rate of 14.9%, matching his career-best figure from 1986-87. Meanwhile, his Turnover Rate of 9%, while up slightly from its late-80s lows, was a) down from each of the previous two seasons and b) well below his 9.7% career mark.

In 1992-93, for the first (and only) time in his career, Dominique averaged at least 29 points per game, with a True Shooting Percentage of at least 57% and a 24+ PER. At the time, he joined a group of just 12 players in NBA history who’d collectively produced 28 such seasons. In the 20 years since, the feat’s been achieved nine times by seven players – Michael Jordan (who also did it five other times before Dominique), David Robinson, Shaq (three times), Kobe, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Wilkins led the 1992-93 Hawks to a regular season record of 43-39, qualifying them for the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s #7 seed. The three-game sweep by the Bulls that ended their season was an anticlimactic, if hardly unexpected conclusion, though it does little (and frankly, less and less as time passes) to tarnish Dominique’s triumph over an injury that has otherwise proved a death knell for virtually every NBA career it’s afflicted.

This mini-project began less as an ode to herculean feat by a too-often overlooked great from my youth as it did a Laker fan’s quest for comfort. Comfort in the belief that learning about one recuperative miracle will somehow beget another. It should surprise no one if, in the coming months Dominique Wilkins becomes an icon in Laker nation. However, to reduce him to a mere rallying cry will be to do him a disservice. Yes, two decades ago, Dominique Wilkins returned to professional basketball more successfully in the aftermath of a torn Achilles than had any player before (or since). More remarkably, however, he did so at a level exceeding much of his pre-injury prime and, frankly, given the circumstances, turned in one of the great individual campaigns in NBA history.