Like death and taxes in life, injuries are an inevitable calamity of sports. The NBA is no exception.
This season a barrage of injuries having happened, including a handful within the last two weeks. Obviously, injuries are never a fun topic, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid discussing them. Many — especially those on this list — have an outsize impact on teams and the league itself (not to mention the afflicted players).
Here are 14 players whose injuries have caused such tremors so far this season.
Gordon Hayward, small forward, Boston Celtics
The first injury of the season — a broken leg five minutes into opening night — is also one of the toughest to assess in terms of impact. Contrary to predictions that they would struggle without Hayward, the Celtics have been the best team in the Eastern Conference. Rookie Jayson Tatum has picked up an outsize load, though his offensive production dropped off in the last month, while Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both put up All-Star campaigns through the first half.
Despite starting Tatum, a rookie, and Irving, who, historically, has struggled defensively, Boston leads the league in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s more conceivable than ever that the Celtics knock off Cleveland in the postseason — and that’s all without Hayward.
Exactly what this team would look like with its marquee free agent signing is completely impossible to say. We saw it for all of five minutes. But if Hayward manages to come back for a postseason run, the Cavs should watch out.
DeMarcus Cousins, power forward, New Orleans Pelicans
A ruptured Achilles ended Cousins’ season just last Friday. The Pelicans have only played one game without him thus far — a nine-point loss to the Clippers — but Cousins accounted for essentially half of the team’s production alongside Anthony Davis. He was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game with an assist rate in the 97th percentile among big men, per Cleaning the Glass. Cousins also ranked in the 99th percentile when it came to usage at a cool 32.7 percent, also per CTG. He’d be tough to replace for any team, but the Pelicans — currently clinging onto a playoff spot in the cutthroat West — have almost no organizational depth.
Without Cousins, New Orleans is Davis, Jrue Holiday, and a bucket of players who would be solid bench guys on most playoff teams. A potential Nikola Mirotic trade would alleviate some issues (especially if the Pelicans could also get rid of Omer Asik’s albatross of a contract), but you’re not replacing one of few superstar big men in the NBA. If Davis can drag New Orleans to a playoff spot, it would be a Herculean feat.
Isaiah Thomas, point guard, Cleveland Cavaliers
Thomas’ season thus far has been fairly emblematic of his team’s. A hip injury sustained (and made worse) during Boston’s 2017 playoff run kept Thomas out until January, a span over which Cleveland struggled, seemed to recover, then struggled some more. Since his return, the Cavs have cratered, going 5-7 in January with Thomas reportedly instigating a meeting during which Kevin Love was accused of faking illness to leave a game early.
His play hasn’t quite been up to snuff either. Thomas is notching only 102 points per 100 shot attempts, in the 39th percentile and down from 126.2 — the 94th percentile — in 2017, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s averaging two fewer assists per game with an effective field goal percentage nine points lower, and playing characteristically bad defense. Simply, he doesn’t seem to be fully recovered.
Thomas will have to find his old self at some point if Cleveland is to win the East. The Cavs are in disarray and LeBron can’t do it all by himself — at least not against a much-improved Celtics (and maybe even the Raptors, if they don’t fall apart in the postseason again). As much a defensive liability as Thomas will always be, Cleveland needs some sort of production out of the point guard spot and it ain’t coming from Derrick Rose.
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia Eagles
To recap the No. 1 overall pick’s rookie season: Fultz played four games, shooting an abhorrent 33.3 percent from the field, before the Sixers shut him down with a vague shoulder injury. He has yet to return and Philly has yet to put a date on it.
In the meantime, social media has been periodically inundated with videos of Fultz doing something that could be remotely described as shooting basketballs (like this). These are not normal shots, however — Fultz’s mechanics seem to have changed and he’s almost pushing the ball the same way somebody who’s never played basketball might try to do so. If the periodic videos of Joel Embiid shooting or dunking during his two-year injury recovery hiatus represented a glimmer of hope for the Process, the videos of Fultz are a storm cloud.
