The Willis Reed performance notwithstanding, there are a lot more stories of injuries to star players crippling NBA teams’ playoff runs than helping to aid them. The Brooklyn Nets were on the wrong side of history this year. Playing without Ben Simmons hurt Brooklyn’s chances of winning and swung a lot of point spreads.
The Nets were swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics. The Western Conference’s top seed, the Phoenix Suns, may also fall victim to this as well. The Suns lost guard Devin Booker to an injury in Game 2 of their series with New Orleans to a hamstring injury and his return is uncertain. Here’s a look at teams that were wondering what if when a star player went down with an injury and changed their fortunes forever.
Thorn on a Rose
The Chicago Bulls were very much back by the 2011-12 season. Exciting young point guard Derrick Rose had helped Chicago reach the Eastern Conference final for the first time since Michael Jordan retired during the 2010-11 season. The Bulls came back with a vengeance the next year, earning the Eastern Conference’s top seed by compiling a 50-16 record.
During Game 1 of the series, Derrick Rose scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out nine assists in 32 minutes. However, Rose would tear his ACL in a Chicago victory. The Bulls — and Rose — would never be the same. Chicago would be upset in six games by the 76ers. The Bulls haven’t made in further than the second round since the 2012-13 season, when they lost to the Heat in five games.
Rose wouldn’t play at all in the 2012-13 season and once seemingly ticketed for the Hall of Fame became a journeyman. Rose, who now plays for the New York Knicks, has played for five different teams over 15 seasons in the league.
Ring chase ends bleakly
Karl Malone joined a Los Angeles Lakers dynasty running on fumes for the 2003-04 season. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s feud had reached a fever pitch and the team was headed for a breakup. However, Los Angeles added two veteran players — Gary Payton and Malone — to help provide veteran experience and give them a chance to chase a ring they lacked.
Malone had a nagging knee injury that limited him all season — he only played 42 regular-season games — but he was ready for the playoffs. Malone averaged 38 minutes per game and contributed 11.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game throughout 21 appearances. However, in the finals against an aggressive Detroit Pistons defense, Malone couldn’t keep up. His injury would keep him out of Game 5 when the Pistons closed out a shocking upset.
Payton would get his ring when he team with O’Neal in Miami and won the 2006 crown, but Malone would be forced to retire after the season.
Before Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA title during the 2010-11 season, there was plenty of disappointment for the German superstar. No series loss may have been tougher for him than the 2002-03 season. Dallas reached the Western Conference finals thanks in part to Nowitzki’s performance.
In 17 playoff games, Nowitzki averaged 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Dallas won the first game of the Western Conference finals thanks to the brilliance of Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash. However, things would turn in Game 3. Nowitzki sprained his knee and would be forced to sit out the rest of the series.
Having to lean on Michael Finley and Nash, Dallas’ offense didn’t have the punch to keep up with the dynastic Spurs. San Antonio would turn the Mavericks away six games.
Three-peat fizzles out
Before Game 1 of the 1989 NBA Finals, the Lakers lost guard Byron Scott to a hamstring injury. Scott, who averaged 19.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, would end up missing the entire series against the Detroit Pistons. While it wasn’t the only reason Los Angeles lost, it was a major blow for the Lakers.
Detroit would sweep Los Angeles and help put out the flame on the 1980’s Lakers’ dynasty. Los Angeles would return to the final in 1991, which the Lakers lost to the Bulls, but the Lakers wouldn’t win another championship until 2000.