NBA: The All-'What-If-They-Never-Got-Injured' Team
It’s a question fans ask all the time in sports. It acts as a security blanket for the future, or as a torture device for the present. Drafting “Player X” instead of “Player Y” is a common what if, but the same can be said for injuries.
A collection of NBA stars and potential-packed players had their careers ended or held back as a result of unfortunate circumstances.
But who makes a 12-man roster on the All-What-If-They-Never-Got-Injured team?
The members of this squad were either cut down in their prime or never saw their potential realized at the professional level. In a nutshell, the following are players who fans deserved to see at 100 percent throughout their playing careers.
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The following includes some recent, new-school examples of guys whose injuries changed the short-term landscape of the NBA playoffs, as well as an NBA legend who suffered an injury of his own. Although the new schoolers injuries aren’t on the scale of those who actually make the following 12-man roster, there’s a chance we could view them in the same light a few years down the road.
The last time Derrick Rose played an NBA game was April 28, 2012.
With 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of its opening-round matchup against Philadelphia, the Chicago Bulls were leading the 76ers by 12, when Rose drove to the basket and crumpled to the floor, having suffered a torn ACL. The Roseless Bulls eventually lost to the eighth-seeded Sixers, and the former MVP hasn’t played a minute since.
Not only did his injury affect the outcome of the 2012 NBA playoffs, but it also changed the outlook in 2013. Chicago fans were hopeful that Rose would be healthy enough to join a Bulls playoff run a year after his injury, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Chicago fought valiantly under head coach Tom Thibodeau, but the Miami Heat ousted the injury-riddled Bulls roster in the conference semifinals on their way to successfully defending their NBA title.
D-Rose may come back and play 10-plus healthy seasons, but his torn ACL has already altered back-to-back playoff proceedings (whether the ultimate outcome would have been different or not).
In terms of impact, Russell Westbrook’s knee trouble doesn’t even compare to Derrick Rose’s torn ACL, but his injury was still significant.
After suffering a torn meniscus in a collision with Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, Westbrook underwent surgery and missed the remainder of the 2013 playoffs. The Oklahoma City Thunder eventually lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Nobody can say for certain that Westbrook’s presence would have led OKC back to the NBA finals. Regardless, it creates some interesting “what if?” conversations.
In his first season following back surgery, Dwight Howard did not look like himself. That’s putting it lightly.
The Los Angeles Lakers as a team were a complete disappointment, and D12 never seemed to regain his usual explosiveness or his status as a bona fide defensive anchor. Not being 100 percent from a physical standpoint and playing with an injury-riddled supporting cast didn’t help.
Howard may return to form in Houston, but there’s a chance he could fizzle out as he gets older—like many other NBA big men in the past.
“The Human Highlight Film” is remembered as one of the best NBA players ever, and certainly among the league’s best high fliers. His athletic, above-the-rim style of play endeared him to fans and allowed him to put up points in bunches.
Throughout an illustrious 15-year career, Dominique Wilkins averaged 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He was never a great outside shooter (31.9 percent for his career), but his sheer athletic talent more than made up for that.
In 1992, however, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The injury required surgery and ensured that ‘Nique would only play 42 games that season.
It’s true that Wilkins continued to put up great stats after the setback. He averaged 29.9 points the following season in 71 games, then averaged 26 points per game in 74 games between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers.
Age and the grind of a lengthy NBA career caught up to Wilkins in his final three seasons. He notched 17.8, 18.2 and five points per game, respectively, while with the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic.
Wilkins doesn't make the 12-man roster because his injury didn't have nearly the same impact as the following guys.
12. Shaun Livingston
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As an NBA prospect coming out of high school, Shaun Livingston earned incredibly high praise. In fact, many scouts viewed the lanky youngster as the league’s future star point guard.
Rob Bodenburg of Scout.com wrote the following about Livingston’s on-court strengths in a June 2004 draft profile:
Livingston’s greatest strength is that he’s a 6-foot-7 true point guard—combining excellent height with a playmaker’s mindset to produce a player who’s been compared to Magic Johnson. Livingston is really a magician with the basketball, possessing stunning court vision and superior ball-handling skills. And unlike most 6-7 guys who can play the point but are really combo guards, he’s a pure point guard with a knack for making his teammates better. In time, he could develop into a taller version of Jason Kidd. Even on defense, his length will allow him to bother smaller point guards with his wingspan.
If you’re keeping score at home, Livingston was compared to two of the NBA’s all-time best point guards in the same paragraph. His 6’7” frame combined with great point guard instincts was a tantalizing combination.
The Los Angeles Clippers picked Livingston fourth overall in the 2004 draft, which was (and forever will be) the highest a high school guard has ever been taken. He wasn’t what most scouts would call “NBA-ready” due to an evident lack of bulk, but his speed and abilities as a point guard had him showing flashes in L.A.
In February 2007, however, disaster struck. Just two days removed from posting 14 points and 14 assists in win against the Golden State Warriors—one of his finest performances as a Clipper—Livingston landed awkwardly and crumpled to the floor at the tail end of a fast break.
Perhaps the most gruesome injury to ever occur on a basketball court left the then-21-year-old with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). He also suffered tears to the lateral meniscus and retinaculum (the tissue surrounding the knee cap), as well as dislocating his tibia-femoral joint and patella, per Jonathan Abrams of Grantland.com.
As horrific as the injury looked in real time on the basketball court, the actual diagnosis managed to trump the brutality. Livingston’s career was very much in doubt.
Miraculously, the 27-year-old guard has managed to return to the NBA. Perhaps more impressive, he played a meaningful role on the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, averaging 7.2 points and 3.6 assists in 49 games.
Livingston will never be able to embrace his full potential following that ghastly fall. NBA fans are left wondering what could have been, but it’s astonishing that he came back at all.
11. Brandon Roy
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Brandon Roy made an immediate impact in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers. He won the 2006-07 NBA Rookie of the Year award, as he averaged 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, four assists and 1.2 steals per game.
From that point, his game simply continued to improve.
In three seasons following his fabulous rookie campaign, Roy posted the following numbers:
2007-08: 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals.
2008-09: 22.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.1 steals.
2009-10: 21.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals.
His consistently stellar stats over that three-year span earned him three All-Star appearances. B-Roy was proving himself to be one of the game’s best young talents, until a degenerative knee condition halted his career.
On Dec. 10, 2011, Roy announced his retirement from the NBA. His knee problems simply wouldn’t allow him to play at an elite level any longer.
He attempted an NBA comeback last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he played in just five games while shooting 31.4 percent from the field. The T-Wolves waived him in May, perhaps signaling the bitter end for the 29-year-old.
There may come a point in the future of medicine when artificial cartilage is introduced as a viable fix for athletes like Roy. If that day comes, it will be a shame that he wasn’t part of that era.
10. Brad Daugherty
The Cleveland Cavaliers took Brad Daugherty with the first overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft. By 1994, he was out of the league. He was just 28 years old.
Unlike many players taken first overall, Daugherty was able to live up to the hype. Over the course of his eight-year career, the seven-footer averaged 19.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He made the All-Star team five times.
Despite a rock-solid career, recurring back troubles cut Daugherty’s career short.
Although his NBA career ended early, Daugherty is still one of the best Cavaliers of all time. He’s the all-time Cavs leader in defensive rebounds and is second in total rebounds and third in points scored.
It can be difficult for NBA retirees to find a niche after basketball, but Daugherty has carved out a nice fit as an ESPN NASCAR analyst.
9. Greg Oden
With hindsight, it’s easy to blame the Portland Trail Blazers front office for selecting Greg Oden ahead of Kevin Durant, but Oden’s rare combination of size, athleticism and basketball skill is nearly impossible to come by (check out the 2007 summer league highlight video for reference).
Despite showing obvious flashes in that year's summer league, the first overall pick underwent season-ending microfracture surgery that September before having played in a single NBA game.
The big man from Ohio State returned for the 2008-09 season and had mixed results. He failed to score in his first game back and left after 13 minutes of action when he suffered a minor foot injury. In his second game of the season against the Miami Heat, Oden scored just three points.
He did have a 17-point, 12-rebound, six-block game against the New York Knicks and a 24-point 15-rebound effort against the Milwaukee Bucks, but those great performances didn’t happen very often.
The following season went much smoother for Oden, at least initially, as chronicled by Mark Titus of Grantland.com:
Through the first 21 games of the 2009-10 season—Oden’s most recent in the NBA—he posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 23.14, which would have been good for eighth-best in the league and better than superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.
In his last NBA game against the Houston Rockets, however, Oden attempted to block a running floater by Aaron Brooks. He wound up breaking his left patella, and he hasn’t been back to the court since.
If not for injuries, Oden would have been a dominant NBA big man. He’ll now look to reinvent himself with the Miami Heat.
8. Ralph Sampson
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In college at the University of Virginia, Ralph Sampson was named the Naismith College Player of the Year three times (1981-1983). After the Houston Rockets made the 7’4” skyscraper the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft, Sampson won the NBA Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team behind averages of 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
The following year, the Rockets used yet another No. 1 overall selection on Hakeem Olajuwon. The twin-towers tandem was meant to anchor Houston for years to come, but Sampson’s body had other plans.
