NBA Playoffs: Are More NBA Star Players Injured Than Ever Before?

By Scott Kacsmar

Now that we are in the second round of the NBA playoffs, hopefully, injuries are no longer going to be a key story like they were in the first round. A big reason the Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard), New Orleans Pelicans (Zion Williamson), and Miami Heat (Jimmy Butler) were already eliminated is because their star players were injured.

Outside of Leonard trying to give it a go for the Clippers in Games 2 & 3, none of those players were able to play a second of postseason action this season. You can argue the Heat and Pelicans were cooked either way as No. 8 seeds, but another postseason with superstars like Kawhi and Giannis injured on the bench is a huge disappointment for the league.

Unfortunately for NBA fans, this has become a common sight in the postseason in the last decade.

You might recall Kawhi (Spurs) landing on Zaza Pachulla’s foot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals against Golden State, Chris Paul (Rockets) missing Games 6 and 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors for a hamstring injury, and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both going down for the Warriors with serious injuries in the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto.

The 2021 postseason was the poster child for this with 10 All-Star players – twice the high of any other postseason since 2000 – missing at least a game in the playoffs, including Antetokounmpo (hyperextended knee), who was fortunate to return in time for the NBA Finals to lead the Bucks to a championship.

The NBA playoffs are known for producing chalky results compared to the NFL, NHL, and MLB, but lately, it has become a game of seeing who can avoid the big injury in the playoffs, or who can take advantage of their injured opponents the best.

Even coaches are getting injured in games this season. Minnesota coach Chris Finch needed surgery for a torn knee tendon.

Has it always been this way with injuries, or are today’s NBA players, despite the use of load management, just more prone to injuries? Is it a result of playing a less physical brand of basketball (spacing and 3-point shooting) and trying to ratchet up the physicality in the playoffs, or has it just been bad luck to a few select players?

The only thing we know for sure is this is unique in NBA history.

Active Star Players and Their Injury Histories in NBA Playoffs

We mentioned some of the injured stars this postseason like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and unfortunately, this is not new for them this time of year. However, we collected career data on 20 active NBA stars. All of these players will have a shot at the Hall of Fame, and they have all played at least 50 playoff games except for Luka Doncic, already a superstar at this point.

Before we get to the data, we wanted to note that while this is not a summary of all team injuries in the NBA, this is a star-driven league. Losing a star is a lot harder to overcome than losing a good role player. That’s why we wanted to focus on players who have had to be the top-scoring option on their team or a very prominent No. 2 figure like Kyrie Irving or Jaylen Brown.

The following table shows how many playoff games these players have played, how many playoff games they missed, their play rate, and how many different postseasons were affected by the games they missed for injury. So, if a player missed two rounds of a postseason series, that would only count as one postseason being affected.

All data is current as of May 8, 2024. We also excluded any seasons where a player never played in that regular season, so there was never any expectation they’d be available for the playoffs. Games where a player played but left with an injury are not included in the games missed column.

NBA Active Stars: Career Playoff Games Missed
PlayerPO GMsGMs MissedPlay RatePOST Yrs Affected
LeBron James2870100.0%0
Jayson Tatum1000100.0%0
Nikola Jokic750100.0%0
DeMar DeRozan630100.0%0
Anthony Davis60198.4%1
James Harden166398.2%1
Donovan Mitchell52198.1%1
Paul George114595.8%1
Damian Lillard65395.6%2
Jimmy Butler119794.4%3
Jaylen Brown111794.1%3
Kevin Durant1701293.4%2
Chris Paul1491292.5%5
Stephen Curry1471292.5%2
Luka Doncic35392.1%1
Russell Westbrook1221390.4%2
Joel Embiid59888.1%5
Giannis Antetokounmpo791187.8%4
Kawhi Leonard1392485.3%5
Kyrie Irving812973.6%3

Before we point out the players who have missed a lot of games, we should celebrate the durability of a few who have never missed any playoff games.

LeBron James is a model of consistency and greatness. Not only has he played in the most playoff games ever, but he’s never missed one in 287 games. That’s very impressive given his attacking style of play and heavy workloads year after year.

When Jayson Tatum opened his semifinal series against the Cavaliers, he became 100-for-100 at playoff appearances. We also just saw Nikola Jokic play his 75th consecutive playoff game on Monday night for Denver. DeMar DeRozan is the only other player on our list with perfect attendance in the postseason.

