History’s Most Devastating Playoff Injuries
After watching two games of the Western Conference Finals, it has become pretty clear that Oklahoma City is not the same team, especially defensively, without star big man Serge Ibaka. With him, OKC may have been on their way to NBA Finals redemption and an eagerly-anticipated showdown between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Without Ibaka, they just look like burnt toast.
With the recent news that Ibaka’s calf is healing and he is now day-to-day, his loss probably won’t prove to be among the most frustrating playoff injuries of all time, but here are some of the other most devastating postseason injuries in recent league history:
#5 – Karl Malone, 2003 L.A. Lakers – When the 2002-2003 L.A. Lakers added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to a team that already included superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the expectation was that they would run away with that year’s NBA championship like Usain Bolt on a 100-meter sprint. Of course, they didn’t, partly due to the fact that the Detroit Pistons were a better team than the Lakers, but Malone’s nagging knee injury certainly didn’t help anything.
About a third of the way through the regular season, Malone injured his knee, but he played through the pain, not discovering until later that the injury was actually more severe than doctors had originally diagnosed. Entering Game 5 of the 2003 NBA Finals, the Lakers down in the series 1-3, Malone was too broken to continue playing. One of the greatest power forwards of all time sat out an elimination game in the Finals because he was hurt too badly and he had been playing too poorly as a result. It was just one game, sure, but Malone’s nagging issues certainly assisted in L.A. losing that series.
#4 – Derrick Rose, 2012 Chicago Bulls – If you’ve ever wondered what 22,000 silent people sound like, just imagine the atmosphere at the United Center for Chicago’s 2012 Round 1 playoff game, where the fear in the building was that former MVP Derrick Rose had torn his ACL in the fourth quarter of the game. It was, in fact, a torn ACL, which slammed the door on what may have been a promising postseason for the Bulls.
Rose had missed about a third of the season leading up to that injury, anyway, so it’s not like his body broke down completely out of the blue, but the fact that he hasn’t really played meaningful basketball in the two years since makes this a pretty devastating playoff injury.
#3 – Dirk Nowitzki, 2003 Dallas Mavericks – The Dallas Mavericks do have the one championship, but they were certainly good enough to win a few more than that, with 2003 being the first legitimate go at it. The 2003 postseason was arguably the most impressive stretch of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, as he kicked off Dallas’ first game of the first round with a 46-point explosion, then helped Dallas clinch Round 2 with a 30-point, 19-rebound performance in a Game 7 win over the Sacramento Kings. To kick off the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio, he scored 38 points and hauled in 19 more boards the very next game, putting the exclamation point on how unstoppable he really was during those playoffs.
In Game 3 of that Spurs series, however, Nowitzki sprained his knee badly enough to keep him out of the rest of the series, and it was a series that the Mavericks were not able to win without him. San Antonio went on to win the Finals that year, and Dirk had to wait eight more years before finally getting his ring.
#2 – Magic Johnson & Byron Scott, 1989 L.A. Lakers – Heading into the 1989 NBA Finals, the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers had swept the entire Western Conference, going 11-0 in that year’s playoff games up that point. To say they were cruising as favorites to three-peat would be a massive understatement, but before Game 1 of the Finals even got underway, the injury bug bit them. Hard.
It started with Byron Scott, who pulled a hamstring at practice in the days leading up to Game 1 against the upstart Detroit Pistons. Then, Magic Johnson pulled his hamstring in Game 2, and just like that, two of the team’s best backcourt players were out of the picture. Detroit had a good Finals and certainly earned their rings, but it’s worth wondering how things may have been different had Magic and Scott not been injured.
#1 – Kendrick Perkins, 2010 Boston Celtics – Obviously, Kendrick Perkins has turned into a bit of a punchline around the league now, but in 2010 he was one of the league’s premier defensive centers. He wasn’t anywhere near the team’s best player, but what he did defensively on Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum helped Boston jump out to a 3-2 series lead over the L.A. Lakers. Knowing all this, and adding in the fact that Kobe Bryant shot 6-for-24 in Game 6, one would assume the Celtics would’ve won the series rather handily, but thanks to an ACL and MCL tear for Perkins earlier in the game, no one could stop L.A.’s twin seven-footers and the Lakers ended up winning the game anyway.
They also won Game 7, obviously, thanks in part to out rebounding Boston 53-40, keeping them from winning their second title in three years. They were cruising, then Perkins got hurt, and absolutely everything fell apart.
