Every single team in the NBA has had its own battle with injuries. Some may be more significant than others, but in the end, most of them carry some sort of long-term impact on their respective teams.
There are a few injuries, however, that end up costing a team a title (or two). Some of them even serve as the mark of an era or a dynasty. Below are three of the most season-altering/championship-altering/franchise-altering injuries in the history of the NBA.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics (1988-89)
With 17 titles under their belt, the Boston Celtics are one of the most successful franchises in all of the NBA. Three of those titles came in the 1980s during the Larry Bird era, and it could be argued that it was in 1988 that marked the beginning of the end in what was one of the most glorious stretches in franchise history.
Bird’s injury came early in the season, with the Celtics legend suffering a season-ending injury in November. Boston still made the playoffs, but were eventually defeated by the Detroit Pistons in the first round. To make matters worse, the Bad Boys Pistons swept a Bird-less Celtics in the opening round, which was Boston’s worst NBA postseason run in nearly a decade.
This opened up the way for Detroit, which went back to back as NBA champions in 1989 and 1990. As for the Celtics, Bird played for three more seasons before finally calling it a career in 1992. The Celtics never made it out of the second round in Bird’s last three years.
Karl Malone, Los Angeles Lakers (2003-04)
Much like their arch-rivals in the Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers too had several golden-era NBA years. One of which came during the early 2000s as the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers won three straight titles between 2000 and 2002.
As three-time defending champs, the Lakers ended up getting eliminated in the second round by eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs. L.A. needed some reinforcement for the following season, and this came in the form of two future Hall of Famers in Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
While both players were undeniably in the tail end of their respective careers, the new-look Lakers were still very much considered as the NBA title favorites for the 2003-04 campaign. That did not pan out for them, and a major factor behind that was Malone’s MCL injury in December of that season.
The Mailman was able to return towards the latter part of the regular season, but at 40 years of age, he clearly was not a hundred percent. Testament to this fact is how he sustained another knee injury during the playoffs, which served as a further blow for the Lakers and their title hopes that NBA season.
While Malone toughed out the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, he averaged just 5.0 points in that brief series. Detroit humiliated the Lakers in the Finals, as they swept a hapless Lakers side en route to their first championship in 14 years.
As for the Lakers, Shaq ended up leaving the NBA franchise that same summer, Malone retired, and Payton moved to Boston. Kobe was left all alone in Hollywood to waste several years of his prime in what was one of the darkest eras in Lakers history. Did Malone’s injuries cause all that? Definitely not. However, it cannot be denied that it played a huge role in what was to come not long after.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (2018-19)
Kevin Durant rounds up our list here today thanks to the brutal Achilles injury he sustained in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals against eventual champs, the Toronto Raptors.
KD missed the Warriors’ series-clinching Game 6 contest in the NBA postseason’s second round against the Houston Rockets due to a calf injury. He ended up skipping the entire West Finals — the Dubs swept the Portland Trail Blazers — as well as the first four games of the Finals against Toronto.
The Warriors struggled without Durant, ending up in a 3-1 deficit after four games. Despite being in a deep hole, the Dubs still had a shot at an improbable comeback, especially with Durant available for Game 5. Unfortunately, he only lasted for 12 minutes, as he suffered what was later diagnosed as an Achilles injury that ended up costing him the rest of the Finals, as well as the entirety of the succeeding campaign with the Brooklyn Nets. To this day, many argue that Durant’s return was premature, and that this decision has had some sort of impact on his NBA career.
It’s also worth noting that aside from Durant, the Warriors also lost Klay Thompson to an ACL injury in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, although this was already towards the latter part of the series-clinching defeat for Golden State. Still, there’s no denying that Thompson’s injury still played a significant role in that game and the outcome of the series.
A ton of credit needs to be given for the Raptors’ fairy tale run to the NBA title in 2019. They absolutely deserved that title. However, it goes without saying that the Warriors would have put up a better fight with a healthy Kevin Durant.
Golden State was gunning for a three-peat that year, and their fourth title in five years. That obviously did not come to fruition, and Durant ended up leaving the Warriors in the offseason, marking an end to the Warriors’ NBA dynasty of the 2010s.