Despite his reputation for being brittle, Anthony Davis has been available most of the time in the playoffs. He may disappear for full halves or games, but that’s a different story. The only playoff game he missed was a big one in 2021 when the Lakers were up 2-1 against the Suns. The Lakers lost Game 4 after Davis left injured, then he missed Game 5, and the Lakers lost by 30 points. Davis tried to return for Game 6, but he lasted 5:25 before he left scoreless, and the Lakers lost the series.

Getting towards the bottom of the list, you find seven players who have missed double-digit games with none missing more than Kyrie Irving (29 games). That number is inflated by his first season in Boston (2018) when he missed all 18 playoff games after a knee operation.

Some players have just had some unfortunate breaks with injuries at the worst possible times. Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, and Kawhi have all had five different postseasons affected by injuries.

Incredibly, one of those for Embiid was not in 2024. Despite looking like he suffered another season-ending injury in Game 1 after an excessive dunk, Embiid returned and played 36 minutes that day. He played more minutes than in every game of the 6-game series, a first-round loss to the 76ers.

Of course, you could say that Embiid was clearly not 100% in the series, but has he ever been 100% at any point in his professional career? He had foot surgery the week he was drafted in 2014, and he did not make his NBA debut until 2016.

Asking for Embiid to stay durable is likely a fool’s errand, but as this table shows, it’s not like he is the only outlier in this era. Giannis is another incredible big man when he’s healthy, but the Bucks have seen him hurt in four different postseasons since 2020. He was unable to play a second in the opening-round loss to the Pacers after a late-season injury.

These are some big-time injuries to stars in this era. Embiid could have been a back-to-back-to-back scoring champion if he didn’t have the injury this year that limited him to 39 games in the regular season. Leonard and Antetokounmpo carried their teams to championships in 2019 and 2021, respectively, but they haven’t come close to repeating that success because of their health this time of year.

When we show you the numbers on the legends in the next section, you’ll better understand just how unusual it is to see stars like this injured so often for the playoffs.

Retired Star Players and Their Injury Histories in NBA Playoffs

In collecting data for retired legends, we wanted a good mixture of guards, forwards, and centers from the 1950s through the 2010s. We compiled the data, same as in the table above, for 32 retired stars. All 32 of these players are in the Hall of Fame and most are on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.

For the 16 players on the left, we did not include how many postseasons were affected by their injuries since the answer is obviously ‘0’ or ‘1’ for those players who missed 0-to-1 games total in their playoff careers.

We’ll call those the lucky ones.

NBA Retired Legends: Career Playoff Games Missed
PlayerPO GMsGMs MissedPlay RatePlayerPO GMsGMs MissedPlay RatePOST Yrs Affected
John Stockton1820100.0%Dwyane Wade177298.9%2
Michael Jordan1790100.0%Bill Russell165298.8%1
Wilt Chamberlain1600100.0%Rick Barry74198.7%1
Hakeem Olajuwon1450100.0%Allen Iverson71198.6%1
Julius Erving1410100.0%Scottie Pippen208498.1%2
Bob Cousy1090100.0%Tim Duncan251598.0%2
Moses Malone940100.0%Dirk Nowitzki145398.0%1
Bob Pettit880100.0%Steve Nash120397.6%2
Oscar Robertson860100.0%Kobe Bryant220796.9%3
George Mikan700100.0%Shaquille O’Neal216996.0%2
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar237199.6%Larry Bird1641293.2%5
Karl Malone193199.5%Elgin Baylor1341093.1%1
Magic Johnson190199.5%Kevin Garnett1431590.5%2
Paul Pierce170199.4%Jerry West1531889.5%3
Clyde Drexler145199.3%Patrick Ewing1391888.5%4
Charles Barkley123199.2%Bill Walton491774.2%3

We have more players with double-digit games missed in the active table (7) than we do here (6). One difference that should be noted is that playoff series are longer these days with every round being a best-of-7. Back in the day, the opening round could have been a best-of-3 or a best-of-5 series.

