10 NBA Careers That Made You Wish Injuries Didn't Exist
Last week, new Los Angeles Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL. That will likely sideline him for the entire 2019-20 NBA season and is the third serious leg injury he has suffered in the last two years.
Unfortunately, Cousins is far from the only NBA player with such bad injury luck.
There's a long history of NBA players who have immense talent but are beset with injuries time and again, forcing them to make do with mere flashes of greatness.
The following players make us wish the proverbial injury filter was turned off.
DeMarcus Cousins, C
DeMarcus Cousins was once the NBA's most dominant center since prime Shaquille O'Neal.
Before he suffered his Achilles injury in January 2018, Cousins averaged 21.5 points on 46.0 percent shooting, 11.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game across the first eight years of his career.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley and Joel Embiid are the only players to have matched those marks throughout their careers.
Three of the greatest players ever and the best active center in the NBA is good company.
Cousins is an especially tragic figure considering he never made the playoffs before his Achilles tear and only made the NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors last season as a role player.
Though most fans will root against the Lakers winning this year's title, Boogie getting a ring might make it worthwhile to some.
Penny Hardaway, G
Penny Hardaway's first three NBA seasons were dazzling.
He debuted in 1993-94 alongside Shaquille O'Neal, and all was great in the Sunshine State. Orlando made the NBA Finals in 1994-95 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995-96.
With Shaq's unprecedented combination of size and athleticism and Penny's mixture of height, passing instincts and basketball IQ, the Magic were built for the future.
But then injuries took hold.
After the Chicago Bulls swept the Magic in 1995-96, Shaq left for the Lakers, leaving Penny by himself. Almost on cue, his body started to break down, and he played more than 70 games only twice over the rest of his career.
Penny received two All-Star nods after Shaq's departure, but he underwent multiple surgeries on his left knee that gradually sapped the explosiveness that made him such a threat.
Hardaway's post-NBA life turned out fine. He's now the head coach for his alma mater Memphis Tigers.
But he—and we—will always wonder what could have been had his knee remained cooperative.
Grant Hill, G/F
Grant Hill's reputation as a basketball player remains great. He was a seven-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA player among many other accolades. Additionally, his ubiquitous presence on television and around the NBA reminds us of his career highlights.
But Hill could have been even better had he stayed healthy.
The point forward position is now in vogue with the ascent of players like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green and Ben Simmons (though he prefers to be called an actual point guard). They all owe a debt of gratitude to Hill, who was a point forward way before that term was popular. He led the league in assists per game among non-guards for four consecutive years and averaged at least five dimes a game in each of his first six seasons.
However, Hill's career took a serious turn for the worse once he left the Detroit Pistons for the Orlando Magic in 2000, as he played just 47 games through his first four seasons with the team. This spell of bad luck reached a head in March 2003 when Hill contracted a potentially life-threatening MRSA infection.
To Hill's great credit, he returned to the court and played nine more seasons, even making the All-Star team the next year. But he never returned to the All-NBA level of play that at one point made him the future of basketball.
Shaun Livingston, G
It's hard to remember now because Shaun Livingston has been a role player for so long, but he was once the best high school point guard in the nation. At one point compared to a taller Jason Kidd, he entered the draft out of high school and landed with the supposedly cursed Los Angeles Clippers.
Livingston was averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds and minutes per game in his third season when he suffered one of the worst sports-related injuries we've ever seen. This irreparably altered his career trajectory, but the amazing part of his story is that he not only returned to the NBA but he also was a contributor on winning teams.
While Livingston was never the dynamite point guard he was lauded as, he became an invaluable part of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, winning three championships as a versatile defender and master of the mid-range jumper.
He's a free agent and has discussed retirement in recent months. If he does decide to ride off into the sunset, who can blame him?
Tracy McGrady, G/F
Unlike most of the players on this list, Tracy McGrady shows up on career leaderboards. He's a two-time scoring champ, a seven-time All-Star and All-NBA selection and a 2017 inductee of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But his career is tragic in its own way as well.
After a short stint with the Toronto Raptors and his cousin Vince Carter, McGrady bloomed with the Orlando Magic, making the All-Star team in each of his four seasons with the team and averaging at least 25 points, six rebounds and four assists every year.
However, he was traded after those four years to the Houston Rockets, and anticipation was high for his team-up with Chinese sensation Yao Ming. While McGrady performed admirably throughout his five-plus years in Clutch City, he was hit with the injury bug numerous times. He played more than 71 games just once and was recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee during the one postseason that the Rockets advanced past the first round.
T-Mac played deep into the postseason later in his career, but it was as a bit player on the 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs. It's rare a player of McGrady's caliber never advances past even the first round of the playoffs, though it's likely he would have provided he and Yao were fully healthy during the mid-2000s.
Those hypotheticals will haunt McGrady's legacy.
Yao Ming, C
Let's keep discussing those tortured Rockets teams.
There had been players as tall as Yao Ming before, but none of them were remotely as coordinated or talented. Watching him play at his best was an indescribable experience. How many humans on Earth can make Shaquille O'Neal look average-sized and clumsy? It's a one-person list: Yao.
Of course, the downside to being so tall can be a greater risk for injuries, though Yao was remarkably durable through the first three years of his career, playing 244 of a possible 246 games.
But when the injuries started, they seemingly never stopped.
Yao played only five more seasons and more than 57 games just once, suffering an infected left big toe, a broken bone in his left foot, a broken right knee, a stress fracture in his left foot, a hairline fracture in his left foot and a career-ending stress fracture in his left ankle.
Yao's career is particularly heartbreaking now because he would have been perfect for the modern NBA. Sure, he was skilled enough to play during any era, but think about how long he could have played today given load management. A player like Joel Embiid could have had a similar fate to Yao had he played in the mid-2000s, but instead he's dominating the NBA. Had Yao been born 10 years later, maybe we'd consider him one of the all-time greats.
Greg Oden, C
Greg Oden is almost only remembered nowadays in contexts like these, wherein we ponder what could have been for the 2007 top pick who was infamously picked ahead of Kevin Durant. It's a shame too, because Oden was a capital-F Force before his body broke down.
He came on the scene as one of the most dominant high school players in modern history, winning three straight state titles and two consecutive national player of the year awards. Oden then continued on with childhood friend and teammate Mike Conley to Ohio State, where he was a first-team All-American and helped lead the Buckeyes to the national title game.
At that point, Oden was being touted as the next Bill Russell, and he rapidly became the consensus top pick in the draft.
We all know what happened after that.
Oden played a total of 82 games through five seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, and by the time he reemerged as a deep bench member of the Miami Heatles, that league-changing ceiling had long since evaporated.
Who knows if Oden would have lasted in the pace-and-space era of the NBA, but if he had not suffered multiple knee injuries and stayed healthy, maybe that revolution would have been postponed for a few years. At his best, Oden really was that good.
Derrick Rose, G
Let's rewind to the summer of 2011.
Kyrie Irving headlined the draft, LeBron James was still without a title and the 22-year old Derrick Rose had just become the youngest MVP in league history. That was eight years ago, yet it feels like 80 years ago, mainly because of Rose's former ubiquity.
The future was unbelievably bright at that time for Chicago. Led by Rose, head coach Tom Thibodeau and a stout defense featuring Luol Deng and future Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, the Bulls won 61 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, losing to the Heat in five games.
That was the last full season we saw of Rose.
He tore his ACL in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, missed the 2012-13 season and tore his meniscus in November 2013. He missed the rest of that season as well. To this day, Rose has not played more than 66 games in a season since that MVP campaign, and though he maintains a career 18.8 points and 5.6 assists per game, the explosiveness that defined his younger years appears only in spurts.
Every once in a while, Rose catches fire like he used to, and we all get excited. But he spent his prime years on the mend, and the Bulls returned to prominence largely without their hometown star.
Brandon Roy, G
The back half of this list is full of Trail Blazers, and no team has had more bad luck with potential superstars.
This especially applies to the late 2000s period in the Rose City. During Greg Oden's injury troubles, the Blazers were still good without him, making the playoffs three straight years. However, those teams were led by swingman Brandon Roy, and while he was fun to watch, there was a sense of impending doom around his long-term NBA future.
Despite being named Rookie of the Year, Roy played only 57 games in his first season. His next three years were spectacular, as he made the All-Star team in each season and was named All-NBA in 2008-09 and 2009-10. But Roy tore his meniscus in spring 2010, and while he recovered in time for the playoffs, the injury lingered into the 2010-11 season. In January 2011, Roy underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees, and though he returned in late February, he never performed at that All-NBA level again.
Roy retired in December 2011, and it was reported he no longer had cartilage in his knees. He attempted to return the next season with the Minnesota Timberwolves but played only five games before retiring again.
There are plenty of "what if" teams in NBA history. But one we never even got to see was a Big Three of a healthy Roy, a healthy Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. That squad could have dominated the NBA for years.
Bill Walton, C
Bill Walton was one of the most dominant players in college basketball history at UCLA, winning two national championships. He continued that success in the NBA, winning an MVP Award and two more titles.
Walton is enshrined in the college and pro basketball Halls of Fame and remains prominent as one of the most entertaining broadcasters in any sport.
Like Yao Ming and Greg Oden, Walton is gigantic, and like both of them, he suffered serious injuries. He fractured his left foot in 1978 and subsequently sat out the next season with a trade demand, questioning the team's handling of his injury.
Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers in 1979 but refractured his foot and played only 14 games over the next three seasons. He reemerged as a key bench player for the legendary 1985-86 Boston Celtics but never recaptured the level of play that made him a living nightmare for opposing teams throughout much of the 1970s.
The 1980s were ruled by the NBA's longtime titans—the Lakers and Celtics. But if Walton had his full say, the Blazers could have interrupted that dual dominance, and he might be considered alongside Kareem, Magic and Bird as one of the game's legends.