You can’t have sports without injuries, even non-contact disciplines are exempt from the occasional one. Basketball is especially risky in that regard, and one key injury in the NBA playoffs can undo an entire season’s work.
This year’s was no different, with several top layers suffering setbacks. Ja Morant getting ruled out for the rest of the season during a series vs. the Golden State Warriors was the biggest by far. Who knows how that would have turned out had he remained on the floor for the Memphis Grizzlies?
The NBA is continually plagued with such issues, the worst of which are listed below.
Bill Walton – 1978
Following the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, no team won more than 58 games and just one lost 60. The 1978 Finals pitted a No.5 seed against a No.3.
The Portland Trail Blazers had won the Championship the year before and leading man Bill Walton was named MVP despite playing only 58 games – the Blazers won 58 games that season too. The Hall of Famer tried to go with an injured foot in the playoffs but things would get a lot worse as he would break the appendage in the second game of the Western Conference semis. His team got booted in six games and Walton never suited up for them again.
The Blazers haven’t won another title since.
Kyrie Irving – 2015 & 2021
Kyrie Irving has had some pretty poor luck in the playoffs. Back when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the All-Star point guard played just 44 minutes in the finals series against the Warriors in 2015, having fractured his patella in Game 1. To make matters worse, Kevin Love suffered a horrible shoulder prior to that, only playing 107 minutes the entire playoffs.
The Cavs were done in six.
Fast-forward to 2021, when Irving would roll his ankle by stepping on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semis against the Milwaukee Bucks. Betting outlets such as BetMGM New York had likely seen plenty of action pointing towards the Brooklyn Nets advancing but the Bucks were the ones who went through and eventually won the NBA Championship. Brooklyn’s Big 3 project blew up as a result of the injury to Kyrie, with James Harden also playing hobbled.
The Nets were favored to win it all this year but Irving missed most of the season due to his vaccination stance and they ended up getting swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round.
Bill Russell – 1958
The Celtics might have won 10 straight championships had it not been for a sprained ankle. We will never know.
Boston won a chip the season they brought Bill Russell in via trade from the St. Louis Hawks. Rather ironically, they ended up beating the Hawks for the title. The teams met again in the following finals but Russell suffered an ankle injury in Game 3 and missed the next two games.
His Game 6 performance was certainly below his standard and the Hawks went on to win their only championship. The Celtics, though, won eight consecutive titles with a healthy Russell thereafter.
Dirk Nowitzki – 2003
The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs were tied for the league’s best record in 2003 – the former went into the playoffs as the second seed in the west. They got past the Sacramento Kings in the conference semis in seven games, helped by an injury to Chris Webber but got an injury of their own in the conference finals vs. San Antonio as Dirk Nowitzki went down with an ankle injury in Game 3.
The Spurs won three of the next four games and made light work of the then-New Jersey Nets, who wouldn’t have been much trouble for the Mavs either.
Derrick Rose – 2012
It seemed like Derrick Rose would be the man to bring the glory days back to Chicago in the 2011/12 campaign. Having won the MVP Award the previous season, Rose was bothered by injuries and only played 39 of the Bulls’ 66 lockout season games.
The Bulls still managed to finish as the top seed in the East with 50 games in the win column. Things looked pretty bright, however, the dream would be killed early as Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the postseason against the Philadelphia 76ers. The eighth-seeded Sixers took advantage of the Rose-less Bulls to advance to the second round. Rose played just 10 games over the course of the next two seasons and has never been the same.