You’ve been wondering it. You’ve been reading about it everywhere. You’ve even heard commissioner David Stern ask the question himself during Game 4 of Bucks-Heat: “Is this the worst year ever [for injuries], or does it just seem like it?”
It’s a question worth asking. It seems like every couple of days, a new injury pops up that could affect the postseason — either just a series, or perhaps the entire title race. Just during the playoffs we’ve seen David Lee, Russell Westbrook, Tiago Splitter and Jeremy Lin suffer injuries that have kept them out of games or even longer. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel like this was already the case for most of the NBA season, in which just about every team — particularly in the East — seemed to lose a key player for much or all of the regular season. (Except for the Heat, of course, because those guys got so good that they are now impervious to bad things happening to them.) And it wasn’t just relatively important role players that went down — it was also franchise players, league-defining superstars, and even a couple former MVPs who went down.
But is it actually that much worse this year? It seems like a lot for one season, but is that just a recency bias that doesn’t actually hold up to deep study of the injury situation of other regular seasons and playoffs?
I decided to look at the injury situations of the last five seasons and postseasons, to compare and contrast in order to see if this year really is far and away the worst in recent memory. I’ve listed all the major injuries suffered to key players for most or all the regular season or playoffs — “key players” being loosely defined as a top three player on a lottery-bound team, or a top-six player on a playoff-bound one, and “most” being more rigidly defined as more than half of the team’s games played. (The latter qualification unfortunately doesn’t count for important regular-season injuries such as Dirk’s 29 games missed for Dallas this season, or post-season injuries like Chris Bosh’s nine playoff games missed for Miami last year, but nearly every player gets injured for some amount of time over a season, and I had to draw the line somewhere to avoid filtering in too many less-consequential IR visits.) Players who already missed the entire previous season were not counted in a year’s tally, so Greg Oden gets listed no later than 2010, for instance.
Let’s begin with a look at this year, which obviously still has a ways to go:
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao, Glenn Davis, Kevin Love, Chauncey Billups, Andrew Bogut
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, David Lee, Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin (if he misses Game 5)
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Amar’e Stoudemire, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Lou Williams, Derrick Rose
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2012) to miss significant regular or postseason time: Six (Bynum, Bryant, Westbrook, Love, Rose, Rondo)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Four (Westbrook, Stoudemire, Gallinari, Rose)
Analysis: Obviously a ton to work with here. The six missing All-Stars is easily the most of any of the years I looked at, and that’s not even counting 2012 All-Stars like Dirk, Pau, Nash and Manu, all of whom missed notable regular season (and in Nash’s case, playoff) time, but not more than half their team’s games. The Westbrook and Rose injuries both have significant impacts on the playoff races in their respective conferences, and though you can argue whether the Nuggets were really title contenders even with Gallinari, or whether Amar’e's injury actually hurts the Knicks’ chances of contention, their injuries are not without postseason impact either.
Also worth noting are the Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum injuries, both of which arguably affected the playoff race by eliminating the Sixers and Timberwolves respectively from the equation altogether — were both healthy for all or much of the season, the two squads were likely to be postseason bound. And of course, there’s Kobe Bryant, whose injury probably affected the postseason little in the long run, but whose star power and league-wide recognition eclipses any other player to go down with a major injury in recent years. Really, only a missing LeBron James would compare in that respect, and that’s probably not happening anytime soon.
Now, let’s see how each of the last five seasons stack up injury-wise, by comparison:
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Brook Lopez, Rip Hamilton, Andrew Bogut, Anderson Varejao, Al Horford, Nene Hilario, Stephen Curry, Zach Randolph, Eric Gordon
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Jeremy Lin, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Iman Shumpert
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, Jeff Green
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2011) to miss significant regular/postseason time: Three (Rose, Howard, Horford)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Two (Rose, Green)
Analysis: 2012′s IR list is mostly filled with exciting players on teams that would have been lottery-bound with or without them — Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez, etc. — whose absence was obviously a bummer, but was ultimately not terribly consequential to the league on the whole. Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin seem like big injuries, until you remember that Dwight’s Magic team was already falling apart by the time he went down for good with back issues, and that Linsanity was unofficially ended by Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole’s suffocating defense a month or so before Lin’s knee issues bubbled up, with Lin never quite playing as effectively after that.
