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We say it whenever we’re forced to make a prediction about the NBA because we have to. Injuries are an inescapable inevitability. They’re always lurking, just waiting to alter a playoff race, a season or a career.
Nobody’s immune, but some players have had worse injury luck than others.
It’s difficult to quantify the quality of a career shortened by injuries because it requires speculation about what would have happened if not for said misfortune. Was an injury-marred career better if it had a modest five-year peak or a spectacular two-year apex? What about young, promising players whose maladies nudged them off the path to stardom before their ascent ever started?
Below, we’ve highlighted the injury-shortened careers we most would have liked to see play out sans injuries. To keep things contemporary, we limited the candidate pool to players from the last 20 years or so. (Apologies to Bill Walton, who missed that cutoff.)
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The only guy featured here who’s still playing, Derrick Rose might strike some as an odd fit.
But Rose, who suffered a torn ACL less than a year after winning an MVP at the age of 22, clearly would have had a different career if not for an abrupt physical decline.
With averages of 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds in his age-22 season, Rose joined rare company. Among players 22 or younger, only Rose and Oscar Robertson posted per-game figures like those. Robertson did so in 1960-61, a sped-up era of gaudy stats and minimal defense. Achieved 50 years later in an era of relatively suppressed individual production, Rose’s achievement may be even more impressive.
Rose’s breakdown didn’t end with the torn ACL, though. After missing the entire 2012-13 season, he subsequently underwent multiple surgeries to address a torn meniscus in his right knee, suffered through persistent ankle issues, fractured his left orbital bone and lost the top-flight athleticism that defined his early career.
Rose played a reckless style, crashing into the lane and putting extreme strain on his body with a start-and-stop burst that can only be described as violent. Perhaps injuries were inevitable for a player like him. Still, there’s no telling what might have been possible for the youngest player ever to win the NBA’s MVP award.
Rose hasn’t played more than 66 games in any season since he tore his ACL. Instead of performing like a star, he’s strictly a backup playing on minimum deals these days.
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That Grant Hill was just enshrined in the Hall of Fame and still appears here tells you everything you need to know about the heights he could have reached.
Hill was Ben Simmons with a scoring mentality. He was Scottie Pippen with a better handle. He was the game’s premier wing at a time when Michael Jordan’s imminent exit from basketball was about to leave a void only a budding superstar could fill.
Hill was that superstar.
One of only four players to amass 9,000 points, 3,000 rebounds and 2,500 assists in his first six seasons—Roberston, LeBron James and Larry Bird are the other three—Hill was the leading vote-getter in the 1995 and 1996 All-Star Games. Popularity doesn’t necessarily equal greatness, but Hill’s rightful spot as a generational talent was obvious until his body betrayed him.
Starting in the 2000-01 season, foot and ankle problems derailed Hill’s career. He would play only 47 games during his first four seasons with the Orlando Magic—years that should have produced something special, as teammate Tracy McGrady’s star turn was just beginning.
Hill played until the age of 40, fashioning a late-career renaissance as a spot-shooting defensive ace with some quality Phoenix Suns teams.
In his prime, Hill was a remarkably quick 6’8″ ball-handler with a keen passing eye, elite athleticism and deft touch around the basket. He could penetrate, post up, find teammates and push the pace. Versatile wings are everywhere now, which made Hill seem like he was transported from the future to the late 1990s.
If only we had gotten to see more than a half-decade of his best ball.
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Yao Ming made five All-NBA teams and played in the All-Star Game every season in which he was healthy—granted, the annual tidal wave of votes from China helped—but his career was over at age 30.
The 7’6″ center owns career averages of 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks, and he qualified as a genuine spectacle when he arrived from China for the 2002-03 season. It was immediately clear the Houston Rockets had much more than the next Shawn Bradley on their hands.
Rather than a stiff, shot-blocking curiosity, Yao was a skilled high-post weapon with excellent touch and vision. He also anchored top-five defenses in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
If he were playing today, Yao almost certainly would have had the green light to fire away from deep. He was a career 83.3 percent shooter from the foul line, and though his volume from the perimeter was always low, he still shot 36.6 percent from 16-23 feet. If hitting treys had been a priority for centers in the early 2000s, Yao could have done it.
