NBA

All-NBA ‘What If?’ Team: The superstar careers that disappeared after devastating injuries

Sports can be cruel. DeMarcus Cousins knows this better than anyone.

Cousins has endured a brutal 18 months. After being traded from the Kings to the Pelicans during All-Star weekend two years ago, Cousins seemed to have found a team worthy of his services in New Orleans. With Anthony Davis by his side, the Pelicans found a way to create a modern version of the “Twin Towers.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. Multiple significant injuries have completely derailed Cousins’ career.

Jan. 26, 2018, torn Achilles: Through 48 games, Cousins averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds alongside Davis. Then Cousins went down in the fourth quarter of a January game against the Rockets. It turned out to be a fully torn Achilles, an injury that ended his season and eliminated any chance of him receiving a max offer in free agency.

April 15, 2019, torn quad: After signing a one-year deal with Golden State and missing a good chunk of the regular season, Cousins returned to the floor hoping to be a contributor on a championship team. He reached the playoffs for the first time in his career, but Cousins took a spill while chasing a loose ball during Game 2 of the Warriors’ first-round matchup against the Clippers.

After being diagnosed with a torn quad, Cousins was forced to sit out until the 2019 NBA Finals. While he had some nice spurts against the Raptors, the injury simply wouldn’t allow him to give the Warriors the kind of performances they would have needed to take down Toronto.

Aug. 12, 2019, torn ACL: Cousins elected to sign another one-year deal, this time reuniting with Davis in Los Angeles. The Lakers were considered a true contender with a revamped roster, and Cousins was in position to contribute on Day 1 with a clean bill of health. Unfortunately, fate once again intervened.

Cousins collapsed during an offseason workout in Las Vegas with an apparent knee injury. The diagnosis of a torn ACL will more than likely force him to sit out the entire 2019-20 season.

His career isn’t done – he is still just 29 years old – but that ACL injury puts Cousins in the “What If?” group full of NBA careers that have been ruined by injuries.

We’ve come up with our all-time injury-shortened NBA lineup. (Note: The list covers the last 25 years and is limited to players who flashed star potential over multiple seasons in the league.)

G: Derrick Rose, Bulls

Rose’s athleticism was breathtaking. Go back and watch him fly from baseline to baseline at breakneck speed. In his third season, he averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, winning the 2010-11 MVP at just 22 years old. He looked poised to carry the Bulls out of their post-Michael Jordan malaise and back to the NBA Finals.

Less than a year after that MVP campaign, Rose suffered the first of his soon-to-be frequent knee injuries. He would go on to miss the entirety of the 2012-13 season as he rehabbed from a torn ACL. He would have multiple surgeries to repair his MCL to the point that it looked like he was wearing pillows on his legs each time he played.

The surgeries to his lower body took away his elite athleticism. Never a good outside shooter, Rose struggled to adjust his game and bounced around the league. After eight years in Chicago, he went to New York, Cleveland and Minnesota before signing with Detroit this offseason.

Last season was a feel-good story for Rose (well, in some ways). He averaged 18.0 points and 4.3 assists with the Timberwolves and was on the shortlist for Sixth Man of the Year. It’s great to see Rose reinvent himself and stay relevant in the league, but just imagine the impact he would have made minus the knee issues.

G: Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Magic

Of all the “What If?” players, Hardaway takes the cake. Not just because of his potential, but because of the talent surrounding him.

Hardaway made an immediate impact in his rookie season, averaging 16.0 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. He was runner-up to Chris Webber in the Rookie of the Year voting. Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal would go on to lead Orlando to its first NBA Finals appearance in 1995. It seemed that the Magic would run the Eastern Conference for the next decade.

Then O’Neal was traded to the Lakers, and Hardaway suffered the first of his many major injuries. Before suffering a brutal left leg injury early in the 1997-98 season, Hardaway was on a Hall of Fame track. A three-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA First Team selection, Hardaway was never the same.

He would go on to have multiple knee surgeries as he bounced around the league. Hardaway managed to stretch his career out to 2007, playing with the Suns, Knicks and the Heat, but he never got back to his All-NBA level. He averaged only 12.4 points per game in Phoenix and less than 10 points per game in New York. He lasted only 16 games in Miami.

F: Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers

Coming out of the University of Washington, Roy took the league by storm in his rookie season, averaging 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Roy won the 2006-07 Rookie of the Year award with nearly every first-place vote.

Roy showed that he was no one-hit wonder with All-Star appearances in the next three seasons.

He was on pace to become one of the greatest players in Trail Blazers history before a degenerative knee condition cut his playing career short.

There was nothing Roy could do. After six knee surgeries, the writing was on the wall – Roy had to retire. It was a career that burned bright but had a short shelf-life.

F: Grant Hill, Pistons

Hill was a legitimate superstar. There’s no other way of putting it.

For the first portion of his career, Hill lived up to the hype he had built up at Duke. He was the Co-Rookie of the Year in 1995 with Jason Kidd and averaged 21.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first six seasons. He was a seven-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection, earning a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

At his best, Hill was one of the most versatile players in the game. With consistent health, there’s a chance that he would have been mentioned among the all-time greats.

Multiple foot and ankle injuries robbed him of his prime. After being traded to Orlando in 2000, Hill played in only 47 games in his first four seasons in a Magic uniform. Though he carved out a role for himself in Phoenix as a solid defender and spot-up shooter, we’ll always be left wondering what could have been.

C: Yao Ming, Rockets

The 7-6, 300-pound behemoth from China was well ahead of his time. His smooth touch around the rim coupled with his ability to step out and knock down midrange jumpers made him nearly unguardable. Even O’Neal had to admit how good he was.

“Yao’s a fabulous player, one of a kind, 7-7 with excellent skills,” O’Neal said at his Hall of Fame enshrinement. “Nobody blocked my shot. Nobody. And I played against the best. The first time I played against Yao, he blocked it three times in a row. I had to get angry and start dunking.

“But you can’t stop Yao. You just have to stay in front of him and hope he’ll miss. He’d get it, look at you and shoot it right over you. He was probably my toughest matchup.”

Yao averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks during his NBA tenure. He landed on an All-NBA team five times, but his frame wouldn’t allow him to have a long NBA career.

Back, knee and foot injuries plagued him beginning in his third NBA season. His legacy goes beyond the court, though, and for that, the NBA is eternally grateful.

Sixth Man: Shaun Livingston, Clippers

A 6-7-point guard, the Clippers selected Livingston out of high school with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. His potential was off the charts – until he suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in NBA history.

At 21 years old, Livingston tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in his third NBA season. Doctors told him that he would never play again. There were even fears about amputation.

Well, he did play again, and what puts Livingston on this list is what he did following the devastating injury.

Livingston found the perfect role in Golden State. He became a three-time NBA champion by providing much-needed minutes off the bench, and his midrange jumper never disappeared. He has shot 50 percent or better from the field in every season with the Warriors.

His time in Golden State proves that his potential coming out of high school wasn’t overstated. Livingston was the real deal. One brutal injury changed the trajectory of his career.

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