The only truly tough injury of the bunch here is Derrick Rose’s season-ending ACL tear in Game 1 of the first round against the 76ers, which pretty much gift-wrapped Boston an appearance in the Final Four (though they still needed seven games to get past the Sixers for some reason), and paved the way for the Heat to return to the Finals (though they still needed seven games to get past the Celtics for some reason). Rose is also the only reigning MVP to miss significant time in the period studied, mostly because most reigning MVPs have been LeBron, natch.
Does it compare to this year? The Rose injury was huge, and the young guys were missed, but still, not quite.
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Udonis Haslem, Yao Ming, Kendrick Perkins
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Chauncey Billups
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Shaquille O’Neal, Caron Butler, David West
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2010) to miss significant regular/post-season time: One (Billups)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Two (O’Neal, Butler)
Analysis: 2011 mostly gets off easy. The Yao injury barely even counts, since he had already missed all of 2010 and wasn’t really expected to stay healthy a full year again, before only playing five games that year and calling it a career. Udonis Haslem was back in time for the important part of the Heat’s run to the Finals, and the Knicks might not have gotten swept by the Celtics had Chauncey Billups been around for more of that first round series, but they probably would have lost anyway. And Caron Butler’s absence couldn’t have impacted the Mavs’ chances at contending that much, since they ended up winning the title anyway.
The most important injury here probably was the one to Shaquille O’Neal a little less than halfway into his surprisingly successful final season with the Celtics. You forget that the Celtics had really been rolling with Shaq at center, going 27-9 with him as a starter while Kendrick Perkins recovered from knee injuries, until the C’s traded Perk and the 38-year-old O’Neal went down with Achilles and calf issues. Perkins made it back for the playoffs on the Thunder, but the Celtics — who could really have used an operational Shaq in that second round Miami series, where they were forced to rely on a diminished Jermaine O’Neal — only got 11 minutes out of their big man, bowing out in five games.
Does it compare to this year? Nah. When an on-the-verge-of-retirement Shaq is your most conspicuous absence, it was a pretty OK year health-wise.
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Blake Griffin, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Mehmet Okur, Rudy Gay, Andrew Bogut
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Michael Redd, Greg Oden
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2009) to miss significant regular/postseason time: One (Yao)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Zero
Analysis: Blake Griffin was obviously the biggest loss this year, messing up his kneecap in a preseason game, just as the hype about the upcoming rookie season for the No. 1 overall pick was reaching a fever pitch, and fellow former top pick Greg Oden’s loss to another season-ending surgery was a big bummer as well. But otherwise, this was a pretty clean year. Yao and T-Mac’s injuries would ultimately be the signs of them being on their last legs, same with Michael Redd, and though Andrew Bogut’s (and to a lesser extent, Michael Redd’s) injury arguably cost the Bucks their first round series against the Hawks, they weren’t gonna be more than a one-and-done playoff team regardless.
Interestingly, the injury with the biggest postseason impact here might’ve been Rudy Gay’s mid-season bow-out, which allowed the Grizzlies to fully realize their core identity as a defensive-minded, post-oriented team, leading to Memphis’ classic first round 8-over-1 upset of the Spurs, and their equally classic seven-game showdown against the Thunder in the next round. Not really the kind of injury impact we’re looking for in this article, though.
Does it compare to this year? Not even close.
