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NBA PM: Top 5 Most Devastating Playoff Injuries

Losing Kevin Love hurts the Cavs’ title hopes, but it didn’t make our top-five list of most devastating playoff injuries.

Joel Brigham

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Most Devastating Playoff Injuries

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love is angry, and he should be. Not necessarily because Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk did anything to purposefully ruin his summer, but because after toiling away on non-playoff teams his entire career, Love was finally in the postseason and moving on with a team that very well could have represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. He could have potentially even won a ring, but now he’s sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair his dislocated shoulder.

Now, the media is even more reticent to lean toward an Eastern Conference team winning the title than it was before the Love injury, mostly because Love was one of the reasons the Cavs were considered the East’s most likely Finals team. Now, though, he’s done for the season, and while the Cavs still are a strong team, they’re not nearly as formidable as they had been before that injury.

It was a knockout punch, both for the team and the city, but was it the worst instance ever of a team losing a star player right in the midst of a legitimate postseason run?

That’s what this list intends to explore. First and foremost, consideration is given to how good a shot a team might have had at winning the ring had this particular player not gone down. It doesn’t necessarily matter which round it happened in, just that the player being gone was enough to cause the team to lose. The more that was at stake – the more a team and its fan base lost – the higher on this list they will be.

Here they are, the top five most devastating playoff injuries:

#5 – Karl Malone, 2004 L.A. Lakers

Everybody expected the L.A. Lakers to win the championship in 2004 after adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone to a core that already included Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. However, they fell short, in large part due to Malone’s nagging knee injury. The Detroit Pistons, a team without a superstar, surprisingly won the title instead.

Malone hurt his knee about a third of the way through the 2003-04 regular season, but the damage ended up being more severe than team doctors originally thought. He played through the pain all season long, but by the time the Finals rolled around, Malone was clearly off his game. He ended up sitting out Game 5, even though the Lakers went into that game trailing the Pistons in the series, 1-3.

Needless to say, Malone’s injury wasn’t the only thing that prevented the Lakers from winning it all, but in truth, because of the injury they hadn’t had him at full strength for all of the postseason. Whether that cost L.A. the championship is up for debate (they boasted plenty of elite talent even with Malone sitting), but losing their starting Hall-of-Fame power forward certainly didn’t help.

#4 – Derrick Rose, 2012 Chicago Bulls

After missing about a third of the season with ailments to five completely different parts of his body, Rose damaged a sixth body part as the Bulls were gearing up for what looked to be a pretty promising 2012 postseason run. Chicago, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, won Game 1 of their first-round series against the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, but lost Rose for the season thanks to an ACL tear. That stomach punch allowed the 76ers to win the next three games of the series.

Joakim Noah eventually sprained his ankle in Game 3, which took him out of the next two games. While the Bulls did manage to eke out one last win in Game 5, Philadelphia moved on to the Conference Semifinals and nobody was surprised.

Chicago might not have gotten past the Miami HEAT that year anyway, but Bulls fans will never know what could have been. Even worse was that this knee injury was just the start of a long string of injuries that have plagued Rose ever since.

#3 – Kendrick Perkins, 2010 Boston Celtics

Perkins isn’t a star these days, and he wasn’t really one back then either, but his loss in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals was perhaps one of the most painful playoff injuries in the history of the game. The Celtics went into that game up 3-2 in that series against the Los Angeles Lakers, and were cruising right along when Perkins tore his MCL and PCL.

It’s hard to remember this now, but Perkins was Boston’s best defensive weapon against the Lakers’ two seven-footers, and his loss helped drive the Lakers to a Game 6 win. L.A. obviously won Game 7 too – despite the fact that Kobe Bryant went 6-24 from the field – mainly because they just banged the ball into the post the entire game.

Had Perkins been in the lineup, Kobe’s awful shooting night probably hands Boston their second title in three years. Instead, L.A. stole the title and Celtics fans still haven’t gotten over it.

#2 – Dirk Nowitzki, 2003 Dallas Mavericks

The 2003 playoffs included arguably the most impressive individual stretch of Dirk Nowitzki’s career. And frankly, had he not sprained his knee in the Western Conference Finals, he might have two championship rings right now instead of one.

Nowitzki started the playoffs that year with a 46-point outburst in Game 1 of round one against the Portland Trail Blazers. Then, in the second round, he pushed the Mavericks to a win in Game 7 over the Sacramento Kings with a monster 30-point, 19-rebound game. In the very next game, the first of the Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, he dropped 38 points and 19 rebounds on the road in San Antonio. But that’s where the string of monster games ended. By the end of Game 3, Dirk had a badly sprained knee that would keep him out of the rest of the series, giving Dallas no chance to top a tough Spurs team in its prime. San Antonio went on to beat the New Jersey Nets in the Finals, while Nowitzki had to wait eight more years before finally getting his first ring.

#1 – Magic Johnson/Byron Scott, 1989 L.A. Lakers

Let’s set the stage for this one a little bit: The Lakers had already won the 1987 and 1988 championships and had just swept every Western Conference opponent they faced in the first three rounds of the playoffs. They were 11-0 heading into the Finals, but starting shooting guard Byron Scott pulled a hamstring in practice before Game 1 had even started. Couple that with Magic Johnson’s pulled hammy (yes, the exact same injury—the basketball gods didn’t even have the decency to mix things up) in Game 2, and you’ve got two very unfortunate injuries early in the series.

The backcourt rotation just wasn’t deep enough to pick up the slack, and that was pretty much all she wrote in the 1989 postseason. To be fair, the burgeoning Detroit Pistons played pretty well that Finals, but the Lakers seemed destined for a three-peat and lost it because a couple of really important hamstrings broke bad at the wrong time.

Honorable Mention:

Kevin Love, 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers – It’s hard to call this one of the most devastating injuries ever because, as good as Love is, he hasn’t been anywhere near as crucial to the team’s success as Kyrie Irving or LeBron James. If the Cavs lost one of those two guys, there would be little expectation for them to win the East. The way it stands now, however, they still could advance to the Finals even without their starting power forward.

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 regular season, but that injury did affect L.A.’s ability to repeat as NBA champions in 1983 so it deserves an honorable mention. 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, when Ewing finally dropped out of the postseason after Game 2 of the Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, the eighth-seeded Knicks made their way to the Finals anyway. They lost to the San Antonio 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.

The playoffs are supposed to be the most enjoyable and exciting time of the year for NBA fans, but when a major injury takes down an integral part of a championship-caliber team, things stop being enjoyable and exciting pretty quickly. That’s what Cavaliers fans are going through right now. Although to a lesser extent, fans of the Memphis Grizzlies feel it too, as they are hoping that Mike Conley finds his way back to the court sooner than later. But they aren’t the first teams to experience that pain, and they won’t be the last.

Injuries are a part of the game. It’s always been that way. You just hope and pray that, if there has to be some big ones, they don’t come at the worst possible time.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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