Basketball stars are dazzling on the court with their athleticism and skill. They go on to be multimillionaire athletes and reach heights regular people could only dream of. However, sometimes things interfere with players from reaching their true potential. Prospects who seemed destined for greatness brought down with something that can change the direction of a career: injuries. Sure, players can recover from injuries. However, a lot of the time they aren’t the same.
The players mentioned in this article were designed for greatness. Some may have achieved short glimpses of it. However, all these players were supposed to be even better than what they achieved. Today, we look back and commemorate players who were maligned with injuries that made their careers a “What if?”.
10. Shaun Livingston
Career Stats: 6.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Shaun Livingston isn’t a bad NBA player. He is a 3x NBA Champion with the Golden State Warriors and he is a great defender. However, not many people who started following the NBA recently know that there was a time when Shaun Livingston was supposed to develop into the next big thing. Livingston was a 6’7 guard with a long wiry frame and an eye for playmaking. He was supposed to develop into a triple-double machine who was also a problem on the defensive end. Alas, that wasn’t meant to be.
During a game for the Clippers, Livingston had a gruesome injury that destroyed his knee. He had to take a year away from the game to rehab his knee, and a return seemed highly unlikely for the prospect once brimming with potential. Livingston bounced around the league after his time with the Clippers, eventually settling down with Golden State, where he became a valued piece off the bench and helped the team win 3 NBA championships before retiring at the end of 2019.
9. Danny Granger
Career Stats: 16.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Danny Granger isn’t the most well-known name. In 2009, Granger won the NBA MIP award, averaging 25.8 PPG while shooting 40% from 3. His game was based around his jumper, which combined with his length made him almost unguardable by smaller players. He was like a prototype for the lengthy wings that are valued in the NBA today, like Paul George or Brandon Ingram. Granger was no slouch on the defensive end either, as his length helped him contest shots and make it tough for the offense. Essentially Granger had a game that didn’t rely too much on his athleticism, and more on his length and skill.
Despite his game being tailor-built to last in the NBA, that didn’t happen. After winning MIP, Granger’s scoring averages dropped every year, and he had issues with his knees. That culminated in him having to get surgery for patellar tendinosis and not being able to recover. He eventually retired at the age of 31, which is fairly young for an NBA player. While Granger won’t ever be a name known by most of the general public, he was a shot-creating wing, a player archetype highly valued in today’s NBA. Granger didn’t make it to the modern NBA, but if you wanted to see how he would do in this era, then all you have to do is look at Paul George: their games are extremely similar.
8. Ralph Sampson
Career Stats: 15.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.6 BPG
Ralph Sampson was a player before his time. He was a 7’4 giant who ran the floor gracefully like a gazelle, yet in some aspects played like a guard. Sampson liked to bring it up the floor himself, similar to unicorns like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic. Sampson was extremely polished skill-wise and could hang with the best of them. He could also pass well for a player his size, averaging 3.6 APG at his peak, in an era where big men weren’t expected to be playmakers. He used his height to take it to the rim and finish inside, and his slender flame allowed him to be faster and more fleet-footed than the opposing center.
After the 1985-86 season, Ralph Sampson was supposed to continue flourishing. Sampson and his teammate Hakeem Olajuwon had just made the finals, dismantling the Lakers on the way, but losing in 6 to the Celtics. They were going to be one of the favorites in 1987. However, during that season, Sampson only played 40 games due to injury and his statistical output dipped in every category possible. Sampson got traded to the Golden State Warriors in the 1988 season and was out of the league a few years later. Had Sampson not gotten injured, we may have been talking about a dynasty in Houston, led by the Twin Towers of himself and Olajuwon.
7. Brandon Roy
Career Stats: 18.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Brandon Roy in his prime was an absolutely sublime SG. He could score from anywhere, and Kobe Bryant famously said that he had “no weaknesses” in his game. Roy had a smooth jumper and could score from the three and the mid-range. Playing similar to a shorter Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy earned the nickname “The Natural”. Roy also won the ROY award in 2007, setting the stage for his presumed ascension in the future. His ability to score would have rivaled any other high-octane shooting guard if not for one thing: injuries.
In 2011, Roy underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees. His knees were suffering from a degenerative condition, and he announced his retirement following the resolution of the lockout that same year. A perennial 20 PPG scorer went from sublime to struggling to stay on the court within the course of a few years. At Roy’s peak, he was a SG that could take over a game and make every jump shot in your face. His knees had bothered him since college and had he received treatment any earlier, then we could be talking about Roy akin to players like Allen Iverson and Ray Allen.
6. Yao Ming
Career Stats: 19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.9 BPG
Yao Ming is the most famous Chinese NBA player of all-time. Yao stood at 7’6 with a silky touch in the post, as well as the ability to hit some mid-range shots. During his time with the Rockets he became a franchise icon, and every Rockets fan today knows who Yao is. There are things you cannot teach in basketball, like height. But if you can teach the teachable skills to someone with height, then you get Yao. Yao was an extremely skilled big man for his size, not just overpowering his opponents. He weaponized his height and polished his skills. Yao is hardly a failure: he has 8 All-Star appearances and 5 All-NBA selections. Despite his accolades, injuries held him back from being a dominant force.
Yao had a variety of injuries from 2005-2011, sustaining multiple foot injuries, and even having to sit out a season. In some ways, a giant body like his isn’t meant to sustain the continuous strain that it receives from basketball. In that sense, we are lucky we got to see one of the most skilled and unique big men of All-Time. Yao never won a championship during his time with the Rockets: despite that, he remains a cultural icon and is known worldwide for his career as a basketball player. Imagine if him and Tracy McGrady never got injured: they’d surely contend for at least a few championships together.
