Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[ Last time on Fact or Fiction: The MVP case for rising Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant ]
Temper title expectations for every sidelined star
Three of the heaviest favorites to win the NBA championship — the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors — are waiting on All-NBA talents to return from lengthy absences for the playoffs. That does not include the injury-depleted Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, who might join them among the league’s top title contenders if each were not waiting on impact players of their own all season.
It would not be surprising to see Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Stephen Curry respectively return to the Suns, Nets and Warriors for Game 1 of the first round. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are trending in a similar direction for the Nuggets. The Clippers have yet to entirely rule out Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Even the Los Angeles Lakers might convince themselves they have another shot once four-time All-NBA big man Anthony Davis inevitably returns from the sprained right foot that has sidelined him since Feb. 16.
There is more parity at the top of the league than there has been in some time, and it is even more difficult to project who will emerge from each conference with so many elite players still battling significant injuries. History tells us each of the aforementioned stars is unlikely to play a major role in leading his team to a title.
Kevin Durant and Curry suffered sprained left MCLs that cost them roughly a month before their 2017 and 2018 championship runs with the Warriors, respectively. Not every team has a second all-timer and two more All-NBA performers to survive an injury to a superstar, so Golden State is more exception than rule.
A sprained ankle sidelined Tim Duncan for 13 games from late March until early April 2005 before he led the San Antonio Spurs to a championship. Isiah Thomas played through a broken second metacarpal in his left hand to lead the Detroit Pistons to the 1989 title. Magic Johnson rested a strained groin for nearly a month, returned for the final 10 games of the 1987-88 regular season and won another ring for the Lakers.
This is the extent of superstars since 1980 returning from a late-season injury to navigate a championship gauntlet — miracle mid-playoff comebacks like last season’s Giannis Antetokounmpo scare withstanding.
The Suns should be somewhat encouraged by precedent. Paul suffered a right thumb avulsion fracture prior to the All-Star break, and Phoenix ruled him out for 6-8 weeks. He has missed the past 12 games and faces the prospect of missing 12 more before the playoffs begin. The question is whether Paul can revert to peak form from a longer layoff at age 36 than Duncan, Thomas and Johnson experienced in their late 20s.
Curry sprained a ligament in his left foot on Wednesday, and Golden State is reportedly “optimistic” the injury will span only the final 12 games of the regular season. Even if he does find his footing in time for the playoffs, the Warriors are also reintegrating Klay Thompson from a two-year injury hiatus and Draymond Green from a back injury that cost him 31 games from Jan. 5 to this past Monday. For all three to recreate their championship recipe from 2015 would require an unprecedented level of expediency of rehabilitation.
The Lakers need Davis to somehow completely transform a roster that has been dreadful with or without him this season. He missed 17 midseason games with a sprained left MCL, returned for 10 appearances, and has been sidelined for the last 11 with a sprained right foot. He has 13 more games and less than a month to prepare for back-to-back single-elimination play-in tournament games, just to make the playoffs.
The Nuggets, Clippers and Nets face even greater hurdles to enter the playoffs at full strength.
Murray has not played since tearing his left ACL 11 months ago, and Porter has been out since re-injuring his back nine games into this season. The former began practicing with Denver’s G League affiliate this week, and the latter may not be far behind. Neither will be at his best this season. The Nuggets can only hope reigning MVP Nikola Jokic carries them long enough for Murray and/or Porter to make any impact.
Leonard tore his right ACL in July, and a right elbow injury has sidelined George since Christmas. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that their safe return to the playoffs would necessitate some regular-season minutes. Time is running out. Leonard and George have increased their non-contact workloads, but the unlikelihood that either meaningfully contributes in the playoffs has to figure into the team’s calculus of whether it makes sense to rush them back in their final 10 regular-season games.
Brooklyn’s situation is more nuanced. Kyrie Irving has been limited to 19 road games this season for his refusal to meet New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and Simmons has not played this season for reasons that reportedly include a contract holdout, mental health struggles and a back injury that required an epidural this week. It seems more likely that a healthy Irving is fully cleared to participate in the playoffs than a rusty Simmons, which might be all Durant needs to restore the Nets as a bona fide title contender.
There is no modern precedent for a player the caliber of Murray, Leonard or Simmons returning from such an extended break so late in the year to alter a title race. Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen’s January 1998 return from preseason foot surgery is the closest comparison, but he had 44 regular-season games to rehabilitate for the three-peat. Pippen narrowly finished that season, needing back surgery by the end of it.
Derek Fisher offers a glimmer of optimism. He made a mid-March 2001 return from offseason foot surgery, played the final 20 regular-season games and averaged an efficient 13-4-3 in the playoffs on the way to the second of three straight Lakers titles. But Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant carried the bulk of the burden.
Fisher’s comeback would be more akin to Brook Lopez making an impact for the Milwaukee Bucks. Lopez suffered a back injury during the season opener and did not appear again until Monday, when he scored six points in 15 minutes off the bench. He will have 12 more regular-season games to prepare for Milwaukee’s title defense, and the Bucks will not be dependent on him to be anything more vital than their fourth option.
Andrew Bynum is another example. He missed 32 games with a torn right MCL at the end of the 2008-09 season and rested a strained left Achilles’ tendon for the final 13 games of the 2009-10 regular season. Yet, he appeared in all 46 playoff games for the Lakers en route to back-to-back titles. He was a shell of himself and not one of their five most important playoff contributors, but he did manage to play 21 minutes a night.
The Bulls are reliant on two such players. Lonzo Ball has not played since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Jan. 28, and Alex Caruso returned from a fractured shooting wrist over the weekend to score 11 points in 29 minutes off the bench. Many of Chicago’s players are in their first season together, and reincorporating two key components at this time of year makes contending all the more challenging.
The league’s injury history suggests the Suns, Nets, Warriors, Bulls and Lakers will face real challenges in optimizing their rosters, even if everyone is back to start the playoffs. It is probably safe to eliminate the Nuggets and Clippers from serious contention. The Bucks have a better chance to enter the postseason at anything close to full strength. The best argument for any of them is that so many face similar obstacles.
The evidence also opens the floor to consideration of healthier challengers. The Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have all (knock on wood) avoided extended late-season absences to their most important players. Only the Sixers currently own better than 10/1 title odds at BetMGM, all the more reason to mull a long-shot champion in an injury-plagued season.
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