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Mike Dunleavy, Andrew Bogut, Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, Chris Kaman, Monta Ellis
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Kevin Garnett, Luol Deng, Allen Iverson, Jameer Nelson, Manu Ginobili
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Elton Brand, Tracy McGrady
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2008) to miss significant regular/postseason time: Three (Boozer, Iverson, Garnett)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Four (Garnett, Nelson, Ginobili, McGrady)
Analysis: This was a pretty rough year, actually. Some of those names up top (Dunleavy, Kaman, again with Redd/Bogut) might not really ring out, but those four possibly title-altering injuries were doozies. The Spurs, a perennial contender in something of a down year, found themselves vulnerable to a first round upset by the lower-seeded Dallas Mavericks without Manu Ginobili, and with far too much Michael Finley, Drew Gooden and Roger Mason, Jr. in his absence. The Rockets were supposed to mount a title charge with Yao, Tracy and the recently acquired Ron Artest, but T-Mac’s body was breaking down, and after 35 games of sub-par production, he underwent knee surgery, marking the beginning of the end of his H-Town tenure, while the Rockets lost to the Lakers in a tough seven-game second round series, in which they were also missing Yao for all but the first game.
But two injuries this year loomed large over all. Kevin Garnett was obviously the highest-profile, since the Celtics were arguably the league’s best team while KG was healthy, as the defending champs went 41-11 in his 52 games before knee issues popped up, costing him all but five games for the rest of the season. You could make a very good argument — and Lord knows Bill Simmons has tried — that the Celtics would have won the title that year with a healthy KG, which makes his injury arguably the most important of the entire period covered here.
Also, don’t sleep on how big the injury to Jameer Nelson was. The Magic point guard made the All-Star team for the first and only time that year, averaging career highs in nearly every scoring-related category and serving as the team’s closer in most of their big games. He suffered a shoulder injury 42 games into his season, though, which kept him out up until the Magic were in the Finals against the Lakers, where he was clearly rusty upon his return (and indeed, never approached that level of play again in his career). With a healthy Jameer, I still believe the Magic take that series and win their first-ever Finals as Jameer even averaged 28 and seven in his two games against the Lakers that year, while shooting well over 50 percent.
Does it compare to this year? I’d say it does, because of the two injuries that both arguably swung the title, though if forced to choose between the two, I’d still say this year was worse for the depth of the injuries suffered to key players throughout the regular season.
Key players injured for most or all of regular season: Jermaine O’Neal, Gilbert Arenas, Greg Oden, Elton Brand
Injured for most or all of playoffs: Yao Ming
Injured for most or all of both regular season and playoffs: Nene, Andrew Bynum
Number of All-Stars from the previous season (2007) to miss significant regular/postseason time: Three (O’Neal, Arenas, Yao)
Number of injuries that affected the title chances of possible contenders: Two (Yao, Bynum)
Analysis: Just about every notable injury from this year would be to players who’d be hounded by health issues the rest of their (in some cases brief) pro careers. Elton Brand, Jermaine O’Neal and Gilbert Arenas’ injuries all signaled the end of their days as perennial All-Stars, Bynum has been in and out of the doctor’s office his whole career since his knee injury forced him to miss the Lakers’ title run, and both Yao and Greg Oden would be out of the league three seasons later. Hard to know it at the time, but it’s kinda depressing to look back on in retrospect.
Still, in terms of short-term impact on the league, only the Yao and Bynum injuries really affected the 2008 playoff landscape. Both were particularly disappointing for their timing. Yao’s came in the midst of the Rockets’ 22-game win streak, and though Houston soldiered on without him for the last 10 games or so of that streak, they folded some for the remainder of the season, and were cut down by the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. Bynum’s came just as he was starting to flash the talent that inspired the Lakers to draft him with a top 10 pick two years earlier, averaging a double-double through 35 games, before knee issues forced him to miss the remainder of the season — though the Pau Gasol trade a couple weeks after Drew’s injury certainly helped soften the blow on that for Lakers fans.
Does it compare to this year?: Not quite, though Lakers fans will always have the Bynum injury counter to Celtics fans who complain about KG and Perkins injuries costing them chances to grab a second title from LA during the two team’s peak runs.
Ultimately, of the last five seasons, only 2009 really compares to this year’s show of major injuries to major players, and even that one probably falls a little short of 2013′s crap standard. Your eyes and ears do not deceive you, David Stern, this year is really just the worst.