Injuries are nothing new in the NBA. Despite the rapid improvement in health, training, and general fitness, many players are maligned to surgical tables time and time again. Even the greatest players to ever play were not able to avoid the injury bug.
While there have been countless players who were promising that lost their career to injuries, these players were recognized as great through an MVP or Hall of Fame recognition, but none of them posted a sustained level of dominance despite their immense talent levels.
Here is a look at five of the greatest players to ever play the game and how injuries kept them from even greater heights.
#1: Derrick Rose, point guard, 2009-present. Teams: Bulls (09-16), Knicks (17), Cavaliers (18), Timberwolves (18-19), Pistons (present)
While still active (and incredibly productive in 2019), Rose is the most recent example of injuries decimating a star’s career. After being incredibly healthy through three seasons (missing only six games) and winning the 2011 MVP, Rose has yet to play 70 games in any of the last eight seasons, topping out at 66 in 2016. Between 2013 and 2014, Rose played just 10 games for the Bulls.
The source of Rose’s injury problems stems from a torn ACL late in Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Rose missed the entirety of the 2012-2013 season before returning at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season. 10 games into the season, Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee, necessitating season-ending surgery.
15 months later, Rose tore the same meniscus, but only missed 20 games of the 2014-2015 season, returning just in time for the playoffs.
Despite winning an MVP at age 22, the highlight of Rose’s career came against the Cavaliers in the 2015 playoffs. Rose hit a buzzer-beater to give the Bulls a lead in the Eastern Semifinals. Many thought it would be the turning point for Rose’s return to stardom. The Bulls were subsequently vanquished and Rose was shipped off to New York before the 2016-2017 season where he tore his left meniscus: his fourth surgery-inducing knee injury.
Rose has been a part of four franchises since his exodus from the Bulls. He has seen many lows, but he did inspire NBA fans across the globe with a career-high 50 points on Halloween 2018. It was a glimpse of what could have been if Rose had stayed healthy.
#2: David Thompson, shooting guard, 1977-1984. Teams: Nuggets (77-82), SuperSonics (83-84)
Injuries were not the major cause of Thompson’s short career, but they played a fairly large role. Thompson’s off-the-court problems overshadowed his injuries on the court. His off-the-court problems are an article for another time. However, Thompson did miss a significant portion of two seasons due to leg injuries including a career-ending leg injury in 1984.
On the court, Thompson was electric. He was given the nickname “Skywalker” due to his high-flying acrobatics. Thompson mixed flash with substance as his 24.1 points per game on 51% with the Nuggets is elite in any era, especially from a guard. Thompson was a five-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA/ABA, and once scored 73 points in a game. Thompson’s 73 points were the most by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain until Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006.
Over six years, Thompson was named as an All-American three times at North Carolina State, made the All-ABA Second Team, and made a pair of All-NBA First Teams. In college, Thompson won a National Championship, winning Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament. His senior season ended with the AP Player of the Year, Helms Foundation Player of the Year, NABC Player of the Year, the Rupp Trophy, and the Naismith Award.
Injuries and off-the-court problems kept the Hall of Famer from being recognized as one of the best scorers in the history of basketball.
#3: Ralph Sampson, center, 1984-1992. Teams: Rockets (84-88), Warriors (88-89), Kings (90-91), Bullets (92)
Sampson was the gold standard of health in his first two seasons, missing zero starts. Sampson turned 164 games of play into a pair of All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year, and a Second Team All-NBA appearance. Sampson missed only three games in 1986 as the Rockets went to the Finals. The run to the Finals included a buzzer-beating shot by Sampson to dispose of the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Sampson would never play 65 games in a season again.
Sampson suffered a back injury in the 1986 Finals. After the series, Sampson made another All-Star appearance, his fourth, before failing to make it again. After the 1986 Finals, Sampson would only play 62 games over a season-and-a-half with the Rockets. Sampson had a respectable stretch with the Warriors to close out the 1988 season, but he quickly fell off from 15.4 points per game down below seven for the remainder of his career.
Sampson’s career was plagued with a variety of back and foot ailments which could be in part due to his 7-foot-4 frame. He played his final game with the Bullets at age 31.
Despite his short career, Sampson still found himself in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Sampson is on the shortlist of greatest ever college players, and his stint in the NBA had a high enough peak to warrant his selection in 2012. Sampson retired before his Twin Tower teammate, Hakeem Olajuwon, won two NBA Finals for the Rockets, a sad turn of events from a promising start to his career.
#4: Tracy McGrady, shooting guard, 1998-2013. Teams: Raptors (98-00), Magic (01-04), Rockets (05-10), Knicks (10), Pistons (11), Hawks (12), Spurs (13)
Yet another Basketball Hall of Famer joins the list as McGrady has gone down in NBA history as arguably the greatest “what if” ever. By the time he was 21, McGrady was terrorizing defenses for 27 points a night. Two years later, McGrady peaked at an absurd 32.1 points per game. He never reached those heights again, but he led the NBA scoring for the second time the very next season. After moving from the Orlando Magic to the Houston Rockets, McGrady averaged 25 points per contest for three seasons. Sadly, those were his final three All-Star seasons as injuries began to pile up.
Despite being reasonably healthy early in his career (missing 22 games between 1999 and 2003), McGrady only played 75 games once more (2005).
McGrady did play 16 years in the NBA, so his injury situation could have been worse. However, McGrady missed 326 total games in his career, and he retired shortly after turning 34. At his peak, McGrady was one of the most dominant all-around scorers in the history of the league. He made seven All-Star appearances and added seven All-NBA honors, including a pair of First Team selections.
Throughout his career, McGrady faced a variety of ailments including recurring back spasms, arthroscopic surgery to his shoulder and knee, and microfracture surgery.
While he was not as ravaged as others on the list, it was tragic to see the beloved T-Mac retire at just 33 with only one trip past the first round of the playoffs.
#5: Bill Walton, center, 1975-1987. Teams: Trail Blazers (75-78), Clippers (80, 83-85), Celtics (86-87)
Yet another MVP and Hall of Famer to make the list, Walton came into the NBA as one of the most hyped players in the history of basketball after he led UCLA to two championships in his three years of college. He was named as the Naismith Award winner three times before being the No. 1 pick by the Portland Trailblazers.
Walton posted a solid 12.8 points and 12.6 rebounds per game as a rookie, but he only played 35 games. Moving deeper into his career, Walton had just one season in which he played 70 games. In four years with the Blazers, Walton played in just 64% of games, but he was among the best in the NBA when he did play. The 1977 Finals MVP and 1978 MVP, Walton was a dominant center on both sides of the ball.
After being shut down late in the 1978 season, Walton played just 14 games over the next four years and never suited up for Portland again. In his absolute prime, Walton played a measly 4% of the available games.
After 1982, Walton returned to the court for 88 games over two years with the San Diego Clippers. He then played a career-high 67 games in 1985 with the newly-branded Los Angeles Clippers.
After moving to the Celtics in 1986, Walton played in 80 games and added both a Sixth Man of the Year and another championship to his trophy cabinet. Walton played 10 more games with the Celtics before retiring.
After missing three full seasons due to foot injuries, Walton played in just 44% of games in 13 seasons. Excluding the full seasons, Walton only played in 57% of games in the remaining 10 seasons. He is the greatest example of what could have been.