Injuries have often adversely affected teams with a realistic chance of winning an NBA championship. Most notably in recent history, between 2009 and 2012 the Boston Celtics suffered injuries to key players that greatly decreased their probability of winning championships. Likewise the Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose to injury in Game one of their 2012 Eastern Conference Quarter-final series against the Philadelphia 76ers which essentially killed any chance they had of winning a title last season.
This trend has continued in the 2013 postseason, with the Golden State Warriors losing All-Star forward David Lee and the Oklahoma City Thunder losing All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook for the duration of the year. Granted, even with Lee the Warriors were not considered a serious contender to win this year’s championship. But, should they be able to defeat the Denver Nuggets in the first round, losing Lee will make it extremely difficult for them to defeat the Spurs in the second round or any opponent in the Conference or NBA Finals.
Unlike the Warriors, at the start of this year’s playoffs the Oklahoma City Thunder were widely considered one of three teams along with the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs who had a realistic chance at this year’s title. Westbrook’s season-ending injury has lowered the probability that they will win this year, but it does not completely knock them out of the picture, for two reasons.
1) They have enough depth to get by their current opponent the Houston Rockets and their potential Western Conference Semi-final opponent, which will be either the Los Angeles Clippers, or the Memphis Grizzlies.
2) Their main competitors for this year’s crown, the Spurs and Heat are also dealing with injuries and it is possible the two teams could be without star players as the playoffs move into the later rounds.
For the Spurs, Manu Ginobili has played sparingly in their Western Conference Quarter-final series against the Lakers, averaging just over 19 minutes a game. It is uncertain if his strained right hamstring can hold up through extended minutes in the playoffs. To make matters worse for the Spurs, they are going to be without starting center Tiago Splitter for seven to ten days because of a sprained ankle that could limit his effectiveness throughout the playoffs.
In the case of the Heat, Dwyane Wade is dealing with an injury to his right knee that kept him out of the fourth game of the team’s Eastern Conference Quarter-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks. If Wade’s injury is a lingering issue that gets worse, it could even the playing field for the Thunder should they meet the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Like many teams in previous postseasons that have had to deal with injuries to star players, the Thunder will have to use its depth and mental fortitude to defeat their lesser opponents. However, unlike their predecessors, which were often able to get by lesser teams only to be beaten by their main competitors in the later rounds of the playoffs, the Thunder could benefit from the fact that their main competition will also be competing with injured or missing star players.