The Sixers don’t seem to have missed Fultz much (though, in fairness, it’s impossible to judge what they might look like with him). Ben Simmons has been transcendent and T.J. McConnell is a solid piece off the bench, despite a steadily declining assist rate. However, the potential derailment of Fultz’s career (while Tatum thrives in Boston) is a looming specter over the franchise.
Jabari Parker, power forward, Milwaukee Bucks
Parker is expected to return from an ACL tear this Friday, almost exactly 51 weeks after sustaining it last season. It’s easy to forget just how good Parker is because so much of his career has been consumed by maladies, but the guy was a No. 2 overall pick for a reason. In 51 games last season, he averaged 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds on a 53 effective field goal percentage. That was at age 21 on a team where he wasn’t the primary option. Parker’s defense was an issue and there was certainly room for improvement offensively, but he can slot into the ‘4’ spot and be an instant improvement with still high potential.
Bringing Parker gives the Bucks yet another high-ceiling big man. If he ever realizes his potential, the prospect of Parker playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo is downright scary.
John Wall, point guard, Washington Wizards
It was announced Tuesday that Wall will be out for the next 6-8 weeks with a knee injury. Even in what had been a relatively down year for the 27-year old, Wall was averaging nearly 20 points along with 9.3 assists per game for the Wizards.
His on/off nnumbers are exaggerated because of the Washington’s bench issues, but the Wiz are 7.5 points better per 100 possessions with Wall on the Floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Lineups featuring Bradley Beal without Wall score 111.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Wowy, a sign that Washington can survive without Wall. However, that will be an uphill climb.
Andre Roberson, small forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Roberson’s lack of offensive skill makes it tough to realize just how valuable he is for Oklahoma City. Roberson has ranked in the zeroth — not the first, the zeroth — percentile in usage rate among wings ever year of his career, per Cleaning the Glass, scores just five points per game and shoots an abysmal 22.2 percent from 3. In the postseason, he’s a massive offensive liability.
Yet, Roberson has stuck around in this league, as a starter on a perennial playoff team, because he’s one of the best defensive players in basketball. Roberson has relatively high block and steal rates for his position, the ability to switch ‘1’ through ‘4’, and the Thunder are an absurd 12.4 points worse per 100 possessions on defense without him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s a greater difference than the one between the teams ranking first and last in defensive rating. OKC is going to miss Roberson — out for the year with a ruptured patellar tendon — in a big way.
Stephen Curry, point guard, Golden State Warriors
Curry missing 15 games didn’t really impact Golden State, currently cruising through the season like Cesar conquering Gaul, but it will impact the MVP race.
Here are some of Curry’s numbers this season: 28.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, 59.1 effective field goal percentage, 49.8 percent shooting from the field, 43 from 3, 90.9 from the free throw line. He also has a 29.5 PER and leads the league with a 68 true shooting percentage, ranking in the 100th percentile with an absurd 137.9 points per 100 shot attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Those are MVP numbers, especially given that Curry is playing alongside another transcendent player and two other superstars. Yet, the buzz hasn’t been there with Curry. Missing those 15 games could easily hand the MVP trophy to James Harden.
Chris Paul, point guard, Houston Rockets
Paul has been perfectly fine since mid-November, but we shouldn’t forget that he missed nearly a month of action at the start of the season. That stretch told us all we needed to know about the Rockets, reminding us that even without Paul, Houston was still an absolute juggernaut.
Despite that, it’s no coincidence the Rockets ripped off a 14-game win streak starting the game Paul came back. Without Paul, Houston gets by defensively. With him, the Rockets are a legitimately good defensive team. And that’s without mentioning their offense, which somehow got better (a seemingly impossible task) with Paul added into the mix. Any possible tensions between he and Harden evaporated instantly. As far as challenging the Warriors go, the Rockets will still be fairly heavy underdogs, but an upset seems significantly more plausible than it did a year ago.
