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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.

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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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