The Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting something that’s almost unthinkable. At the trade deadline, the team turned over nearly half its roster in the midst of a title chase. Incorporating all those new pieces midstream was challenge enough. Now think about how Kevin Love’s extended injury absence complicated things even further.
The Cavaliers are just one contending team that has dealt with untimely injury issues this season. Injuries are never timely, but they’re an inescapable part of the NBA ecosystem. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s ankle injury forced Magic Johnson to play out of position at center on his way to becoming the only rookie to win NBA Finals MVP. Willis Reed famously limped onto the floor of Madison Square Garden to jump center against Wilt Chamberlain in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, despite a torn thigh muscle.
Injuries are a ubiquitous part of NBA postseason lore. But this season, it seems like an epidemic of injuries to key players on contending teams could alter the playoff landscape. Love appeared Tuesday in his fifth game after a 21-game absence due to a fractured hand, only to take an elbow to the face from Miami’s Jordan Mickey. He did not return and finished the game with one point and still more questions about his availability with the playoffs approaching rapidly.
James spoke after the loss in Miami about the challenge of trying to dial in rotations with Love in and out of the lineup.
“What hurt us more is that now our rotations were [in] disarray,” said James. “We had a great rotation thing down the last few games. For a guy to go down that early, it kind of messed that up.”
James was solemn about the challenge of preparing for the next night’s game in Charlotte and closing out the season with so much still up in the air.
“We’re already kind of behind the eight-ball,” said James. “We’ve been so in and out with different lineups, different rotations, guys getting injured, guys coming back. The system that we want to put in place, it has to be on the fly. We’re trying to fast-track it.”
Cleveland bounced back with a 118-105 win in Charlotte in which James scored 41 points, tied Michael Jordan for an NBA record with 866 consecutive double-digit scoring games (he can take sole possession tonight against the visiting Pelicans) and left Charlotte’s floor amidst MVP chants. It was a big individual night for one of the NBA’s transcendent stars, but a freak accident on the same night has thrown doubt on the availability of another of its biggest names.
In the second quarter of the 76ers’ conference-best eighth consecutive win over the visiting New York Knicks, center Joel Embiid suffered a concussion and a fractured orbital in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. He will have facial surgery in the coming days and stands in danger of missing at least the first round of the playoffs.
“When Joel is on the floor, everybody grabbed their heads,” said 76ers forward Dario Saric after the game. “Of course [the] players were in shock, staff was in shock.”
While the Cavaliers must deal with incorporating many new pieces after the trade deadline, the 76ers are staring at a first-round playoff series without the team’s cornerstone player. Unlike the Cavaliers, however, Philadelphia can’t draw on the sort of veteran leadership and playoff experience that Cleveland can.
“You’d be lying to say it’s a good thing to have no playoff experience and then go to the playoffs,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown after the Knicks win. “If you gave me a choice, I’d prefer to have a team that was really used to the playoffs. But I love this team. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”
The 76ers have the league’s easiest remaining schedule and could still overtake the Cavaliers for the third seed in the East, even without Embiid. In such a scenario, Philadelphia could end up facing a veteran team in the first round such as the Washington Wizards, currently sixth in the East.
The Wizards are anticipating the imminent return of starting point guard John Wall, who has been out since before the All-Star break after knee surgery. Wall could play as soon as Saturday against the visiting Hornets, which would give the Wizards an opportunity to re-incorporate him ahead of the postseason.
“He’s getting closer,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks after a Wednesday practice. “He’s been through all of our practices and shootarounds at home. The next step is to get him on court for a game.”
The Wizards went 10-3 after losing Wall as several players stepped up in playmaking roles. Since then, however, Washington is just 5-9. The Wizards are only four games behind the third-seed Cavaliers, so an upward move into home court advantage in the first round is not out of the question.
Wall’s imminent return is a big advantage for the veteran Wizards. It’s an advantage that’s unlikely to be shared by the Boston Celtics, which has been hit by the injury bug early and often. Star small forward Gordon Hayward was lost for the season on opening night. A week ago, starting point guard Kyrie Irving had a procedure to alleviate soreness in his knee. The timetable for his return is three to six weeks, which places him likewise in doubt for the opening round of the playoffs.
“The timeline will be determined on how he feels and how quickly he can get back on the court,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. “There’s still a process after that too, to be ready to play in a game.”
The Celtics are somehow seven games ahead of the Cavaliers in second in the East and only three games behind the Raptors. That’s despite numerous injuries in addition to Irving and Gordon. Key defensive contributor Marcus Smart was lost to thumb surgery and is questionable to return and contribute in the playoffs. Forward Jaylen Brown also missed a series of games after a scary fall and, more recently, center Al Horford has missed time due to an ankle injury.
That’s four of the top six teams in the East missing extended time from central players. The Western Conference isn’t in any better shape, with the Golden State Warriors rocked by injuries to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. For the Rockets, Chris Paul (sore hamstring) and Luc Mbah a Moute (sore knee) have missed time and James Harden appeared to suffer a sprained ankle last week against the Pistons. Harden previously missed time due to a sore left knee.
But it’s not just the top two teams in the West that have struggled with injuries. Portland lost Mo Harkless to knee surgery and has endured nagging injuries to Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier. The Thunder lost defensive centerpiece Andre Roberson to season-ending knee surgery. The Pelicans, of course, lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season after an Achilles injury.
Throw in the Timberwolves’ loss of star Jimmy Butler and — even before you count the unfathomable saga of Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs — that’s six of the top seven teams in the West that have had to play through health issues. That leaves little doubt that this season’s playoffs will be heavily impacted by injuries, even if the rest of the season is free of further catastrophes. The team that limps across the finish line in the NBA Finals may need some Willis Reed-style inspiration to get there.
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