But even with that difference, this is still staggering stuff. Many people’s GOAT (Michael Jordan) and the all-time leader in assists (John Stockton) never missed a playoff game despite playing in about 180 of them each. The durability of Wilt Chamberlain (160 games) and Hakeem Olajuwon (145 games), two of the best big men ever, is also on display as neither missed a game.

I was also blown away at how many legends missed just a single playoff game in their careers:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Everyone should know the only playoff game Kareem missed was Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals against the 76ers, because that’s when Magic Johnson, a rookie, started at center and dazzled with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists as the Lakers won the championship without Cap.
  • Karl Malone: He ended up missing the final game of his career at 40 years old as Malone was out in Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Finals against Detroit when the Lakers lost in his final bid to win a ring.
  • Magic Johnson: The Lakers were 11-0 in the playoffs going into the 1989 Finals, but they were swept by the Bad Boy Pistons. Magic was injured after 5 minutes on the court in Game 3 with the team already down 2-0, then he missed Game 4 in its entirety.
  • Charles Barkley: Let’s give Chuck credit, he didn’t miss a playoff game until the 1998 season when he missed Game 5 of the first round against Utah when he was a 35-year-old in Houston past his prime.

We also have to give a special acknowledgment to Bill Russell. If he didn’t get injured in the 1958 NBA Finals and missed two full games before returning well below 100% in Game 6, he might have won 10 straight championships with the Celtics.

But when you think about star player injuries in the NBA in the last decade, you have to marvel at these guys for having no more than a single injury incident in their careers in the playoffs. It’s on par with Tom Brady playing 23 years in the NFL and only having a torn ACL in 2008 as his only injury that led to games missed.

Now, there were clearly some guys with injury problems.

Bill Walton is a classic example of that as the bottom guy at our table. He won a championship for Portland, then suffered a series of setbacks with injuries the rest of his career. His numbers would probably look worse if he didn’t spend those seasons with the Clippers, missing the playoffs.

Larry Bird also had his share of injuries, especially later on in his career. But they were usually of the single-game variety. Nothing major until the Celtics were already on their way out as a dynasty of the 1980s. But Bird is the only player in our table who had five postseasons affected by injuries.

Patrick Ewing was one of the best centers of his era for the Knicks. But he had a 4-year injury curse in 1997-00 where he missed playoff games each year. The worst luck was in 1999 when he had an Achilles tendon injury and missed the NBA Finals against the Spurs, his last great shot at a ring. The Knicks lost the series in Game 5 without Ewing.

Conclusion: These NBA Star Injuries Are Unique

It would be one thing if players like Embiid and Kawhi were juicing the numbers on active star injuries. But when you start throwing in Giannis, Paul, Kyrie, and Butler, it looks like this era is uniquely bad for these serious injuries. This was considered rare for decades, but it seems to be an annual expectation in the NBA playoffs today.

Obviously, we did not include every player in history in our retired legends list. But we are not cheating and hiding relevant outliers. In fact, the only players we found to miss 20-plus games were a couple of centers in Dikembe Mutombo (22 games) and Robert Parish (20 games). Not exactly Embiid and Giannis.

Parish is not even a good example since 17-of-20 games that he missed came in the 1997 playoffs when he was a reserve in his final season with the Bulls. It’s more likely they did not need to play him than he was out injured. He was 43 and about to retire.

We didn’t even mention Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 MVP who infamously was injured in the opening round against the 76ers that year before the Bulls lost without him. He has missed a lot of playoff games in his career, but he’s also still technically active, having played for Memphis this season. He’s another active example of how bad this has been.

One might say the older players toughed it out better than today’s generation. Maybe some of the injuries they had, a current player would have taken the night off and let it heal. A player like Rudy Gobert missed Monday night’s game in Denver for the birth of his child. That probably would have been shunned in the 1980s if it was Lakers vs. Celtics time for the championship. Times have changed on things like that.

But at the same time, it’s not like we are seeing a lot of 1-game injuries. Giannis, Butler, and Zion missed the full first-round series this year. Leonard almost did too. If they could have played, they would have.

Hopefully, this is just an extended period of bad injury luck and not the new norm for the NBA’s postseason, which can be so special when the games are competitive (see Game 1 of Pacers vs. Knicks).

We want to see championships decided by the best of the best. Not because someone landed awkwardly on a shot or block and tore a ligament. Let’s hope for the best from the rest of the 2024 NBA playoffs.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *