Health of NBA superstars could decide playoffs

NBA.com Global on Mar 22, 2018 06:41 AM
Health of NBA superstars could decide playoffs
FILE - HOUSTON, TX - MAY 7: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs stands for a moment of silence for the National Anthem before the game against the Houston Rockets during Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2017 Playoffs on May 7, 2017 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

Kevin Love returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday (Tuesday, PHL time). Stephen Curry is set to return a few days from now to the Golden State Warriors. This means injuries won’t ruin any of the playoff and title contenders here in the home stretch and beyond, right?

Not necessarily. And it might be a stretch to suggest Love and Curry are in the clear, too. Nobody can take anything for granted, because history says when you do, you’re doomed. Every spring, something happens to torpedo a team’s chances of going deep into the playoffs, and in a few cases, winning championships.

Take the last several seasons and cringe at this list of players who saw some or all of their postseasons wiped out form injuries: Love, Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard … just to name a few.

Teams have become smarter (and slicker) about giving their stars a break during the regular season, and closely monitoring aches in the post-All-Star break period. And, of course, they're always just keeping their fingers crossed. All it takes is a key injury to change the complexion of the title chase and destroy most if not all of the momentum built in the previous seven months.

Therefore, here’s a look at the injury situation facing potential playoff and title-contending teams and weighing their degree of concern, from high to mild.

Injuries of high concern

Ty Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers coach: Yes, we start with a coach, whose chest pains and other symptoms caused him to step away from the bench a few days ago. Lue’s condition is largely mysterious because he’s keeping most of it private, and understandably so. This much, we know: Coaching the Cavs can hike the stress in one’s life, because of the title-or-bust expectations. After the Cavs underwent a midseason makeover, Lue’s job became more of a challenge as he essentially was holding training camp to help indoctrinate new players into the World of LeBron. Lue is projected to stay away from the team for about a week, and even when (if) he returns, who knows if this will repeat itself, not only during the playoffs, but into next season?

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: Curry is listed as “high” because of his well-documented ankle history, and also this is the second time this season he suffered a sprain. As always, there’s a heightened sense of alarm whenever Curry falls to the floor and his importance to the Warriors is apparent. And, as usual, there’s no guaranteed way to prevent an ankle injury from happening again.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: The longer he sits, the stranger it gets. Limited to just nine games because of a quad injury that’s lingered longer than anyone anticipated, Leonard’s status is a shoulder shrug. He could return soon, he could return in time for the playoffs -- if the Spurs make it -- or he might not return until next season. It’s up to him and his body. The Spurs aren’t putting any urgency on him getting healthy even if their 50-win season streak and playoff streak could hinge on that. In the few times he’s addressed his injury, Leonard was coy. Maybe he doesn’t really know, either.

John Wall, Washington Wizards: After undergoing a debridement procedure on his left knee at the end of January, Wall has taken up residence on the Wizards’ bench -- often behind a pair of aviator shades -- while his teammates forge ahead. They’ve managed to stay in contention for the last six weeks, feeding a silly notion that the Wizards are better off without Wall. For sure, they’ve played a different brand of ball, with more touches for everyone. When Wall returns, there will be a readjustment necessary for everyone. Make no mistake, Wall deserves (along with fellow All-Star Bradley Beal) a meaty portion of the offense.

Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves: He had meniscus surgery on Feb. 25 (Feb. 26, PHL time)and is on schedule to return form the knee injury before the end of the season. The Wolves have looked shaky without him, playing break-even ball and losing their grip as a top-four team in the West. The reason for concern, aside from surgery, is his workload; Butler was averaging 37 minutes a night. Does that get reduced when he returns for the playoffs, when the Wolves need him the most? Any minutes restriction will surely put Minnesota at a disadvantage in the first round, because Butler brings the playoff experience the Wolves lack.

Injuries of fair concern

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: He’ll be re-evaluated for his fractured thumb on Thursday (Friday, PHL time); Thompson vowed to “be back sooner than a couple of weeks” when the break was discovered. If he’ll be healed then, there’s shouldn’t be fear of re-injury. But again, the Warriors are understandably hypersensitive about injury, which could be their biggest threat against repeating as champions.

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics: The surgery on his right thumb went well and Smart insists he won’t miss the playoffs. Smart’s a tough guy and there’s no need to doubt him. Plus, he has a relatively full season behind him and is still in game shape. However, the sight of him working out with the injured Gordon Hayward isn’t what the Celtics need. His defense is crucial for a team that keeps the scores low.

Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: Another reason the Celtics have conceded the best-record in the East is Irving. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Irving will, at some point, require left knee surgery (perhaps this summer). The good news is there has been no structural damage to the knee reported. Regardless, the Celtics won’t push his minutes down the stretch for someone who has been out since March 11 (Mar. 12, PHL time). Other than Irving, the Celtics lack a lethal scorer, and a deep run in the postseason will lean heavily on Irving’s ability to play 35-plus minutes and average well into the 20s in scoring. They need him to be as fresh as possible.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: Yes, the rash of Warriors injuries stretched to Durant, who’ll require a few weeks to recover from a rib cartilage fracture. If it lingers the rest of the season, then it’ll smell precautionary, and why not? There’s nothing on the line for the Warriors right now and they don’t need the best record in the West more than the Houston Rockets do. For Golden State, it's all about being healthy in mid-April (and May and June).

Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks: His recovery from a partially torn left quadriceps tendon suffered in early February has hampered the Bucks, who’ve gone 10-12 and are sliding in the East, where they sit on the playoff fence. Brogdon had settled into an important starting/sixth man role while averaging 30 minutes a night. He’s targeting the first week of April for his return and there's no telling what position the Bucks will be in then.

And the ones who are out ...

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans: One of the pleasant surprises of the season happened when New Orleans, led by Anthony Davis, went on an unexpected tear after Cousins' season was finished with a torn Achilles. But they’ve cooled a bit after winning 10 straight and rising to top-four in the West. Davis can only do so much, and while Jrue Holiday has looked better, the Pelicans might need to overachieve the rest of the way to outwrestle the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and the Spurs for a more favorable playoff seeding. (Provided, of course they make the playoffs, which isn’t a guarantee.)

Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder: Weird how the Thunder somehow caught their stride not long after losing their best defensive guard for the season and find themselves sitting in fourth place in the tough West. That’s not to say OKC won’t miss Roberson. Suppose they see Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs in the first round, or get James Harden and the Rockets in the West semifinals? Roberson was their best first-line of defense against those superstars.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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