While the Clippers hit levels during the postseason they’ve never been to, they left the playoffs again plagued by the two-word phrase that defined their last decade—”what if?”
What if Donald Sterling kept his mouth shut instead of being caught on camera, an all-time distraction given to one of the best Clippers teams ever? What if Blake Griffin stays healthy in the postseason? What if Chris Paul’s hand didn’t tear when it got stuck in Gerald Henderson’s jersey? What if the pandemic didn’t force teams to shut them down just as they were heating up?
Almost every exit comes with these questions, even if the answer is usually that the team is not good enough.
But with Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ player of the year, forced out of the postseason with a knee injury, it provides a lot of recent “what if” validity.
The Clippers, at least this time, weren’t alone in their misery, injuries playing a role in (and in some cases, obliterating) title dreams throughout the NBA.
Across the street from the Staples Center while the Phoenix Suns clinched the Western Conference title, LeBron James relaxed at a game of Sparks. It’s not impossible to imagine that he could be on that course, leading a rising Lakers team with him and a healthy Anthony Davis.
It never happened.
Then there’s the team the Suns beat after they came from 2-1 down to beat the Lakers, the Denver Nuggets. Jamal Murray, their second best player, missed the final part of the season with a torn knee ligament.
Before the Clippers lost Leonard against the Jazz, they had the advantage of facing Utah without point guard Mike Conley with a hamstring injury.
Before we named the Suns the luckiest team left, Chris Paul was rendered half-useless by a stinger in the first minute of the playoffs and then had to overcome COVID-19 to reach his first Finals.
In the East, Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown did not make it to the playoffs. Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia MVP candidate, had to play on a torn meniscus. And the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA’s most talented team, must try to hold on to a stunted James Harden [hamstring] and Kyrie Irving who wasn’t present [ankle].
It was all before the Eastern Conference finals, when Atlanta star Trae Young injured his leg in a freak accident with an official and Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up a knee injury. No player will be able to play in Game 5 of their series Thursday night.
Medical officials working for NBA teams have pointed to the congested nature of this season’s schedule, a decision driven in part as a way to satisfy NBA broadcast partners who are losing content due to the pandemic shutdown.
League officials have stated that injury rates are not in line with past data, even if a record number of All-Stars have missed this year’s playoffs. They say the expedited schedule, agreed upon by the players’ union, is also about getting the NBA back to its normal schedule as quickly as possible.
The truth may be somewhere in the middle. The NBA’s decision to speed up the start of the year to retain its spot on the Christmas broadcast and ensure it completes the playoffs before the Summer Olympics means less time than usual for rest and recovery.
This year, the NBA will play a schedule of 72 games and the full postseason in 213 days if the NBA Finals are seven games. In 2018-19, the last “normal” season, the NBA played 82 games and a full postseason in 241 days — it would be 244 if the Finals reached seven.
There may be some lines to be drawn between those numbers and the injuries we’ve seen this season — and team coaches and doctors are drawing it. But injuries playing a role in the playoffs are nothing new.
From Isiah Thomas’ ankle in 1988 to Byron Scott’s shoulder and James Worthy’s ankle in 1991 to Kevin Durant’s (and later Achilles) calves in 2019, it’s an unfortunate reality in sport.
The silver lining for all these injuries is a bit of postseason chaos, with unexpected characters and new storylines born out of all this sprain and strain. In a way, it will probably achieve its intended playoff goals—it will tell the story of the season.
Nothing is normal this year, from intense testing routines to empty arenas to masked coaches and travel restrictions. Why is this season’s playoff limit different?
So instead of wondering what could have happened had Leonard been healthy or if Davis’ knee had never bent, accept what happened when the season came to the finish line.
None of this pandemic season has been normal; league champions shouldn’t either.