Playoffs

NBA playoffs: How injuries to star players are dictating the title picture in 2024

NBA playoffs: How injuries to star players are dictating the title picture in 2024

It’s a common axiom in NBA circles that the best ability is availability. In the marathon that is the NBA season, contending teams have, for years, employed strategic recovery days during the regular season — aka load management — in the interest of prioritizing player health for the title quest. Nothing is more important than staying healthy. So far, this injury-riddled postseason holds up as Exhibit A to bolster that theory.

Teams with NBA Finals aspirations have been crushed by ill-timed injuries. Cleveland star Donovan Mitchell stood on the sideline in a lavender sweatsuit with a debilitating calf strain that sidelined him for the season-ending Game 5 against the Boston Celtics. He wasn’t alone in street clothes. The five-time All-Star was one of five Cavaliers players who were too injured to help stave off the season finale, joining fellow All-Star Jarrett Allen, key scorer Caris LeVert and three other Cavs reserves.

Boston fans may have felt a little déjà vu as they witnessed a similar scene for the Miami Heat’s Game 5 in the opening round. In that series clincher in Boston, six-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (knee), first-team All-Rookie member Jaime Jaquez Jr. (hip), Terry Rozier (neck) and Josh Richardson (shoulder) were unavailable. Without key members of their squad, the Heat weren’t able to repeat last year’s upset over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

(Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

The Heat (Butler) and Cavs (Allen and Mitchell) join the New York Knicks (Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson), Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard), LA Clippers (Kawhi Leonard) and New Orleans Pelicans (Zion Williamson) as teams that lost star players due to injury and got sent home packing this postseason. Not to mention Philly’s Joel Embiid, who seemed to be playing on one leg. That’s a lot of injury misfortune.

“It’s better to be lucky than good,” said one team’s top executive. “If you can be both, you can be special.”

From an injury standpoint, luck has been on the Celtics’ side so far. All in all, in the first two rounds, Celtics opponents missed a whopping 37 player games due to injury or illness. The Celtics, for their part, have lost Kristaps Porziņģis for the last seven games and may not get him back until Game 4. It’s a good thing they pulled off a Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers because, as the saying goes, Porziņģis ain’t walking through that door just yet.

The injuries continue a worrisome trend of players going down at the most inopportune times. A new study, fueled by data tracking from Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com, reveals that the total number of player games lost due to injury this postseason has now reached 200, already eclipsing last season’s figure for the entire playoffs.

On a per-game level, player games lost due to injury are up 22% this postseason, putting this year on track to become the most injury-riddled, non-COVID postseason of the last decade.

The jump in injuries comes on the heels of the league office championing the new Player Participation Policy that saw star players play more in the regular season, but most of that uptick in player health was front-loaded in October and November. Injuries have been piling up, and the postseason grind has done little to abate the late-season crumbling.

The NBA champion is known as the last team standing. But more so than ever, the Larry O’Brien has become the trophy for the team with the fewest players sitting. The rise of player absences peaked in the 2020 COVID-ravaged season when health protocols mandated extended quarantines. After a truncated offseason heading into 2020-21, injury rates have maintained an elevated level ever since. For comparison, in the 2016-17 postseason, as load management became more in vogue, players missed only 138 games due to injury/illness. Over the last six postseasons, the league has averaged about 224 with little sign of returning back to pre-COVID levels.

Another key statistic to underline the importance of player health: Since 2014, when the Spurs beat the Heat in the Finals, according to InStreetClothes.com tracking, the championship team has averaged 19.7 player games lost due to injury in the postseason run while the runner-up suffered 25 games lost due to injury. No matter when the injuries occur, overall player health is strongly linked to the ultimate victor.

Stars have been the biggest driver of championships, but they’re dropping like flies. According to the NBA’s Player Participation Policy, an NBA star is one who has earned an All-Star or All-NBA appearance in the previous three seasons. By that standard, 11 different stars have missed a total of 47 games this postseason. Conley is the only player among them whose team has survived to the final four.

With the defending champion Denver Nuggets being eliminated in the conference semifinals, the NBA will crown its sixth consecutive new champion over the last six years, dating to 2019, when the Toronto Raptors won it all. For some, this sea change is viewed as a good thing, a resounding victory for competitive balance. A new champion every season can be held as a shining example of the league’s leveled playing field, thanks to harsher tax penalties in the new collective bargaining agreement that hamstring deep-pocketed teams’ ability to add pieces to their roster.

However, there’s another subtle variable that could explain just as much of the NBA’s parity: injuries to top teams. After his battered Knicks got eliminated, coach Tom Thibodeau summarized the war of attrition that many teams face: “It was a battle all year and there was nothing left to give at the end.”

