With Kyrie Irving back on the court for the Brooklyn Nets and Blake Griffin contemplating knee surgery, we explore what the two stars’ careers tell us about injury-prone NBA players.
Not every NBA prospect labeled as “injury prone” follows a career trajectory worthy of a Disney movie. It’s not always the tragedy of Greg Oden or the triumph of Steph Curry. More often, players do exactly what’s expected. They turn out elite production for a handful of seasons, interspersed with inconsistent availability and erratic play. This season has provided two reminders of this difficult reality to NBA teams, with Blake Griffin considering season-ending surgery on his left knee and Kyrie Irving returning over the weekend after a shoulder injury forced the Brooklyn star out of 26 games.
Griffin’s knee injury is the same one that hampered him at the close of 2018-19. The one-time MVP candidate limped to the finish in his first full season in Detroit and ultimately played hurt in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Bucks. It’s just the latest gulch in a career of highs and lows.
Knee problems have plagued Griffin’s pro career. As a freshman at Oklahoma, Griffin suffered an injury to each knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus. In the final game of the preseason after being drafted by the Clippers 18 months later, Griffin suffered a stress fracture to his left kneecap. After an initial seven-week prognosis, Griffin went through surgery once again that ended his rookie season before it began.
So the knee issues this year and last are no surprise. Including his nonexistent rookie season, Griffin has missed 238 (and counting) of 778 games in the NBA so far.
Though teams try to get everyone ready for April basketball, bad injury luck is not seasonal. After years of getting healthy in time for the playoffs, in the 2016 first-round series that might have broken the Clippers, Griffin aggravated a left quadriceps injury after Game 4 and missed the final two games. This is the reality of Griffin’s career, one the Clippers were aware of when they gave him a maximum contract and one Detroit knew it was inheriting when it traded for him two years later.
The highs for Griffin are breathtaking. The big man embraced a changing NBA and adapted his game like few have, particularly mid-career. As the injuries took a toll on his athleticism, Griffin expanded his range, shored up his free-throw shooting, and became one of the best frontcourt play-makers in the league. But he was impossible to count on because of the knee problems.
Without the benefit of spending any time in the Clippers’ training room the past decade, I don’t know which injury was the big one that changed Griffin’s life. It probably wasn’t the two minor injuries in college, but it might have been the stress fracture that stole his rookie year. Regardless, by the time Griffin saw the floor, he was clearly a health risk and his career played out accordingly.
The same can be said for Irving, who missed all but 11 games of his one season at Duke with a “major” toe injury. While Griffin’s college injuries would linger in perpetuity, Irving just seems fragile. After the toe in college, Irving broke his hand, finger and face in his second NBA season. In Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving fractured his left kneecap. That led to further problems while Irving was with the Celtics, including a staph infection last season.
Again, Cleveland couldn’t possibly have predicted all this when they drafted him, but at the very least, Irving’s toe injury was baked into the calculus on draft night. Taking a player rehabbing a major injury is a risk, even if the selection is a no-brainer relative to the rest of his draft class. Cleveland got a championship and several elite seasons out of Irving, and they’d do it over again in a heartbeat.
The Nets’ thought process might be a little different. Irving was coming off 54 missed games in Boston, including the serious infection that formed in recovery from the fractured kneecap. By the summer of 2019, Irving’s issues were piling upon one another in a way that could have scared them off. Reportedly, the Knicks had at least some hesitation about pulling the trigger on signing two players in Irving and Kevin Durant who were health risks, after they were burned by Amar’e Stoudemire a decade earlier. It was a calculated risk by Brooklyn.
Whereas Curry miraculously recovered from career-threatening ankle injuries during his second contract and became an MVP and Oden couldn’t ever stay on the court, our current examples fall in the middle. And their availability is even harder to predict.
Thinking forward about the likes of top recent picks like Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball or Jonathan Isaac whose careers have been hampered by injuries lately, the most reasonable outcome is something similar to Griffin and Irving. You can probably win with them. Their highs will be worth it. But along the way, you will have no idea when they will be on the court or how long their primes will last.
New Orleans is treating Williamson’s rookie contract in the same way the Clippers treated Griffin’s: This won’t last forever, and our guy is good enough to win right now. So let’s go get it. But as those players age, paying them top dollar over several years is tricky. Griffin didn’t make it through three contracts before his body broke down. Irving’s third deal just started and he’s not going to crack 60 games played. There’s no way to predict the future with this stuff, and that’s exactly what’s so maddening.