NBA injuries: From Kyrie Irving to Stephen Curry, 20 ways they impacted the season and playoff race
You cannot tell the story of the 2017-18 NBA season without discussing injuries. Despite the league shortening the preseason, moving up opening day and reducing back-to-backs, player health has not improved. In fact, if we are strictly looking at games missed, things haven’t been worse in quite some time:
As the playoffs approach, here is a look at the many, many ways in which injuries have affected the season:
1. Leonard’s injury made Spurs look like a normal team
It’s obvious the ways in which Kawhi Leonard’s injury has affected San Antonio’s spot in the standings, but the more significant shift has come in the way we talk about the organization. Tony Parker called his own quad injury “a hundred times worse” than Leonard’s. It seems like there has been a communication breakdown between Leonard and the team, to the point that opposing teams are reportedly planning to try to trade for him. If all this can happen to the Spurs, then maybe the unthinkable — the slow erosion of the culture that made them so successful for so long — can happen there, too.
2. The mystery of No. 1 pick’s shoulder and shooting issues
The mere fact Markelle Fultz is back playing NBA basketball is wonderful, considering the bizarre circumstances that surrounded his five-month absence in his rookie season. While this is (correctly) being treated as a nice comeback story right now, questions remain: Will he be part of the Sixers’ playoff rotation? Can he share the floor with Ben Simmons? One thing is for sure: If and when he gets comfortable shooting 3-pointers again, he will complement Philadelphia’s stars extremely well.
3. Irving’s injury will test Celtics once again
Last Wednesday, the resilient, overachieving Celtics beat the Jazz on the road with Shane Larkin and Semi Ojeleye leading them in minutes. Al Horford and Marcus Morris were out of the lineup, and Kyrie Irving hasn’t played in weeks. This was just one victory in an improbable six-game winning streak, which was snapped Tuesday against the Bucks. On Thursday, though, the remaining optimism about their playoff chances took a serious hit with the news that Irving needs another surgery on his knee and will be sidelined for four to five months. At this point, teams will be angling to face Boston in the first round, and nobody will expect much of this team if it makes it to the second round, despite Terry Rozier’s emergence and Brad Stevens’ magic.
4. Hayward incident made way for Brown and Tatum
Despite what Jaylen Brown says, the Celtics are probably not the best team in the conference … yet. They could very well earn that distinction next season, though, with Gordon Hayward — who suffered a gruesome leg injury five minutes into the season — joining a team that had no choice but to empower a couple of No. 3 picks without him. Brown and Jayson Tatum made the absolute most of this opportunity, and it’s clear that this is just the very beginning.
5. Embiid’s eye injury allows us to look on bright side
This is not to diminish the seriousness of the fractured orbital bone and concussion that Sixers center Joel Embiid suffered a week ago, but let’s appreciate that it was not a knee, foot or back injury. Any non-delusional Philadelphia fan or staff member would have been delighted if told at the start of the season that Embiid would be essentially injury-free and play 63 regular-season games. There is some concern that he won’t be back for the very first game of the playoffs, but that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it could do him good to get off his feet for a few weeks.
6. Roberson’s absence changed trajectory of OKC’s season
It took them longer than most of us expected, but before Andre Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon it appeared the Thunder had figured out who they were. Oklahoma City was a top-notch defensive team that had the potential to catch fire offensively any given night, with a higher ceiling than many of its Western Conference rivals. The loss of Roberson changed everything, and while Corey Brewer has filled in admirably, it is much harder to envision the Thunder upsetting the Rockets or Warriors now.
7. Curry’s knee has Golden State looking human
Stephen Curry had four ankle sprains in a matter of months and then he sprained his MCL, putting the Warriors in a precarious (for them, at least) position. They’ll likely have to win one round without him, and after that everybody will be watching to see if Curry is his normal self. In a similar situation two years ago, he was alternatively brilliant and underwhelming in the playoffs. With the Houston Rockets appearing to be a genuine threat, Golden State has to hope that Curry finds his footing quickly — or that its collection of other stars performs so well that it doesn’t matter.
8. Cavs’ series of injuries means they’re difficult to evaluate
Cleveland has still not had its full roster together since making those major trades at the deadline. Kevin Love is back from his broken hand and things are starting to come together, but it is still too early to know what the Cavs’ rotation will look like in the playoffs. Coach Tyronn Lue has stepped away from the team to get his health in order, and it’s worth noting that he takes over the team’s defensive game-planning every postseason.
9. Porzingis’ injury kept Knicks out of no-man’s land
Save for the occasional Trey Burke scoring outburst, the Knicks have been hard to watch since Porzingis tore his ACL in February. In the big picture, though, sneaking into the playoffs would not have helped them construct a real contender. Nobody is happy that he went through this, but they will get at least one pretty good draft pick now — and maybe two, depending on when Porzingis returns next season and how long he takes to find his rhythm.
