I can certainly empathize with fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers right now in the wake of the news that Kyrie Irving is out three-to-four months with a fractured kneecap. As a Chicago Bulls fan, I know all about gut-wrenching injuries that slam the door shut on potential championship runs, as multiple knee injuries to Derrick Rose and other injuries to key players have left the Bulls as mostly a playoff afterthought in recent years.
Even after the Bulls lost to LeBron James‘s Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago looked like a force to be reckoned with for seasons to come. They had the youngest MVP in league history in Rose, a solid core, depth, an elite defense and the Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau. There were some notable flaws on the roster, but at worst, the Bulls were a team primed to challenge LeBron’s Heat for the immediate future. And with a few tweaks and a little luck, perhaps a championship run was in order.
Of course, that never happened, as Rose’s career was thrown off course by a series of knee injuries, beginning with an ACL tear in April 2012. All of a sudden, that Bulls core that looked so promising didn’t look so promising anymore, and the franchise has been trying to find its way back into championship contention since then. They thought they had the formula this season, but another injury to Rose and a hobbled Joakim Noah played a part in ruining those championship dreams.
There are plenty of other examples out there of injuries ruining championship potential. The Oklahoma City Thunder of the past few years are another perfect example. The year Rose tore his ACL, the Thunder lost to James’s Heat in five games in the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City traded James Harden after that, thinking they’d be just fine with a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
As ill-advised as that trade seems now considering how good Harden is (it was second-guessed at the time as well), the Thunder were still in position to make more runs to the Finals without him. Only just like the Bulls, major injuries derailed them. Westbrook tore his meniscus in the 2013 postseason. Ibaka got hurt last postseason. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all missed extended time this season. Three seasons. Three years of title dreams shot down by injuries.
Which brings us to this Cavaliers team. Cleveland became a juggernaut after LeBron got healthy and general manager David Griffin made those key midseason trades to balance out the roster. The team wasn’t perfect, but they jelled into a group that certainly looked like it could take down anybody in a playoff series, especially with LeBron playing at a high level.
Losing Love in the first round against the Boston Celtics was bad enough, but the Cavaliers persevered despite that injury and nagging injuries to Irving thanks to LeBron’s brilliance, the emergence of several key role players and a downtrodden Eastern Conference.
And even without Love, Cleveland looked ready to give the league-best Warriors all they could handle in the Finals before Irving went down. But now that Irving will join Love in street clothes, it would take a miracle (or a horrific injury to a Warriors star) for this series to end in anything other than a Golden State victory. I guess we shouldn’t completely count out LeBron, but come on.
While the Warriors appear to have a clear path to a title, even they felt for a brief moment just how fragile a run to a championship is. In back-to-back games last series, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson suffered head injuries that could’ve easily been much worse than they were. Luckily for those guys and Golden State, they’re still on the court, and hopefully they stay on the court.
The Warriors are an all-time great team and may have beaten a 100 percent healthy Cavaliers team anyway, but it’s a shame for everybody that we weren’t able to find out if they could. Just like it was a shame that we never got to see all those Bulls-Heat Eastern Conference Finals matchups or healthy Thunder playoff runs.
To win a title, you usually need the Basketball Injury Gods on your side. This Cavaliers squad now joins a long list of teams that caught the wrath of those Gods. And on a related note:
what a brutal season of significant injuries to important players pic.twitter.com/hxAxGhNHhd
— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) June 5, 2015
That’s just brutal.