NBA what ifs - all-time starting five of injured players
Rather than be defined by incredible performances on the hardwood, the 2019-20 NBA season is set to be remembered, like many other sports, by the COVID-19 pandemic halting any action.
The postponement of this season has prompted many questions centering around “What if?” and feelings of unfulfilled promise. Such emotions are commonplace when it comes to remembering NBA players who have had promising careers cut down by injury.
This might have been a recurring injury that kept halting a player’s progress, or one major injury from which that player has never recovered. Whatever the circumstance, this is a starting five of some of the biggest “what if” players in NBA history who were cut down by injury.
Point Guard - Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Penny Hardaway’s NBA career was one of immense promise.
Finishing second in the 1993 Rookie of the Year race behind Chris Webber, Hardaway averaged 16 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game for the Orlando Magic.
Partnered with elite big man Shaquille O’Neal, the two young superstars looked to bring a dynastical reign to Florida. At 6”7, Hardaway was exceptionally tall at the point guard position, using his unique gifts first at the shooting guard position, before taking over from Scott Skiles as the lead guard spot midway through his rookie season.
Hardway’s sophomore season saw him named as a starter in the NBA All-Star Game, while also making the All-NBA First Team, and making it to the NBA Finals, before being swept by the Houston Rockets.
With Hardway coming third in MVP voting during the 1995-96 season, it was clear the sky was the limit for the former Memphis Tiger, as he was the only player in the NBA who averaged at least 20 points, five assists and shot 50 percent from the field.
After O’Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers prior to the 1996-97 season, slight knee issues started to occur for Hardaway, before a heavy knee injury the following season required surgery for the Magic guard. This caused Hardway to miss 63 games, and despite playing 50 games in the following strike-shortened season, it was clear that this was a different player.
The athleticism and scoring prowess that Hardway had in his early days with the Magic was gone, radically altering the career of a player who many thought to be the next Magic Johnson.
Between 1999 and 2006, Hardaway split time between Phoenix, Toronto and New York, with his highest scoring average of 12 points coming in the 2001-02 season for the Suns. Retiring in 2006 before getting back onto the hardwood one more time for Miami in the 2007-08 season, it was a severe fall from grace for the Memphis legend.
Once seen as a generational talent from the point guard position, Hardaway’s promising career was ruined by recurring injuries, robbing him of an even more impactful NBA career.
Shooting Guard - Brandon Roy
Roy battled to even get to the NBA, working through four attempts at the SAT, and working on the docks of Seattle before going to the University of Washington in 2002. After being named the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Roy was drafted at number six by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2006 NBA Draft, before being traded to Portland.
Despite winning Rookie of the Year in 2007, injuries already began to impact Roy’s career, restricting him to 57 games, the second-fewest in a Rookie of the Year campaign.
Roy’s sophomore campaign also had similar juxtaposing moments; being named as a reserve to the 2008 All-Star Game, but also injuring his ankle which had negative effects on that season’s output.
Roy’s ankle became the least of his concerns, with knee issues recurring throughout the rest of his NBA career. After playing 78 games in the 2008-09 season, where Roy averaged 22.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists, Roy’s versatility and offensive ability had the Blazers guard set for stardom.
However, a meniscus tear in April 2010 was the beginning of the end, leaving Roy to retire in 2011, before a single year comeback for Minnesota in the 2012-13 season.
Coupled with Greg Oden’s injury issues, Roy’s star burned bright and faded all too quickly, teasing both Portland and NBA fans alike with the prospect of a special group for the Blazers.
Small Forward - Grant Hill
For younger NBA fans, their lasting memory of Grant Hill will be a defensive-minded vet on Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns teams. Hill’s early career held far more promise, and he was considered a genuine superstar on the rise.
Starring at Duke University with back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992, the third pick in the 1994 NBA Draft was electric to watch for the Detroit Pistons.
In fact, Hill’s 1996-97 season was historic, becoming the first since Larry Bird to average 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a season, with Hill finishing third in MVP voting and making the All-NBA First Team. Considered the heir apparent to Michael Jordan himself, Hill could score, pass, rebound and defend, with insane athleticism and the IQ to match.
After injuring his left ankle in April 2000 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Hill continued to play on the ankle during the playoffs, finishing a first round series against the Miami Heat from the sidelines. Soon after, Hill was traded to the Orlando Magic, and instead of forming a new dynasty with Tracy McGrady, Hill’s games totals over the following four seasons were:
While the Pistons excelled in Hill’s absence, capturing the title in 2004, injuries continued to plague the rest of Hill’s career, providing so many queries about what could have been for the promising swingman.
Power Forward - Bill Walton
When it comes to careers marred by injuries, it’s hard to compete with Bill Walton. He never played 82 games in his 13 season NBA career, playing zero games in four of those seasons.
While Walton can still wear two NBA Championship rings, (for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, and the Boston Celtics in 1986), there was still so much that injuries took away from Walton.
Regarded as one of the best passing big men in the game’s history, Walton was elite on both ends of the floor, winning the NBA’s MVP trophy in 1977-78. Unfortunately, Walton’s chronic left foot issues were to define his NBA career.
Walton was forced to assume a more supporting role, backing up Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in Boston with so much success, that at age 33 Walton won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1985-86.
Without nagging foot injuries, Walton may have carved out an even more significant legacy, rather than being one of the biggest “what if” injury cases in NBA history
Center - Yao Ming
Eight-time NBA All-Star and five-time member of the All-NBA team Yao Ming will go down as one of the most influential players in NBA history. The 7”6 man out of China grew the NBA’s global outreach in a remarkable way, while Yao’s on-court play was truly incredible.
The center averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds throughout his career for the Houston Rockets, being named to the Hall of Fame in 2016. A beast on the defensive end, Yao averaged 1.9 blocks over his career, but was no slouch when it came to scoring either.
Blessed with elite touch inside and also finding success with his jump shot from mid-range, Yao could hurt defenders in a lot of ways. One major “what if” for the big man’s career, focuses on his place in today’s NBA.
Yao retired in 2011 at the age of 30 after missing 250 games in his last six seasons due to ankle and foot injuries. This meant the first pick in the 2002 NBA Draft just missed out on the NBA’s changing focus to floor spacing, where many thought Yao would have been even more effective due to his shooting touch.
There’s no doubt Yao’s career was historic both on and off the court, though without injuries, he could have reached even greater heights.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference