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: