- Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and a long list of superstars face injury entering the NBA playoffs. The Crossover staff decides whose ailment will have the largest postseason impact.
The NBA off-season featured unparalleled movement, with stars crisscrossing the league and setting up what promised to be a highly contested postseason. Unfortunately, fate intervened. We'll have to wait for players like Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid to make appearances. Kawhi Leonard, by far the most mysterious injury, has no return in sight. Kyrie Irving, who recently underwent surgery to have two screws removed from his left, will miss the playoffs entirely.
Because of the importance of these players, The Crossover tasked our writers with surveying the NBA landscape and deciding which absence will have the biggest impact on the postseason. Will the Warriors cruise without Curry? Can the Celtics recover from their second season-altering injury? Our crew weighs in on these questions and more.
Lee Jenkins: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
With Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are the third-best team in the Western Conference, a threat to upend the Warriors or Rockets. Without him, they’re first-round fodder. Leonard’s absence hurts San Antonio for obvious reasons: he’s a top five player, a clutch closer, arguably the best one-on-one defender in the NBA. But the uncertainty surrounding his injury, and return date, creates yet another hurdle for the Spurs. It’s hard to move on in the face of constant questions about whether he will be back, and why he’s been gone this long. Leonard has played only nine games, but his specter has hung over San Antonio all season, and that doesn’t figure to change until the first round is mercifully over.
Chris Ballard: Joel Embiid, Sixers
Chosen purely from a selfish, fan’s perspective. Steph Curry’s health could determine who wins the title. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward’s absence has profoundly altered the Eastern landscape. Joel Embiid? He may be back by the end of the first round, perhaps even earlier. Still, after waiting so long to see the Process Sixers in the playoffs, and knowing how much Embiid (and Philly fans) have endured to reach this point, even a few games seems far too long to wait.
Sixers versus anybody is automatically my favorite first round matchup. Same goes for the second round and, with the exception of Warriors-Rockets, probably on down the line. Embiid is everything that is great about NBA past, present, and future. He brings to mind Moses and Hakeem and Dirk, with vintage Barkley attitude, all while playing with a Curry-esque joy. Get well soon, Joel.
Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors
The Warriors have been so thoroughly dominant for so long that it’s easy to assume they’ll roll through the playoffs until Stephen Curry returns. However, Golden State’s play this season without their two-time MVP should inspire caution rather than total confidence. With Curry, Golden State went 41–10 (66-win pace) and posted a +14.7 net rating (No. 1 in the NBA by a mile). Without Curry, Golden State is 17–13 (46-win pace) with a +3.9 net rating (equal to sixth in the NBA). With Curry, the Warriors’ attack has been virtually unstoppable, delivering a 120.4 offensive rating that represents a new high-water mark for the All-Star point guard during the Steve Kerr era. Without Curry, Golden State’s offensive rating plummets to 106.7, which is right around league average. Yes, the Warriors will enter the postseason with three of their four All-Stars healthy. But Curry has been the centerpiece for their entire run, and Golden State’s reputation as world-beaters only formed because he enjoyed near-perfect health over the previous five seasons.
This year, the Warriors have performed like a very-good-but-beatable team without Curry, on par with teams like the Jazz (+4.4 net rating) and Spurs (+3.4 net rating). Given that their first-round opponent could finish with as many as 48 wins, it’s more likely that they will open with a dogfight rather than a breezy sweep. From there, they’ll need Curry to return on schedule and maintain good health. If he suffers a setback in his rehabilitation or a re-injury, the Curry-less Warriors would enter a hypothetical showdown with the Rockets in the West finals as an underdog on paper. Although writing off the defending champs would be foolhardy, don’t expect them to waltz to their fourth straight Finals with another 16–1 postseason.
Andrew Sharp: Kyrie Irving, Celtics
If we’re talking about the injury that will have the biggest impact on the outcome of the playoffs, the answer is definitely Steph Curry. But if we’re talking about injury that will most affect the entertainment value of the playoffs, I’m going with Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics weren’t a perfect team even when Kyrie was healthy, but they were very good, and they would’ve been twice as fun in the playoffs. They played incredibly hard, they could throw a rotating cast of rangy athletes at teams, and their fourth quarter closer was a flat-earther and a ball-handling savant who might be the most entertaining one-on-one scorer on the planet. Can you imagine how Boston fans would've been for those playoff games? They would've given the Celtics a real advantage in every series they played. We would have spent the next two weeks looking forward to a seven-game death match with Philly. There would have been a real shot at a blockbuster matchup between Kyrie and LeBron.
Whether you love the Celtics or love hating the Celtics, everyone can agree that the next two months would be significantly improved with a fully weaponized Boston team. Terry Rozier just isn’t the same. So on that note, here’s to a healthy rehab process full of alternative medicine and YouTube documentaries on the moon landing, and a complete recovery for Mr. Very Much Woke. He’s only been gone for a few weeks and I already miss him more than I ever could've expected.
Rohan Nadkarni: Joel Embiid, Sixers
Joel Embiid's freak facial fracture could have serious consequences in the East. With Embiid on the court, the 76ers are elite on both ends of the floor. Without him, Philly is a young team that's talented but beatable. What's really unfortunate is how Embiid's game is especially suited for the playoffs. With no back-to-backs and built-in rest, Embiid wouldn't have to worry about missing games, and Brett Brown could be a little more aggressive with his minutes. And as you've surely heard a million times before, the game slows down in the postseason, which means Philly could take even more advantage of Embiid's prowess in the post, a wrinkle most teams don't typically save for this time of the year.
If Embiid were healthy on Day 1 of the playoffs, Philly's path to the East finals would have been extremely clean. The Sixers will likely finish third in the conference, which puts them in the same bracket as the inconsistent Heat/Bucks/Wizards trio, as well as the wounded Celtics. The 76ers could have cake-walked to the third round, and their dominant starting five would give them a chance in any seven-game series.
For now, Embiid could very well miss the entire first round, which means Philly will be in for a battle to advance. The 76ers' recent success has been very impressive, but many of their wins have come against middling opponents. Embiid's injury could end up being the difference between a first round exit or a shot at a Finals berth. I can't think of a more impactful injury than that one.
Jeremy Woo: Kyrie Irving, Celtics
From a purely narrative standpoint, the answer is Kyrie, whose ongoing injury issues seem to crop up around this time each year and will deprive us all of a potential head-to-head meeting with LeBron and the Cavs, which it’s fair to posit is what fans (and TV people) would have loved. The Celtics were undermanned from the outset this year with Gordon Hayward's leg injury, but Irving proved capable of propping them up as the center of an impressive young core.
Boston was always set to make a better run at the Finals in a year’s time, with presumably full health (and the potential of LeBron changing area codes), but without Kyrie, this Celtics’ playoff run may stand more as a learning experience for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than as a legitimate challenge to Cleveland or Toronto. His absence effectively rules Boston out this time around.
Jake Fischer: Gordon Hayward, Celtics
As I’ve watched my native Philadelphia brethren victory lap around the Sixers’ improbable surge into the East’s No. 3 seed, it’s definitely become apparent that the young former-tankers have as good a chance any to claim a seemingly wide-open conference. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder how a healthy Gordon Hayward would have factored into said playoff picture. He didn’t have the potential to single-handedly swing the title race like Steph Curry, but Hayward's two-way brilliance, especially as the Celtics are now without Kyrie Irving, would have been a fascinating wrinkle in the East. Hayward can match up with DeMar DeRozan. And with Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart, there may be no better cast of rangy, tenacious wings to take turns guarding LeBron James or Ben Simmons.
Hayward proved his late-game scoring chops a season ago, when the pressure of delivering a playoff series win hung over the entire state of Utah in the face of his own impending free agency. When you score 26 points in a decisive Game 7 on the road, you’ve pretty much eliminated all questions about your ability to perform on that stage. He hung 40 in the Jazz’s Game 3 loss in that series against the Clippers and then dropped 27 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals over 41 minutes in Game 5, just two days after a nasty stomach bug forced him to depart Game 4. The man’s as talented as his hair is perfectly coiffed. Irving’s injury clearly tanks Boston’s contending hopes, but when both are healthy, Hayward may be the superior player. It’s a shame neither will suit up for Brad Stevens this year. And I think Hayward may have had enough to power Boston into the Finals even with Irving on the shelf.