Time was when a torn anterior cruciate ligament meant your career was over. At best, it was far different. As Bernard King can attest to, torn ACL’s weren’t understood, well treated, or even properly diagnosed. Bad knees were bad knees. Your knee didn’t stop hurting, you got taken out back and shot. That was the last time you ever used the knee.

However, the 21st century, with its flying robot cars and jetpacks for all, is a very different place. Advances in medical science, and a more important concurrent awareness of these advances, have led to enlightened times. Now, a player can tear an ACL and still play.

There is no greater testament to this than the fact that, as best as I can ascertain, 18 players currently in the NBA have previously had torn ACL’s surgically repaired.

That number does not include Ricky Rubio and Eric Maynor, promising young guards who tore ACL’s earlier this season. It does not include Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert, who tore their ACL’s earlier this week. It also does not include the dozens of others in the recent history of American professional basketball to have had the surgery — of which a non-exhaustive list can be found here — nor does it include the hundreds of NFL players, other sportsmen, or those of us in every day life. Now that we’ve learned (and been bothered) to diagnose it properly, it turns out the injury is rather common.

You can play again after tearing your ACL. In fact, you can even play without having any at all.

The more pertinent question is to what standard you can play. The proliferation of torn ACL’s does not make the injury any less severe. No two ACL tears are the same, nor are any two victims, if that’s the right word. You can’t compare Adam Morrison’s athleticism after his ACL tear to Derrick Rose’s before his, not unless you were playing the Opposites Game. (And if you were, you’d win.) To find a median, then, we ought perhaps look at the aforementioned 18 and try to establish some precedent.

Some players come back just as good they were before the tear. Even though he also tore his MCL and meniscus at the same time, Nene retained his agility after his 2005 triple tear, and became a better player than he ever was before. The same could be said of Shaun Livingston, although we’ll never know quite what he could have been. Similarly, Al Harrington tore his ACL in 2002 in the middle of his break out campaign, came back, and then broke out again anyway. Jared Jeffries actually got better after his rookie season injury, before becoming what he is today. And after tearing his ACL in a 2005 preseason pickup game, Willie Green has demonstrated in the seven years hence that he is as staggeringly mediocre as ever.

On the flip side, look at what has become of Michael Redd, Leon Powe and Nenad Krstic. Powe and Redd’s injuries led to further re-injuries, whilst Krstic’s days as one of the league’s best young centers were emphatically ended by his. And while Josh Howard’s decline could be attributed to both a lengthier injury history, age and chronic tendinitis, the post-ACL tear Howard is half of what he was.

Some of the more recent ACL success stories are big men. Currently playing 29 mpg in the playoffs, David West just played a full 66-game season after tearing his ACL as recently as last March, and still has as much athleticism as before (that is to say, not a lot). To tear an ACL and miss only 11 games, lockout assisted or not, is a testament to the improved prognosis you get these days. Similarly, Al Jefferson is just as grounded and productive as he was before his tear three years ago, Jason Smith lost none of his fluid athleticism, and while he can only receive an “incomplete” grade at this stage, after missing all of last season, Jeff Pendergraph is nonetheless back.

The most comparable players to Rose (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shumpert) are, of course, athletic guards. It’s great that Pat Garrity came back and was still able to dunk on Sam Dalembert, but it doesn’t really allude to what may happen to Rose, whose athleticism is more important than his skills.

Inevitably, there are fewer comparisons for this. There just aren’t that many guards with elite athleticism — after all, if there were, it wouldn’t be elite. Even athletic players such as Brandon Rush, Jamal Crawford (who maintains that his knee was actually better after the tear) or Corey Brewer — who can still do this after his ACL tear, yet doesn’t jump off his bad knee anyway — don’t use their athleticism in the same manner. Nor does someone like Tony Allen, a powerful athletic guard with a build akin to Rose, but without the other-worldly ability to change direction. Almost incomparably athletic players are almost incomparable.

There do, however, exist a few similar circumstances. Two favorable, one not.

First, the not. Tim Hardaway tore his ACL at the end of his fourth season, and missed the whole 1993-94 campaign as a result. When he returned, he still put up 95 percent of his previous statistical output, but without the same level of explosiveness. The three-point attempts spiked, the athleticism waned, and, while still very good, Hardaway noticeably lost a bit. This all happened two decades ago, and matters have advanced since then, but with so few comparisons available, Hardaway’s lost explosiveness is noteworthy.

Conversely, two exceptionally athletic guards — Baron Davis and Kyle Lowry — tore their ACL’s in their college years, and yet you wouldn’t know it. Until Rose and Russell Westbrook came along, Davis was the template for the perfect point guard physical specimen, and if Lowry trails them in that department, it’s not by much. In no apparent way did their injuries affect their athletic abilities or career projection — Davis reached All-Star status, while Lowry continues to climb. Whatever they lack as players, the ACL tears are not to blame.

There is no way of knowing what will happen to Rose, Shumpert, Rubio and Maynor. So, given that we don’t know, we have to imagine what will happen. We can be safe in the knowledge that, in multiple recent cases, the player lost nothing at all. More often than not, in fact.

With this in mind, why foresee anything less than a perfect prognosis?