10. Boogie down, Pelicans’ future uncertain
Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have been so good in DeMarcus Cousins‘ absence that it’s easy to forget how certain the Pelicans’ doom felt when the big man tore his Achilles tendon in late January. Cousins’ injury didn’t end up taking New Orleans out of the playoff picture, but that fact further complicates his future. He will be an unrestricted free agent in three months, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Pelicans are willing to offer him a maximum contract or risk losing him for nothing. Even though he and Davis were working pretty well together, there is an argument that having two high-usage bigs is a misallocation of resources.
11. Thomas is in a strange, strange place
The Isaiah Thomas situation is frustrating. It’s hard to remember the last time a player’s market value and public perception has changed so much in such a short period of time. He was fifth in MVP voting last season and included in a blockbuster trade, but wound up essentially having his salary dumped at the deadline. It was not Thomas’ fault that things didn’t work out in Cleveland, but it now looks like the decision to play hurt last season was a bad long-term play. He might have to take a one-year deal to prove his worth again — if you were a general manager, how could you invest much in him without being absolutely sure he will be able to finish at the rim consistently and lead a great offense?
12. Wolves could be in a different tier if not for Butler injury
Minnesota was on track to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs before Jimmy Butler hurt his knee in the first game after the All-Star break. The Wolves have gone 8-8 since then, but their poor defense led to Butler calling them out for their lack of toughness on Tuesday. When he returns he will be trying to help them simply solidify a playoff spot, a significant achievement for this franchise but not quite what was expected a month and a half ago.
13. Millsap’s missed games cost Nuggets
Denver still has a chance to qualify for the postseason, but if it does not make it, you have to look at the three months Paul Millsap missed with a wrist injury. The Nuggets went 24-20 without him, which is not terrible, but in that time he could have been developing chemistry with Nikola Jokic and they could have been at least trying to establish a defensive identity rather than trying to outscore everybody.
14. Conley’s injury started Grizzlies’ freefall
It has been a painful year for Memphis, a shallow team that entered the season with playoff hopes and is now playing for lottery balls. If nothing else, though, this should reaffirm Mike Conley’s value. The only time the Grizzlies looked competent this season was when Conley and Marc Gasol were running pick-and-rolls for 12 games. The question now is whether the player they select in the draft will be asked to complement Conley and Gasol or if management is going to make major moves this summer.
15. Wizards could have high ceiling with Wall
Washington has not been an inspiring regular-season team, but one cannot deny the improvement that Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre have shown this season. If — and this is an extremely big if — John Wall finds his form in the playoffs, then this is the kind of team that could make you forget about the 82 games that precede the real show. The Wall we saw before he sat out for two months was not even close to the Wall we’ve seen take over playoff games.
16. Nets’ backcourt injuries opened door for Dinwiddie
The Spencer Dinwiddie breakout has been one of the most fun subplots of the season, at least for this Brooklyn-based writer. Dinwiddie, however, will tell you himself that his opportunity was created by injuries to Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell. Given how he has emerged — and how poorly the Nets have fared with Russell on the court — it is interesting to think about what the Nets front office might do this summer. Will they bring all three back?
17. Jackson’s ankle messed up Pistons’ season (again)
Detroit is 25-15 with Reggie Jackson in the lineup and 12-25 without him, and this isn’t some crazy coincidence. Had he not suffered another season-changing injury in December, the Pistons could very well be a playoff team. Instead, there are real questions about Stan Van Gundy’s job security and how the heck management can turn this thing around. Too often, Jackson’s importance to the team is left out of that conversation.
18. Gobert injury might decide DPOY race
Rudy Gobert missed 26 games this season, but when he has played, the Jazz have been a defensive juggernaut. Will Defensive Player of the Year voters punish Gobert for all that missed time or reward him for the way he has kept his team afloat when healthy? His case is helped by the fact that Embiid, who will miss 23 games, is one of his main competitors, but there are arguments for Anthony Davis and Al Horford, too.
19. Waiters’ injury helped facilitate Wade reunion
Dion Waiters‘ season-ending ankle surgery was a bummer, especially since it happened two months into a four-year, $52 million contract. It had an unexpected consequence, though — when Dwyane Wade and the Cleveland Cavaliers realized they weren’t good for each other, the most beloved player in Heat history returned home and filled Waiters’ role. This is not to say that this couldn’t have happened if Waiters had been healthy, but it would have been pretty awkward.
20. Never forget the value of good injury luck
Look at the Raptors, Blazers and Pacers. While they have all dealt with minor injuries, it has been nothing like what many of the other teams mentioned above have had to deal with. This is not to minimize the good coaching, chemistry and genuine improvement that have gone into their success; it is merely to acknowledge that good health has been a part of it, too. Portland, for example, has to hope that Damian Lillard‘s ankle sprain on Tuesday doesn’t turn out to be serious.