5. Tracy McGrady
Career Stats: 19.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.9 BPG
It is hard to call someone with 7 All-NBA teams and 7 All-Star nods a “what if?”. Despite already being in the Hall of Fame, Tracy McGrady could have been one of the greats. An extremely athletic 6’8 wing scorer, Tracy McGrady could shoot a long jumper over you, but also get to the rim and dunk it with ease on two defenders. His type of game would fit perfectly in today’s positionless era, with his toolkit containing multiple ways to get buckets. McGrady could score on anyone and had 2 scoring titles to his name in Orlando. So if he was one of the greatest scorers of his generation, then what went wrong?
McGrady has never led a team past the first round during his time as an All-Star. To be fair that criticism cannot be placed entirely on him. He was the victim of a few bad rosters, especially considering some of his most high-profile teammates were often the victims of injuries. McGrady himself wasn’t immune from the injury bug, having various knee and shoulder injuries that eventually required arthroscopic surgery. McGrady may have never led his team to a ring or gotten an MVP, but to do what he did for so long with injuries piling up is surely impressive.
4. Bill Walton
Career Stats: 13.3 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 0.8 SPG, 2.2 BPG
Bill Walton was a Center who redefined the game. Aside from winning Finals MVP during Portland’s only title run in 1977, Bill Walton was just skilled. Walton was an amazing rebounder, a great passer, and could score the ball on top of that. He also won MVP the year after he won the title, in 1978. Walton reached the pinnacle of the basketball world and won most individual awards that a center could win: including rebounding and block titles in his championship-winning year. He was ready to win for the next 5 years at the age of 24.
They always say the fall comes the hardest. Walton suffered a foot injury during his MVP season and wasn’t the same ever again. He protested the 1979 season due to Portland’s mishandling of his injury. Afterward, Walton spent a few forgettable years with the San Diego Clippers. For the 1986 season, Walton signed with Larry Bird’s Celtics. Unlike a lot of stories, this one has a happy ending. On the Celtics, he reinvented himself during the title run, claiming 6MOTY honors in the process. Walton rose to the top, had a hard fall, and still won another championship despite career-altering injuries.
3. Grant Hill
Career Stats: 16.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG
Grant Hill in his prime was a dazzling player to watch. Hill was an athletic wing who could rebound and pass, as well as break people down off the dribble and get to the rim like Steph Curry. Before Kobe Bryant, he was the one who people compared to Jordan. With his athleticism and touch around the rim in his Detroit days, Hill was a perennial All-Star and drew comparisons to some of the great wing scorers of yore. At his peak, he averaged 25.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 5.6 APG. However, those days would come to an end when he broke his ankle during the 1999-2000 playoff run.
Hill signed with the Orlando Magic after that to team up with Tracy McGrady. His time with Orlando is known for him not being on the court due to more injuries. Sometimes a single injury can change the trajectory of a players’ career and this is what happened to Hill. Hill did, however, carve out a meaningful career post-injury culminating in an All-Star appearance with Orlando in 2005, when he averaged 19.7 PPG. Furthermore, Hill became a productive role player with Phoenix after his time in Orlando, never averaging below double digits in points during his time with the team. Despite his ankle injury, Hill bounced back as well as he could: an All-Star appearance after a trajectory changing ankle injury is an achievement in itself.
2. Penny Hardaway
Career Stats: 15.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Before Kobe Bryant and winning a 3 peat with Los Angeles, Shaq had another All-Star guard as his teammate. Penny Hardaway was an absolute force. Being 6’7 and extremely athletic at the guard position was a recipe for success. Hardaway could do absolutely anything on the court: he was similar to Ben Simmons in the sense that he could create for his teammates at the PG position while being the size of a SF. But unlike Simmons, Hardaway had a knack for scoring, topping 20 PPG 3 times in his career with Orlando. He could dunk on you, but also light it up from mid-range. Hardaway was a true two-way point guard, and he and Shaq looked like the future duo that would win everything.
As with many other athletic guards, a knee injury derailed his career: a knee injury that led to several surgeries during his time with Orlando, and in the future. People remember Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade for winning their first rings with Shaq. A lot of people forget that before those two, there was a guard whose star shone just as bright. Penny Hardaway arguably had more potential than either of the guards I just mentioned: he just never got to fulfill it, while someone like Kobe Bryant maximized theirs.
1. Derrick Rose
Career Stats: 18.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.6 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG
Derrick Rose is perhaps the most well-known injury story in the NBA today. Derrick Rose won the MVP during the 2010-2011 season, getting the Bulls to the first seed while averaging 25 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 7.7 APG. His playstyle could best be described as chaotic: he would use his athleticism to put people on a poster (see: Goran Dragic) as well as contort his body to score indescribable layups. In a certain manner, Derrick Rose represented the most primal aspect of basketball, the ability to put his head down and go to the hoop. Rose is the youngest player to win MVP to this day.
During the 2011-2012 playoffs, Derrick Rose tore his ACL during the first game of the Bulls’ first-round series. Their opponent, the underdog 76ers, proceeded to win the series in 6. Derrick Rose had 23 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds when he got injured. He was dominating. Rose is the biggest what-if story: he had all the athleticism in the world to do what he wanted on the court, the youngest MVP ever, and most of all the ability to hit shots in the clutch. Rose’s ACL injury robbed us of greatness in Chicago. Derrick Rose had the talent to have an illustrious career, but it didn’t pan out.
Now Rose is a reliable 6th man who can score off the bench. While nowhere close to his MVP days, Rose is showing us that he still has game and who knows? He might just win a ring one of these days.