James Worthy, 1983 L.A. Lakers – This one doesn’t technically count because Worthy broke his leg with about two weeks left to go in his rookie season, but that injury did affect L.A.’s ability to repeat as NBA champions in 1983. That was Philly’s famous Fo-Fo-Fo championship year, and a big reason they won the title is because L.A. was too thin up front. That might not have been the case had Worthy still been playing.
Patrick Ewing, 1999 New York Knicks – It’s hard to call Ewing’s Achilles tendon injury back in 1999 devastating since, after Ewing finally dropped out of the postseason after Game 2 of the Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, the #8 seed Knicks made their way to the Finals anyway. They lost to the Spurs 4-1, but the fact that they were arguably better after their superstar went down is both confounding and decidedly not devastating. It’s still worth mentioning here, though, because it did include a playoff team losing their star right in the thick of a title hunt.
It’s a somber stroll down memory lane to recall all of these injuries, but it certainly does put the Thunder’s current situation in perspective. It could always be worse because, in fact, the above instances prove that worse has happened many, many times.
Joel Embiid Looks Healthy
For the first time since late in the college basketball season NBA scouts got a chance today to watch No. 1 overall pick candidate Joel Embiid. Embiid’s season was ended prematurely due to a back injury, but he participated in a 1-on-0 workout put on by Wasserman, his agency, in front of dozens of NBA scouts and executives.
Reports from the workout indicate that Embiid looked healthy, fluid and explosive. However, thorough medical examinations are ultimately going to be what determines just how healthy he truly is and whether there are any long-term concerns. Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger also was healthy in the predraft process, but slipped on draft night because he was red flagged for a bulging disc in his back.
Also participating in the workout was one of Embiid’s biggest competitors for the top overall spot, Jabari Parker. Like Embiid, Parker did not attend the NBA Draft Combine last week and there were some rumors that he skipped it due to being out of shape. According to Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, though, Parker actually looked like he lost weight since the end of the season and showed no conditioning issues whatsoever.
James Michael McAdoo, Somewhat Forgotten, Could Be Among Draft’s Sleepers
James Michael McAdoo of North Carolina has always been an easy player to fall in love with. He’s related to Hall-of-Famer Bob McAdoo, had enough credits in high school to graduate a year early had he needed to, and talks not about taking over a team, but about blending in with one.
“I’m trying to come in and be a 3-4 guy that defend multiple positions and do whatever I’m asked to do,” McAdoo said at the Draft Combine last week. “I want to be a lockdown defender that can get you some rebounds, play in the system and know my role.”
In other words, McAdoo sounds like a “glue guy,” which is underrated and invaluable in today’s NBA. So many players come out of college having been “The Man”, and therefore have a hard time adjusting to life as a role player. McAdoo, meanwhile, seems to be preparing for precisely that.
“I’m trying to hone all aspects of my game—be a consistent shooter, be able to put the ball on the floor—but I’m not trying to focus on offense too much,” he said. “I want to be a great defender, a guy that can come in and stop the guy in front of me and find my niche on the offensive end.”
McAdoo has always been a mature soul, often choosing to stay where he is rather than jump the gun in moving to the next level too quickly. His passing up on early graduation is one example, but McAdoo also could have been a lottery pick had he left school a couple of years ago. Rather, he stayed where he was to make the most of his experience at Chapel Hill.
As far as draft position is concerned, that was clearly a mistake, as McAdoo is now projected as a second-rounder, but from a person standpoint he really doesn’t seem to have any regrets.
“I would’ve loved to have won a National Championship. I was able to win an ACC championship, but I feel like I was successful as far as getting my education,” McAdoo said. “On the court there was a lot of pressure, but I feel like I dealt with it and came out a great player, really experienced, and I’m excited to be a part of an NBA program and continue growing.”
His ceiling is more established these two years later, hence the dip in draft stock, but that’s not to say that what he’s learned in his three years under Roy Williams hasn’t been valuable.
“The more and more I grew, the more and more I filled into my body,” he said, adding that this year finally felt right to declare for the draft.
“It just came down to my confidence level and trying to fulfill my dreams. I wanted to go out here and make basketball my career. It’s something I want to do for a living.”
And he is, after a long journey, about to do it for a living. He’s finally ready to make the leap and actually looks like one of the second-round’s better values. McAdoo is an easy guy to like, and plenty of teams will be interested in adding him to their rotation, particularly at second-round value.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”