Comments (13)

  1. Check out our latest posts on why the D.Rose injury will ultimately make the Bulls a better team!

    http://passtherelish.tumblr.com/post/22326428649/why-the-injury-to-derrick-rose-will-make-the-bulls

  2. Sam Smith of Bulls.com mentioned a study about recovering from ACL injuries in the NBA:

    The history of these injuries is players recover well. The AOS Medical Center in Glendale, California studied anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction for NBA players between 1994 and 2005. They used the Player Efficiency Statistic to compare performance before and after the injury. Of the 21 players who returned to play of 27 studied (six were older and retired), 15 percent performed better on the statistical measure, 19 percent were within one percentage point and 44 percent decreased somewhat but not substantially.

    In addition, a look at recent such surgeries on top players shows most returning to a high level of play, like Chris Paul (torn meniscus), Jamal Crawford, David West, Kyle Lowry and Al Jefferson. Tim Hardaway had the surgery in 1993-94, and while he wasn’t as explosive afterward, he was first team all-NBA three years later and twice an All-Star afterward. Dunk champion Blake Griffin didn’t have the ACL, but had a stress fracture and broken knee cap before winning the dunk contest. And there was the NFL’s Willis McGahee, who tore his ACL, MCL, PCL 10 years ago, and I think USPS, UPS and DOT. He had about 1,200 yards rushing last season.

    No reason not to be optimistic that Rose will make a fully recovery from this injury. Even if he loses a step, he’s still several steps ahead of the next best player.

  3. reading all the names makes it even more depressing..

  4. Pavel Bure is another athlete who had some good seasons after a torn acl. (He scored 50 goals three times after tearing his acl in 1995) But even Bure wasn’t himself after his ACL. Pre-injury he had unreal speed, after the acl he had above average speed– good but god-like.

    No athlete has ever come all the way back from a torn acl. Hopefully Rose will recover 85-90% of his explosive athleticism, and make up the remaining 10% with some Chris Paul wile. I love watching Rose, but shy of a miracle there’s no way he’s going to be a step ahead of the rest of the league. Its down to Westbrook now, and let’s hope he loses his shot-out-of-a-canon explosiveness to old-age instead of injury.

  5. If the Bulls want to improve, they just need to trade Boozer for a 2nd round pick. A simple addition by subtraction, and a 2nd round pick PF will at least work hard for everything.

  6. Rose is a player who depends on his speed and quickness to get to the rim even losing half a step will be a huge hindrance to his game, Even with that said I wouldn’t root against someone as basketball obsessed as Rose to find another way to get it done.

  7. I think Baron looked exactly as he did in college. He even participated in slam dunk contests. It all depends on the athlete.

  8. I cant wait to see Rose back from the injury, i had an ACL surgery as well, im in a great condition now, but to be honest im not that active with my therapy, nonetheless im still playing great, but not as athletic as i was before cause of my tardiness from the therapy (theyre making me cry with all that exercises believe me, i can literally cry from all that exercises)

    but Drose is a beast, he will be back for sure.

    He’s a silent beast killer!!! I mean just look at him, he has that energy you just know he will be back, he wont be denied!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GBU DRose!!!!!!!!

    Sorry im too excited. HAHA.

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  10. This is the best player of all those players…He loses a step, he is still better than Baron Davis or Tim Hardaway ever were on their very best day, ever.

  11. This was one of the best ACL-basketball analyses I’ve ever read. Having torn mine in basketball I can relate to everything being said and I can appreciate it. I’d just really like to know what kind of grafts each of the players in the article used to replace their torn ACLs (cadaver, hamstring, platellar tendon, etc.)

  12. Check me along with the rest of the Posterizes crew out on SLAM Magazine’s website. http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/2012/08/derrick-rose-thereturn-wallpaper/

    Wallpaper featuring Derrick Rose!

  13. i had a n acl surgery 3 weeks ago, its kinda amazing now that acl surgery is an outpatient type of surgery, unlike before you will be confined to hospital for 3 days and wait for the swelling to subside, btw, i had my surgery may 17 2013, anyway here’s what’s new. before, they use epidural for your general anesthesia, and your both limb will be affected, now, they just inject the affected foot with nerve blockers ( so they will block the nerves so you wont feel the pain) plus, it only affects the front part of the leg, and you can still feel the back, reaon why is that, so you can move your foot, right after the surgery then do the post of exercises right away. no wonder it was an outpatient surgery..

    5th day after my surgery, i was able to walk slowly without using my crutches, my leg didnt swell that bad after surgery. and oh, the graft? it was a hamstring graft, before, the procedure with this graft, they will also make an incision behind your knee where the hamstring part is, but now? there’s no incision behind the knee, they will get that graft from the front of your knee then they will just grab that hamstring behind. therefore making it have less incision or cuts.

    im on my 3rd week now, on my 2nd week of post op, i went to my PT and they are surprised. that i was advance in my recovery. 1 week advance or more.

    i play basketball since gradeschool and now im 23, tore my acl last year september 2012 and just plan to have a surgery this may. I’m excited how will this recovery go, and i hope im one of those athletes that can also be a better player after surgery.

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