Injuries were the story of last year's NBA season. LeBron James' Lakers fell to the play-in tournament after his injury, the presumably unbeatable Brooklyn Nets had two of their three stars go down in route to a 2nd round exit, and the LA Clippers saw their breakthrough run extinguished when Kawhi Leonard tore his ACL.
While these three teams were not the only ones dealing with injuries last season, they tend to be the three who are talked about most. Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell believes his team needs to join that category.
In an article from The Athletic's Sam Amick, a recent Zoom call with Donovan Mitchell revealed his feelings towards the way last season ended for his Jazz. While the call was primarily focused on Mitchell's partnership with Clorox and their attempt to keep America's classrooms safe, Mitchell eventually got the opportunity to voice his frustrations on Utah's 2nd round exit last season.
Mitchell told the media that "There were just so many different obstacles with the ankle and whatnot, but — like I said — no slight to Phoenix or Milwaukee or the Clippers, you know, (but) I feel like if we were healthy, you know, we, we get to the Finals. I feel like we (would) win, but you know it’s all easy when you say ifs, and, or buts. It’s easy to say that."
In their Western Conference Semi-Finals loss to the Clippers, the Utah Jazz were without starting point-guard Mike Conley for the first five games of the series. He returned out of desperation in Game 6, but was clearly not himself. Along with Conley's injury, Donovan Mitchell was reportedly playing through in injured ankle as well.
As is evident by Mitchell's recent comments, he believes the Jazz would have beaten the Clippers, and even made the Finals, had it not been for injuries. While Mitchell's frustrations are valid, an injury-free world would have seen Kawhi Leonard continue one of the most dominant playoff runs of all time.
In his 11 playoff games in 2021 before getting hurt, Kawhi was putting up 30 PPG on 57% from the field. He was on pace to join Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 PPG and 7 RPG on at least 57% from the field in a single playoff run. He was doing this while defending at en elite level as well.
In the 2021 playoffs, Kawhi Leonard held his opponents to 30.8% from deep, 35.9% from greater than 15-feet, and 45% from the field overall. All of these ranked top-15 in the NBA amongst all players who defended as many shots as he did. Not only was he on pace to to make history offensively, but he had been defending as good as anyone in the NBA.
That is the player the Clippers were missing when they closed out the Utah Jazz in games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The Clippers were also without floor-stretching big man Serge Ibaka for the entirety of the Utah Jazz series, which disallowed them the opportunity to utilize their five-out offense while maintaining rim protection and rebounding.
The absence of Mike Conley certainly impacted Utah's chances against the Clippers, but Donovan Mitchell was able to maintain an elite level of play despite his ankle injury. In his series against the Clippers, Mitchell averaged 34.8 PPG, 5.3 APG, and 5.0 RPG on 45% from the field and 45% from deep. He was absolutely dominant.
While Utah's poor injury luck kept them from trotting out their best possible roster, it is hard to believe they beat a fully-loaded Clippers team in an injury-free world.