Twice, like a thief in the night, Lady Luck picked his pocket
cleaner than even Allen Iverson could’ve.
That fistful of rings that Magic Johnson possesses could’ve
easily been seven, but she — perhaps put up to it by the Basketball
Gods — had other plans.
A five-time champion, the legendary Magic Johnson won the
league's MVP award in 1989. His Los Angeles Lakers were looking for
a three-peat, which seemed inevitable. They'd be squaring off
against Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons in a rematch of the
prior year's Finals, one in which the Lakers prevailed in seven
After losing Game 1 in Detroit, Johnson suffered a season-ending
strained hamstring in the third quarter of Game 2. The Lakers would
go on to lose that one, as well as both Game 3 and Game 4 — neither
of which saw Johnson take the court.
Two years later, after Michael Jordan knocked off the Pistons
and ascended to the Eastern Conference’s throne, he would see
Johnson in what was the Laker legend's ninth and final trip to the
championship series. Those 1991 NBA Finals should have been a clash
of the titans... But Jordan’s Bulls rolled over the Lakers in just
James Worthy, the Lakers’ leading scorer that season, suffered a
sprained ankle during the Western Conference Finals. It hampered
him before a reaggravation caused him to check out of the series
for good with 2:49 remaining in the third quarter of Game 4. The
Bulls, in all fairness, led the series 2-1 at that point. But the
Lakers would lose Game 4 and Game 5, the second of which was played
without both Worthy and key reserve Byron Scott.
As a result of those absences, in that fateful game, the Lakers
played only seven players.
Magic wouldn't see the Finals again. His 5-4 record there is
pretty good, but not nearly as spectacular as a 7-2 record would
have been. But that’s okay… Injuries always have and always will be
a part of the game.
Somewhere, Kevin Durant is nodding in agreement. And Kyle Lowry
is raising his eyebrows and shrugging his shoulders.
As safe a bet as there is, your last nickel can confidently be
wagered on injuries playing a part when it comes to the Larry
O’Brien trophy. One of LeBron James’ Finals losses came without
Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love by his side. Doc Rivers would quickly
remind you about Kendrick Perkins’ torn ACL.
So yes. It happens…
But damn, bro… Not like this.
The 2021 NBA Playoffs — where asterisks abound.
Unlike Magic’s first NBA Finals in 1980, and still quite
dissimilar to his last one in 1991, today, the NBA is a
billion-dollar business. We love the game. We watch players like
Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Durant make Herculean feats looks
routine. Larger than life in every sense of the word, having an
in-person conversation with an NBA superstar — no matter how long
you’ve been around the business — is pretty damn cool.
For most of us, making eye contact with LeBron or giving a fist
bump to Zion Williamson is the closest we’ll ever get to meeting a
superhero. We can’t help but wonder what it feels like to fly.
So we watch games and we buy tickets. Now, we place bets.
StubHub wants in on the action, so does BetQL. And the likes of
ESPN and TNT pay the NBA billions of dollars to televise everything
from preseason games to the newest phenomenon: the All-Star Game
The trickle-down effect of that — thanks to a player-friendly
collective bargaining agreement that usually distributes the
majority of revenue to the players — is merely “decent” pro players
They employ agents, business managers, public relations
professionals, bodyguards, nutritionists, strength trainers,
chauffeurs and nannies. And in each their own right, NBA players
have become their own economic solar systems with their own
individual sets of celestial objects.
So when there’s a work stoppage and Player X doesn’t have the
means to earn his millions, the aggregate economic impact for those
within his ecosystem is catastrophic.
For that reason, as we learned in the Orlando Bubble last
season, the game must go on, even if the NBA’s players don’t
necessarily want it to.
It’s just sad now that everyone seems to be paying the
The powers that be in the NBA and its players union jointly
agreed to ask its workforce to play 80 regular season games and two
postseasons in less than one year. For the Lakers and the Miami
Heat, specifically, their 2019-20 season ended on Oct. 11, while
their 2020-21 season began on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23,
Neither would get out of the first round this time around. Maybe
it was a coincidence, but it’s hard to make that argument based on
what we’ve seen transpire before our very eyes.