Every NBA champion has needed some luck along the way, and injuries are no exception. The Warriors’ dynasty started in 2015, when the team faced the Cavs largely without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But the injury bug reared its ugly head in 2019, when Durant ruptured his Achilles and Klay Thompson tore his ACL in the NBA Finals.

In some ways, the 2019 Finals ushered in a new era. Almost every title favorite since has been zapped by injury. In 2021, the Brooklyn Nets, the pre-playoffs favorite, according to SportsOddsHistory.com tracking, couldn’t overcome injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 2022, the Phoenix Suns weren’t able to weather the storm after a Devin Booker hamstring injury limited him following a three-game absence against the Pelicans. The 2023 Milwaukee Bucks were upset by the Heat in the first round, unable to survive with Antetokounmpo’s injured back holding him out for multiple games.

After winning the 2021 championship, the Bucks haven’t been able to survive the length of another championship quest, most recently losing Antetokounmpo to a calf strain for their opening series this postseason. Not only that, Milwaukee suffered two games without Lillard, who labored through an Achilles injury. On the Western Conference side, the Pelicans played without Williamson in the first round as a hamstring injury claimed the availability of the team’s best player.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the Bucks and Pelicans don’t hold a candle to other teams. The Cavs suffered 44 player games lost due to injury in 12 team playoff games, giving them a staggering 3.5 absences per team game — the highest such number in the league. Notably, the other teams at the top of the injury list — the Los Angeles Lakers (3.4) and Miami Heat (3.2) and New York Knicks (2.5) — have been eliminated from contention.

Led by Thibodeau, the Knicks joined the chorus of teams that are singing the “If we were healthy …” tune to soothe their respective fanbases. By the end of the conference semifinals, the Knicks could have fielded an entire starting lineup — Jalen Brunson, Bojan Bogdanović, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — with players who were ruled out due to injury, not to mention Josh Hart who was clearly limited with an abdominal strain.

Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that the four teams remaining have enjoyed a remarkably clean bill of health thus far.

Conley is the only player that missed time due to injury for the Timberwolves this entire postseason and he only missed one game. The Pacers, too, have only listed one player as out in any of their injury reports this postseason — Bennedict Mathurin — who has been sidelined all postseason with a shoulder injury. The Celtics and Mavericks have been fortunate from a star perspective. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have played every game for the Celtics while Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving have suited up in every Mavericks contest (though Dončić has been managing knee and ankle soreness).

The Mavericks are the only team in the conference finals who have lost more player games due to injury (1.7) than the average playoff team (1.5), but most of their injuries have been to bench players. Their starting lineup featuring Dončić, Irving, Derrick Jones Jr., P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford — have played all 12 games together. The same couldn’t be said for their first-round opponent, the Clippers, who didn’t have their best player, Kawhi Leonard, for four of the six games.

No team can control the health of their opponents, but it’s an open question whether the Pacers would be here if it were not for the Bucks’ and Knicks’ star players being sidelined. The Pacers’ remarkably healthy postseason, however, could be largely attributed to Rick Carlisle’s bench strategy that lightened the load for their top guys.

With T.J. McConnell anchoring the second unit, the Pacers ranked No. 1 in the NBA in bench scoring and fourth in reserve minutes played this regular season, generating a league-high 46.8 points per game from reserves, per hoopsstats.com. Meanwhile, the Knicks, led by Thibodeau’s famously hard-driving approach, ranked 29th in reserve minutes played and 29th in bench scoring.

The injury questions aren’t going away anytime soon. Among the four conference finalists remaining, several key players have been banged up this postseason even if they haven’t missed long stretches. While Porziņģis remains in street clothes, the Pacers are hoping Tyrese Haliburton can keep it together after they listed their star point guard with not one, not two, but three injuries for last week’s Game 5. For Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns has been limping through this postseason with residual knee issues from his torn meniscus in March, and Conley is listed as questionable for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with a calf strain. Meanwhile, Dallas hopes that Dončić can continue to keep his various injuries at bay and lead the Mavericks to their first Finals appearance since 2011. The injury statuses of those players may decide who ultimately raises the Larry O’Brien.

The issue of load management and maintaining player health may be the most divisive dilemma across the league and will only grow more contentious going forward. With a new media deal on the horizon, the league hopes that stars will continue to play more next regular season and establish stronger bonds with the audience that wants to see big-name players in uniform.

With LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant nearing the end of their careers, fans will have to get used to some new faces. Those household names used to be mainstays in the Finals, but now the only constant seems to be the absences along the way. Rather than celebrate the new faces who made it to the end, we can’t help but dwell on the ones who weren’t able.

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