September 09, 2009
OK, we know the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
We've had a bit of fun with these lists, and while I don't want to get too mawkish or maudlin with this particular run, I do need to emphasize that I'm not having a go at any of these players, or making light of what happened to them in any way.
Strip the gig and the platform away, and the fandom remains. We want to see these players do well. And while we might root vehemently against anyone on this particular lot every time they laced it up against our favorite team, that tone never took away from the respect we had for their games, or the disappointment we felt when the ability to observe those games was taken away.
What follows is a list of the 10 most impactful injuries of the last decade.
He seems to have come back quite well. Though he dipped a bit in 2008-09 due to injury and indifference (mostly the latter), Stoudemire actually enjoyed a career year in 2007-08, two years removed from the microfracture surgery that nearly cost him all of 2005-06. And had that injury not cost him that season, would that year's model Phoenix Suns have run toward a championship? That's a question worth debating.
9. Jamal Mashburn
Mash was absolutely rolling in his last full season, 2002-03, averaging 21.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in an All-Star turn. And though he sat out 63 games in 2003-04, trying to rest a wonky right knee, Mashburn averaged 20.8 points per game in between stints on the pine.
After that? Microfracture surgery, more rest and a comeback that never surfaced. Nevertheless, it was a fine career, and Jamal retired as one of six players (Jerry West, Larry Bird, Drazen Petrovic, Reggie Lewis and Michael Jordan acted as his esteemed company) who averaged over 20 points per game in their last NBA season.
8. Jonathan Bender
We're not going to tell you that Bender's per-minute marks, pre-injuries, were the stuff of legend. But we can tell you that, really, there was never a "pre-injury" run.
Bender earned inconsistent minutes on the bench of two very good Pacers teams (one that made the Finals and another Isiah Thomas-coached crew that should have done much better than their record) before the knee injuries hit. The 7-foot, sweet-shooting talent never really got a chance to healthily plant and work on an NBA floor. Bender played only seven games, combined, in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and cruelly had to retire because of injury at age 25.
Sure, we might be ranking a bit high based on potential alone, while giving Livingston's so-so numbers a pass due to the sheer amount of shoulder and knee injuries that halted his growth in his first three seasons. But it helps to remember the sheer amount of potential that this kid had, and how spectacular he was to watch when healthy, and just how devastating his February 2007 collapse was.
It's an injury that, to this day, some of us still haven't gathered the strength to watch, and like Jay Williams(notes) before him, this isn't some ligament tear or microfracture-bred struggle. This is a career-killer, though Livingston may have dotted a couple of NBA rosters in the years since, it cruelly eliminated any chance we had to see him at his absolute peak. Well, so far, at least. We hope he proves us wrong.
Yao is ranked this low because we're only focusing on his most severe injury (the stress fracture he developed during the 2009 playoffs), and because his run isn't over yet. If Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) can play just 103 out of a possible 132 games in the 1999 and 1999-00 seasons and then come back to make several All-Star teams while playing into his mid-30s, then Yao can do the same after the same injury, with about the same frame, and the same treatment plan. Get to it, big man.
Penny's knee troubles really started in the 1996-97 season, and to his credit, he likely played when he should have sat, while still recovering long enough to play every game in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, leading his Magic to an Atlantic Division title.
After a solid first season in Phoenix during 1999-00, Hardaway relented and underwent microfracture surgery, and he was never the same. A huge loss, because while the 1996-era injury may have meant more, the 2000 operation was just too much to overcome.
We weren't quite sure which McGrady injury to focus on, and we're not being smart-alecky with that admission. What we settled on were the back issues that first surfaced during his 2001 training camp run with the Orlando Magic.
McGrady was an absolute beast in the years that followed, quietly on par with Kobe Bryant(notes) (check the stats) while working on awful teams in Orlando, and extended back issues never really never took hold until 2005-06. Since then, T-Mac has been quite gimpy, perimeter-happy and hardly a lock to stay on the court. Worse, though the injuries might not be related, he has developed knee problems in the years since 2005-06, resulting in a microfracture operation that could cost him most of the 2009-10 season.
Chris was either at or a little past his prime when he crumpled in a heap underneath the hoop during the 2003 postseason, so we didn't exactly miss out on his best years. And he did come back, the very next year, though his subsequent appearances seemed to hurt his teams more than it helped them.
Post-injury Webber became sort of a Ron Mercer-type at big forward, constantly shooting low-percentage looks while rarely getting to the line, mainly because he had no lift left. His raw point and rebound numbers looked good, but anything more than a superficial look at his advanced numbers revealed a player who was shooting too much for his team's own good, and those numbers hardly did justice to a player who was, by then, one of the worst team and individual defenders in the league. That said, we did get to see C-Webb kill it in his prime. That helps.
As with Yao Ming, Arenas ain't done yet. The Washington Wizards are banking on a full return to health in 2009-10, as they surround Gilbert with all sorts of veterans ready to make a playoff run. That hardly takes away from the frustration of having to see a player in his prime play only 15 games over the last two seasons.
We're not going to tell you that Hill was on par with Jordan or Kobe or Wade or LeBron, back in 1999-00. He was easily the best perimeter player in the league back then, but his 24.5 PER (while quite impressive) somewhat pales in comparison to MJ or the modern triptych typed above.
But he was a beast. An absolute beast, forced to play on awful teams for a series of coaches, while keeping a smile the entire time.
And if you think the hubbub regarding LeBron James'(notes) impending free agency is pretty prominent, I'm being honest in telling you that the chatter surrounding Hill's 2000 free agency was nearly as big, considering the era. It started a full two years before, and dogged him after just about every game in the 1999-00 season, to say nothing of a 1999 offseason that saw teams in Orlando (who made nine trades, some of them quite massive, in the summer of 1999 to clear cap space) and Chicago counting every shekel in preparation for Hill's free-agent tours.
Despite the assumption that he would leave Detroit, Hill brought it every game he could in 1999-00, even though inspired play would hardly add to the bottom line he could grab from the Magic or Bulls (he could have averaged 15 a game, and they would have handed him a max contract).
He averaged 26 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and when his left ankle started to bug him as the season moved along, Hill ignored it. He sat a few games toward the end of the campaign, but when the whispers started to hit the media about the free-agent-to-be taking it easy as a contract summer approached, Hill decided to head back onto the court.
And he crushed his ankle. Played on it, and obliterated it. All because he didn't want the stigma of taking it easy, of someone thinking of impending contract over current contract. He did it to make us happy, and it ruined his career. Then he tried to come back too early the next fall after signing with the Magic, in order to make his new fans and new employers happy. And it was too much for the ankle to sustain. Same thing with the aborted early season comebacks in 2001-02 and 2002-03. He just wanted to make others happy, and it ruined his career. Tragic in so many ways.
While I wasn't exactly sniping at Hill to come back late in 1999-00 - I gave him more than the benefit of the doubt - you can bet your ass that I learned from what resulted. We all should. Time is so precious, and so many things can go wrong, that you can't push these people. There's too much to be lost, merely for an April outing against the Hornets.
Questions? Comments? Furious and righteous anger at a world, not to mention top 10 list, gone wrong? Swing by later today at about 2 p.m. Eastern for a BDL mini-chat regarding this very list.