Between then and now, scores of impact players have had their
seasons derailed by injury. Without knowing better, you could
believe the names to be a recital of some All-NBA teams.
Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown and Victor Oladipo never played a
minute in the 2021 playoffs. Neither did Myles Turner or Gordon
Hayward (whose teams didn't qualify for the playoffs but did make
it to the play-in tournament, where perhaps they could've secured a
spot if they were at full strength).
Among the difference-makers who sustained significant injuries,
but played through them, are LeBron, Luka Doncic, Russell
Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Michael Porter Jr.
Many others weren’t as lucky.
Anthony Davis, who officially missed only one playoff game, was
essentially absent from the Lakers’ final three. Chris Paul will
likely begin the Western Conference Finals on the shelf after
testing positive for COVID-19, but let’s not forget about the
shoulder injury that threatened to derail the Suns’ title run
before it even began. He was favoring the shoulder as recently as
Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets.
Kawhi Leonard’s season is potentially over, while many other
participants in the NBA’s Elite Eight are attempting to shake off
their ailments and return to form. Entering play on June 18, James
Harden, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving and even Mike
Conley, in their truest forms, are still M.I.A.
Ja Morant and Devin Booker have arrived. Porter grew up. Durant
returned. But we’ve been distracted from it by the fact that many
of our favorites are dropping like flies.
Thus far, eight of the 26 players selected as 2021 NBA All-Stars
have missed playoff games which, according to the Elias Sports
Bureau, is an all-time record.
That sobering statistic led to LeBron — still the face of the
NBA — going on a mini-rant on Twitter,
essentially wagging his finger and saying, “I told you so!”
James reportedly advocated for the start of the 2020-21 season
to be pushed back until at least some point in January due to,
according to him, fears of increased injury probabilities due to
James obviously lost. And now, unfortunately, so has everyone
Superheroes they may be, but the exploitation of their talents —
and our collective willingness to watch it, talk about it, and yes,
write about it — is the NBA’s business. The decision to begin the
2020-21 season days before Christmas was made with careful thought,
and after balancing many factors. But for the NBA, as is usually
the case, business won out.
From the beginning, it was always a zero-sum game: playing as
close to 82 games as possible was the priority and completing the
season with enough time to get the 2021-22 season back on its
traditional schedule was necessary.
The beauty of an NBA Finals played in June has always been not
having to compete with Major League Baseball’s pennant races or
with the NFL. This year in particular, the league had to consider
the Tokyo Olympics, which is set to commence on July 23.
So business won out. It’s just a shame that, in the form of
their health, the league’s players had to pay the bill.
When the smoke clears, the 2021 NBA Champion, without question,
won’t be able to flatly lay claim to being the best team — not with
so many impact players hobbling into the postseason.
What we’ve seen this postseason in terms of injuries, is
unprecedented, and even though injuries have always been a
part of the game, Magic Johnson himself probably can’t help but to
be blown away.
Jamal Murray should’ve had a chance. Kawhi Leonard’s season
shouldn’t end with him in a suit. Kyrie Irving isn’t supposed to be
sidelined for a Game 7. Nobody ever wanted to see Anthony Davis
limp off the floor, just like nobody wants to see Joel Embiid
reduced to being a wounded warrior.
We now know that LeBron was right. We’ve seen enough to say
that, with confidence, the NBA returned to action much too soon. We
all understand why, but in deciding to do so, Adam Silver, Michele
Roberts and the powers that be decided to sigh, inhale, look up
into the sky and shoot the dice.
With one flick of the wrist, they decided to take a monumental
risk and bet that their players would hold up over the long
Defiantly, they shook up the dice and shot. And with it all on
the line, they rolled snake eyes.
In the end, they've made losers of us all.