Foot, back and knee injuries plagued him after his third season, and other than a 77-game effort in 2008-09, Yao never played more than 57 games in a season after 2005. He was sidelined for the entire 2009-10 campaign before he suited up for only five contests in 2010-11, his final year.
And that was it.
“No one should lose sight of this fact,” Jeff Van Gundy, Yao’s head coach with the Rockets from 2003-07, told Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski in 2016. “Outside of Shaq, Yao Ming was the best center in the world.”
We only got to see that for four healthy seasons.
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Brandon Roy is on the short list of players that first come to mind for exercises like this.
After winning Rookie of the Year in 2006-07, Roy was an All-Star in each of his next three seasons, which constituted the entirety of his prime. A hot start, an early peak and seemingly endless potential make Roy one of the great “what if?” players in recent history.
During that three-year run of good health from 2007-08 through 2009-10, Roy totaled 4,579 points, 1,135 assists and 1,003 rebounds with an effective field-goal percentage of 50.2. LeBron James was the only player to meet or exceed those totals over that span. No, Roy wasn’t as good as James, but his production can’t be ignored.
A true combo guard, Roy proved he could both get his own shot at will and run a top-notch offense. In 2008-09, his best season, Roy averaged 22.6 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds while hitting 37.7 percent of his threes. The Portland Trail Blazers won 54 games and owned the NBA’s second-best offensive rating that year.
That was Roy’s age-24 season, the last one before his knee issues gradually wore him down. By 2010-11, Roy was averaging only 12.2 points and wasn’t a regular starter anymore.
To his credit, Roy channeled his vintage self in a 2011 playoff explosion against the Dallas Mavericks, leading a massive second-half comeback in Game 4 of Portland’s first-round series against the eventual NBA champs. After falling in that series, Roy missed all of the 2011-12 season and then made an ill-fated five-game comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012-13.
In addition to his bursting on the scene and immediately becoming an elite offensive talent, Roy’s career derailment is even more painful because of how easy it is to imagine him succeeding in the modern game. Skillful, dangerous off the bounce and unconfined by positional designations, Roy wouldn’t have to change a thing about his game if he were playing today—which, at the age 34, he still might be if not for injuries.
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Yes, this is a Blazers double dip, but we have to do it.
Greg Oden’s career—his draft pedigree, potential and sheer volume of devastating injuries—fits almost too perfectly here. Before everything went south, the 7’0″ center profiled as a true franchise anchor, a dominant big man with Defensive Player of the Year potential and overwhelming physicality on offense.
It’s easy to look back and say Kevin Durant would have been the better choice at No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft—KD went second—but at the time, Oden was too good and too recognizable as an obvious building block to ignore.
An All-American as a freshman at Ohio State, Oden led the Buckeyes to the 2007 national title game, where he scored 25 points, grabbed a dozen rebounds and blocked four shots in a loss to the Florida Gators.
Microfracture surgery on his right knee cost Oden all of his rookie season. After a year off, a foot injury knocked Oden out of his first game in the 2008-09 season after only 13 minutes of action. He’d go on to play 61 games that year, struggling with a knee injury and lingering issues with his foot.
Oden played 21 games in 2009-10 before a fractured kneecap drew the curtain on that season for him. Over the next three years, the 2007 No. 1 overall pick didn’t play in a single game. Two more microfracture surgeries, arthroscopic procedures on both knees and endless setbacks piled on in a way that felt cruel.
A short cameo with the 2013-14 Miami Heat was the last we’d see of Oden on an NBA floor. In all, he logged action in 105 games spread across six seasons, never stringing together a healthy stretch that would have allowed his obvious physical gifts to shine.
Oden isn’t some starter-quality center who could have contributed on the margins if he’d stayed healthy. He was a potentially transformative force betrayed by balky knees and bad luck. If injuries didn’t plague both him and Roy, there might be a few extra banners hanging in the rafters of the Moda Center these days.