Kawhi Leonard, small forward, San Antonio Spurs
The fact that Leonard’s injury isn’t one of the five, or even 25 most talked-about stories in the NBA is a testament to how incredible the Spurs are at keeping things in house. Leonard is quite arguably one of the league’s three best players when healthy. He quite arguably deserved to win the MVP last season instead of Russell Westbrook or Harden, both of whom had historic years. Leonard has played nine games this season with rumors flying about his relationship with the Spurs. There’s no timetable on his return. Why aren’t we talking about this every minute of every day?
The Spurs have Spurs’d on without him, racking up a 33-19 record, good enough to place third in the West, behind a resurgent LaMarcus Aldridge and the regular cast. But this group isn’t winning a playoff series — at least not one past the first round — without Leonard. And if Leonard actually wants out, it changes the franchise’s entire calculus. Maybe this is nothing, Leonard comes back in a month and is perfectly content to live out his basketball life on the River Walk. But nobody seems to know that for sure.
Kevin Love, power forward, Cleveland Cavaliers
As if the Cavs needed another problem, Love broke his hand Tuesday night and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. The instant impact here is that injury will probably prevent Cleveland from moving Love at the trade deadline, a heavily rumored possibility, at least until now. It will also (probably) take Love out of the perpetual drama that seems to travel with Cleveland, meaning the Cavs won’t be able to blame him for their problems. Oh, and they’re also losing an All-Star level player, a fact that seems to get lost when we talk about Love nowadays.
Love is averaging a double-double per 36 minutes and at 18.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, isn’t far off from doing so per game. He’s shooting efficiently and his PER is at 23.1 — the highest its been since his Minnesota days. Love’s defense is bad. Fine. He’s playing out of position, which is a better excuse than anybody else on the Cavs has to offer. With his injury, a bad situation in Cleveland got worse.
Paul Millsap, power forward, Denver Nuggets
When Denver signed the 31-year old Millsap to a two-year, $61 million deal, it was probably hoping to get most of its value in Year One. He played just 16 games before suffering a torn ligament in his left wrist and has yet to return (though he’s expected to do so after the All-Star break).
The Nuggets have tread water without Millsap, playing largely the same game they did last season — good offense coupled with terrible defense — and gotten largely the same results, sitting at eighth in the West. During the small sample over which Millsap was on the floor this season, the Nuggets saw a 2.7-point per 100 possession improvement on defense, per Cleaning the Glass. If he can carry that in upon his return and fit into the offense (which shouldn’t be a problem), the Nuggets go from playoff contender to a team nobody wants to get in the first round.
Danilo Gallinari, small forward, Los Angeles Clippers
Gallinari has played just three games since November 5, returning to action on Tuesday and putting up 15 points. For the Clippers, that might be too little, too late. Los Angeles has flailed around .500 for most of the year without Gallinari and decided to pull the trigger on a rebuild this week, flipping Blake Griffin to the Pistons for an impressive return that included Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and a lightly protected first-round pick.
That move seems to be the precursor to more, with DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams both on the block. Gallo probably wouldn’t have prevented that, but let’s not forget that he’s a good player when healthy. We came into this season intrigued by both his fit alongside Griffin and Jordan and the potential for him to be a stretch four in small lineups. It would have been fun to explore those possibilities. That chance is more or less gone now, and so is the Clippers’ season.
Mike Conley, point guard, Memphis Grizzlies
Conley played only 12 games before undergoing season-ending surgery. Since then, Memphis — which expected to fight for a playoff spot — has been in full-on tank mode.
The Grizzlies are a pitiful 18-31, currently slated for the eighth spot in the lottery, They’re only two games off a top-3 pick in the win column, but it’s tough to see Memphis doing that terribly unless it decides to find an excuse to sit Marc Gasol at some point. Even so, a potential core of Gasol, Conley, and Collin Sexton is worth getting excited about. Memphis had been spinning its wheels for the last two seasons, toiling away in mediocrity and hampered by bad decisions made during the cap spike in 2016 — namely massive deals handed out to Conley and Chandler Parsons.
It’s not inconceivable this injury — and the tanking it besets — ends up being a blessing in disguise.