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NBA PM: History’s Worst Playoff Injuries

Oklahoma City looks lost now that star forward Serge Ibaka is out, but he’s nowhere near the most devastating playoff injury ever… James Michael McAdoo still looks like a second-round sleeper, despite drop in stock the last couple of years…

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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.

Honorable Mention:

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.

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

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