Sampson did average 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds through his first three NBA seasons, but those three years proved to be his NBA zenith. He averaged 15.6 points per game from 1986-1988 as knee and back problems began to take their toll.
His numbers plummeted from there.
After getting traded to the Golden State Warriors during the 1986-87 season, the once-promising big man averaged only 6.4 points and five rebounds per game during the 1988-89 campaign. He then spent two injury-riddled years with the Sacramento Kings, averaging 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in two seasons.
He was released by the Kings and had a disappointing 10-game stint with the Washington Bullets before his retirement.
Sampson had three knee surgeries during the course of his 10 NBA seasons. In those seasons, he played just 441 of a possible 820 games.
Many members of the NBA community thought Sampson had a chance to become one of the best players of all time after dominating the collegiate ranks. He appeared poised to meet those expectations after three great seasons, but injuries derailed a very promising start to his career.
And when I say derailed, I mean the train crash scene from the movie Super 8.
7. Jay Williams
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As a college student-athlete, Jay Williams was on top of the world during his time at Duke University.
The Blue Devils won an NCAA championship with Williams in 2001. In 2002, the young point guard won the Naismith College Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Trophy and John Wooden Award.
During a three-year stint under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Williams averaged 19.3 points, six assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. Numbers that made him one of the NBA’s most highly touted prospects.
In the 2002 NBA draft, Williams was selected second overall by the Chicago Bulls (after Houston selected Yao Ming). His first and only year in the NBA showed some promise—9.5 points and 4.7 assists per game—as well as some negatives: 39.9 percent field-goal shooting and 2.3 turnovers per game. The young point guard was still getting acclimated to the NBA before a life-threatening motorcycle accident ended his playing career.
On June 19, 2003, Williams crashed his motorcycle in the north side of Chicago. He was not wearing a helmet, was not licensed to drive a motorcycle in the state of Illinois and was violating the terms of his contract with the Bulls by riding it, per Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated.
His dreams of playing in the NBA were effectively shattered, a hard truth that led Williams to attempt suicide according to a must-read New York Times feature story by Greg Bishop.
Williams now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, and he has also dabbled in business endeavors, per Jason Belzer of Forbes.
His NBA career was cut far too short as a result of one poor decision, but his professionalism on the court has shifted into success off of it.
6. Danny Manning
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Danny Manning continues the trend of players on this roster who were taken first overall in the NBA draft.
Regarded as one of the best college basketball players of all time, Manning led the Kansas Jayhawks to an NCAA championship in 1988. During that season, he won the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the John Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year.
In the championship game, Manning willed Kansas to an 83-79 victory against the Oklahoma Sooners by filling the box score with 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals and two blocks.
Manning's tremendous senior season prompted the Los Angeles Clippers to select him No. 1 overall in the 1988 NBA draft. Unfortunately, the college phenom played in only 26 games for the Clips as a rookie due to a torn ACL.
Manning bounced back to have two All-Star seasons in 1993 and 1994. In those two years, he combined to average 21.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
Continuing knee problems led to two more surgeries for Manning, who was limited to short stints off the bench for the remainder of his career. As a veteran with a sky-high basketball IQ, Manning was able to reinvent himself by winning the 1998 Sixth Man of the Year with the Phoenix Suns.
The Jayhawk legend had a highly respectable 15-year NBA career. However, he could have been one of the all-time greats if not for recurring knee issues.
After retirement, Manning became an assistant coach for Kansas, for which he won a championship in 2008. He is now the head basketball coach at the University of Tulsa.
5. Starting Center: Yao Ming
Considering that Yao Ming’s imposing 7’6” frame was lugging more than 300 pounds up and down the court each night, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the big man from China had to retire early due to recurring foot and ankle injuries.
It makes sense that Yao would be forced to retire at the relatively young age of 30, but I truly miss watching him lace up the sneakers.
Finding a player with Yao’s hulking size is rare enough as is, but the Chinese phenom took things 10 steps further by being a truly skilled basketball talent. Many interior NBA players get by on their size, strength and ability to finish at the rim.
Yao was so much more.
He had a tissue-soft touch with turnaround jumpers and hook shots (something that Dwight Howard may never master). Additionally, in stark contrast to most NBA big men, Yao had great touch at the free-throw line. In eight seasons, he held a career average of 83.3 percent from the charity stripe.
Yao retired as an eight-time NBA All-Star who was incredibly influential in making the NBA as popular as it now is in China. If his body held up, his size and skill would have kept him playing at a high level well into his 30s.
