Kevin Durant will miss at least the next four weeks for a 2nd degree sprain of his MCL. Kyle Lowry will miss 6 weeks after surgery on his wrist. Joel Embiid, the likely Rookie of the Year, has been shut down for the rest of the season after playing just 31 games (after missing his first full two seasons). Jabari Parker, a can’t miss prospect since his sophomore year of high school just went down with his third ACL injury (people forget his first ACL tear came in high school). Who knows if Parker and Embiid will come back as the same players or if Durant and Lowry will be able to return to form in time to help their teams in the Playoffs. All of these injuries got me thinking about other players that could have been great without their careers being derailed by accident or injury. Here is my All-What-Might-Have-Been Team, the players that never quite became what they could have been because they were unable to stay healthy and on the court.
A two-time All-American at Duke and a 2nd Team All-Rookie Team selection, after averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists and netting his first career triple-double for the Chicago Bulls in 2002-03, Jay Williams was on the fast track to a great NBA career. He was a spectacular athlete with excellent quickness, great instincts, and a knack for scoring. After his 2003 motorcycle accident Williams was lucky to walk again and he was never the same on the court and was later cut by the New Jersey Nets and Austin Toros in the NBA D-League.
Hill is still a borderline Hall of Famer, despite playing only 47 games over a four-season stretch in the prime of his career. His ankle injuries robbed Hill, one of the most exciting and dynamic players in the league, of his quick first step and explosiveness. In his last full season before his first major injury Hill averaged 25.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 6.4 rebounds. While still averaging 16.7 points for his career and still making 7 All-Star teams, with all his injuries, Hill’s career would have been very different had he stayed healthy.
Bill Walton went from being one of the greatest big men to ever play the game, to a sixth man for a great team. Walton was one of the greatest college players to ever play the game at UCLA, capping his career with a 21-for-22 performance and 44 points in the National Championship Game. He took the NBA by storm leading the Blazers to a championship and being named league and Finals MVP. Foot injuries robbed Walton of his prime NBA seasons and he played just 14 games from age 26 to 30. He returned after his prime and after his injuries to win a Sixth Man of the Year Award for the Champion Celtics and he was still an amazing passer and rebounder, but he was a shell of the player he once was.
As a 7-foot All-American out of Ohio State, the Blazers picked Greg Oden ahead of Kevin Durant. Oden showed promise in his first two seasons averaging 9 points, 7 boards, and one and a half blocks per game in 82 games. He then missed his next three seasons due to multiple knee surgeries. He played again briefly three seasons ago with Miami in 23 games averaging only 9.2 minutes per game before fizzling out of the league. The can’t miss prospect’s career was over after just 105 underwhelming games. Another sad example of of injuries can change everything.
Drazen Petrovic was a rising star and one of the most accurate shooters in the NBA. Coming off a season where he averaged 22.3 points, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from three, Petrovic was just hitting his prime. Then, Petrovic died suddenly in a car crash where he was reportedly driving 112 MPH on wet roads. His death at age 28 and entering what would have been the best seasons of his life, left New Jersey Nets fans mourning his loss and wondering what might have been.
Yao’s career was good enough to get him in the Hall of Fame, but when you consider that he played just 5 NBA games after the age of 28, you can’t help but wonder what he might have been had his feet held up. Yao started the All-Star game every season (thank you population of China), but he was All-Star worthy all of those season except one and finished with career averages of 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. His size made him the only player in the league that had a shot at slowing down Shaq and Rockets fans would have loved to see Yao battling Shaq a few more seasons in the West Playoffs.
The NBA’s youngest ever MVP winner at the age of 22, is still playing at a starter-level, but after multiple knee and leg injuries, Rose is no longer an All-Star player. In his MVP campaign he average 25.0 points, 7.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds for the 62-20 Bulls. He then missed 228 games over the next four seasons and has never averaged more than 17.7 points or 4.9 assists since. He was shipped out of Chicago, who was tired of waiting around for him to round back into shape. Again he’s still a good player, but gone are the days of the ultra-quick, reckless drives to the rim and explosiveness rarely seen in a player his size.
After averaging at least 17 points or more in five straight seasons after becoming a rotation player including two 20 point-per-game seasons, Lewis collapsed and died as a 27 year old. He was the “bridge” player for the Celtics franchise to ease the transition into Larry Bird’s retirement. Lewis had already made his first All-Star Team and appeared to be the heir apparent to the Celtics “Big 3.” Instead, sudden cardiac death, robbed all basketball fans on getting to see Lewis on the floor again.
For having the luck of the Irish, the Celtics have too many players on this list. As the second overall pick in the 1986 draft, Len Bias led one Celtics scout to say, “He may be the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in some time.” At 6′ 8″ the dynamic athlete was a two-time All-American at Maryland and a two-time ACC Player of the Year. The world never saw what Bias could do in the NBA because just two days after the draft, Bias was found dead after overdosing on cocaine. Instead of creating a Celtics duo with Larry Bird and later Reggie Lewis, Celtics fans were left wondering what Bias might have been.
Shaun Livingston was a 6′ 7″ point guard with a 6′ 11″ wingspan drafted straight out of high school by the Los Angeles Clippers. Amid a break-out season as a 21 year-old averaging 9.3 points and 5.1 assists, Livingston suffered one of the most gruesome leg injuries in the history of the game. Livingston dislocated his knee cap, torn his ACL, PCL, and lateral meniscus while severely spraining his MCL. It tok him months of rehab just to be able to walk again. Livingston played 48 games over the next three years as he bounced from team-to-team trying to find a home. Eight teams later, Livingston is a key bench player for the Warriors and his size and skill set still give defenders fits, but he’s not the player everyone thought he’d be when his knee was obliterated.
Maybe a surprising addition to this list for many readers because the Mailman was one of the most durable players in NBA history, racking up almost 55,000 NBA minutes. Malone did not sustain a single serious injury in his career until his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers. After starting 18-3 Malone went down with a knee injury that cost him 39 games. He then sprained his knee again in the Finals while the Lakers had a 1-0 lead on the Pistons. The Pistons ended up beating the Lakers in four straight games to win the title. Shaquille O’Neal calls that series “the greatest upset in NBA history.” Had Malone stayed healthy, Malone wins his first title (and is not longer considered the greatest player to never win a championship), Shaq and Kobe earn their 4th title together and who knows if Shaq would have left to Miami. Maybe D-Wade never gets his first ring. Maybe Pau Gasol never gets traded to the Lakers and maybe Shaq and Kobe go down as the winningest tandem in NBA history. Maybe the Pistons don’t win the title and as a result, small-market teams have no model to give them hope of winning a title themselves without a superstar. After Malone’s knee injury, we were all left to wonder, what might have been.