Injuries are a major story-line in the semifinals of this year’s NBA Playoffs. Miami and San Antonio have been able to prevent significant injuries to their aging stars, Indiana rolled the dice by letting Paul George return to action after suffering a concussion and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka has unexpectedly bounced back from a plantaris strain that was expected to keep him out for the rest of the postseason.
As a result, the newly inspired Thunder have won two straight games in dominant fashion against the Spurs to tie that series 2-2.
Injuries are big news; They make or break champions and bank accounts. And whenever that news is broken in today’s mainstream media, it’s more and more likely that some of the analysis behind it comes from Little Rock resident Jeff Stotts.
Stotts, whose day job is athletic trainer for Mount St. Mary Academy, also works as the go-to injury analyst for RotoWire, a major player in the multi-billion-dollar fantasy sports industry. Stotts is likely the nation’s foremost injury analyst in fantasy football, basketball and baseball. In the last eight months, though, he’s started publishing analysis from his own NBA injuries database. The timely stats spewing from his spreadsheets are making him a go-to source in the world of real sports news as well, as I note in my most recent Daily Beast piece:
The 31-year-old Dallas native, after all, chose a hobby in injury analytics that just happens to be the next big thing in sports. “Injury is kind of the golden question that everybody wants to answer,” sports scientist Michael Regan told ESPN’s TrueHoop. “Because when you look at analytics in sports, the only thing that correlates consistently with elite performance and championships, is number of games played by your best players.”
Stotts calls his year-and-a-half-old database a “random, crazy idea,” but its premise is simple and straightforward. Each game night during the NBA season—often after watching some Mavericks basketball with his 3-year-old daughter and tucking her into bed—he fires up Excel. He then notes which players that night suffered an injury (or were kept out because of an injury) and what the injury was. Sources include news articles and databases and archives available through Rotowire, the fantasy sports company for which he writes. So far, he’s tracked the entire injury histories of 866 players dating back to the 1984-85 season.
The key, as any advanced statistician worth his spreadsheet knows, is to look beyond the box score. The official game report may list the reason a player was kept out as “Did Not Play—Coach’s Decision” but Stotts knows there’s often more to the story. After a little patience and some Googling, he’ll usually discover in news accounts a minor injury like a sore hamstring was the real culprit. “Well, it should have been noted as sore hamstring, but in the box score all it says is ‘DNP-CD.’”
Stotts attention to detail helped spark a friendship with national sportswriter Will Carroll, a Bleacher Report columnist who specializes in baseball injury reporting. The two writers have teamed to present an annual award for the best medical staff in Major League Baseball. Stotts said he also hopes to launch similar awards for NFL and NBA medical staffs, with his database helping decide the latter. Before getting to that point, though, he’ll need more data to track year-to-year improvement trends. “You don’t want to reward a staff for getting lucky. You want to make sure this is a little bit of a trend.”
To that end, Stotts plans to keep working on his database, hopefully adding three seasons’ worth of player histories this summer. The time won’t be as intense as it is on the busiest game days of the regular season— when his news scouring and recording takes about an hour per night—but it’s still an investment for a busy family man with a day job as an athletic trainer at a Catholic high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. He tries to work on his hobby when nobody’s home, but that’s not always possible. Occasionally, his wife Emily* will tell him “Are you really seriously getting on that computer again?” he said, chuckling.
I asked Jeff to what extent his work as an injury analyst influences his job at Mount St. Mary. “It’s made me a better athletic trainer,” he said, “because I have to stay up to date on all the info – not only statistically speaking, but the treatment options that are available.”
Nobody is tracking injury statistics for Arkansas’ high school programs, and it’s a safe bet that such a development is still many years away. But Stotts has been on the forefront of grading the performances of NBA medical staffs. He noted that Ibaka’s quick return is in line with Oklahoma City’s training staff reputation as one of the best in the league. The Thunder, for instance, have “only” lost a little more than 22.2 million dollars in the last five years because of injured players (Contrast that with the Lakers’ 28.24 million dollar loss due to Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury – the highest single season loss to injury in NBA history).
Given Ibaka’s play in the last couple games, it’s whatever magic OKC’s trainers worked on his upper calf has hurt the Spurs’ title hopes. Whether Ibaka’s health ends up breaking those hopes altogether is yet to be seen.
*Stotts’ wife actually works in the same office at Arkansas Children’s Hospital as my wife, Susan. And before we’d met each other through company picnics and parties, Jeff and I played pickup ball together at Pulaski Heights united Methodist Church. He’s got a solid floor game.