4. Starting Power Forward: Bill Walton
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Of all the injury-prone stars to grace the NBA, Bill Walton makes their injuries look tame compared to his lifetime under the knife.
In The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, he writes the following about Walton:
Instead of being mentioned in the same breath with Russell, Wilt and Kareem, he’s remembered for bad luck and what could have been. His body continues to pay for an injury-riddled career that ended 22 years ago; only recently could he start moving around after major back surgery left him bedridden for months. His feet betrayed him so egregiously that, within ten minutes of sitting down with him, I glance at his swollen, scarred, almost unrecognizable right foot, become distracted and lose my train of thought. Walton was blessed with a gift and cursed with a body that couldn’t handle that gift. The curse trumped the gift.
Despite his amazing talent for the game of basketball, Walton holds the record for the most games missed during an NBA playing career. He also never played all 82 games in a season.
Although he had enormous struggles staying healthy, Walton won two championships in his career: one with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and another with the Boston Celtics in 1986. During the 1976-77 season with Portland, Walton averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.2 blocks per game.
He was one of the best passing big men of all time, and he truly understood what it takes to win on the highest stage. He had no problem sacrificing a bigger role in Boston for the greater good of the team, and he was rewarded with his second championship as a result of that sacrifice.
Walton’s body handling the physical toll of the NBA is one of the biggest what-ifs in basketball.
3. Starting Small Forward: Grant Hill
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Grant Hill reinvented himself late in his career with the Phoenix Suns as a defensive-minded glue guy and veteran leader, but that’s not how fans should remember him.
When Hill entered the NBA in 1994 with the Detroit Pistons, he was an instant success. In his first professional game, he posted 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. That single performance was a harbinger for what was to come during Hill's first years in the league.
Over the course of six seasons in Detroit, Hill averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He was truly in the realm of guys like Magic Johnson and LeBron James as far as being an all-around, do-everything player.
But once he got sent to the Orlando Magic in a sign-and-trade deal, the wheels fell off.
In his years after leaving Detroit, Hill underwent five different operations on his left ankle. One of which left him with a deadly staph infection that almost took his life.
Understandably, Hill was never the same player after all of the ankle problems. The training staff in Phoenix helped Hill play 70 games, 82 games, 81 games and 80 games, respectively, in four consecutive seasons—the most basketball he’d played in a decade. But the damage had already been done.
Hill is a true class act and a respected locker room presence, but one can only wonder what his career would have been like if he hadn’t been stricken with injuries.
2. Starting Shooting Guard: Tracy McGrady
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Tracy McGrady had an absolutely dominant start to his career. After two seasons receiving miniscule minutes as a teenager, he started to break out as a star in the NBA.
During his time with the Orlando Magic, McGrady averaged a ridiculous 32.1 points per game in 2002-03, and 28 points per game in 2003-04, winning back-to-back scoring titles in the process. He continued to average 21 points or more per game for four additional seasons until numerous nagging injuries severely diminished his effectiveness.
T-Mac suffered from chronic back problems throughout his career that often led to him missing games due to back spasms. In May 2008, McGrady underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and left shoulder. He was never the same.
One of the most electric scorers the game has ever seen simply didn’t have the same gusto after the surgeries. He averaged 15.6 points per game during the 2008-09 season. After that, he never notched double-digits again.
Since 2009, McGrady has played for the Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, overseas in China for the Qingdao Eagles and briefly for the San Antonio Spurs.
The seven-time All-Star is perhaps best remembered for his team’s inability to get past the first round of the playoffs.
1. Starting Point Guard: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway
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Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway has simultaneously the weirdest first name and weirdest nickname in NBA history. Did you know that his nickname stemmed from his grandmother calling him “pretty,” but because of her southern accent it sounded like “penny?” I suppose it’s better than being known as Anfernee “Pretty” Hardaway, but I digress.
Hardaway burst onto the NBA scene in 1993 with the Orlando Magic. He averaged 16 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game as a rookie, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Chris Webber, whom the Golden State Warriors traded Hardaway for.
Hardaway, poised to become one of the greatest guards in NBA history, suffered a severe left knee injury early in the 1997-98 season that required microfracture surgery.
Prior to the major career setback, Hardaway made three All-Star teams (he was voted to a fourth in 1998 despite the injury), he was an All-NBA first team member twice (in 1995 and 1996) and won a gold medal in 1996 with the USA Olympic basketball team.
Throughout the remainder of a vastly disappointing career with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Miami Heat, Hardaway underwent four additional knee surgeries.
He was an elite talent in every sense before the knee injury ruined his potentially Hall of Fame bound career. He’d arguably be the alpha dog of the All-What-If team.