More than LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Kyrie Irving, there's one player who will determine this year's NBA champion — and his name is Kevin Love.
Love's recovery from a left knee injury is the only thing standing between an epic NBA Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Should he make it back at full strength in time for June, we'll likely forget all about the bumps in the road for the Cavs.
Yet if Love isn't able to recover fully in time for the playoffs, his health could join this list of the most devastating in-season injuries in professional basketball. From broken bones that determined titles to knee injuries that broke up dynasties and one franchise-altering tank job, here are 10 injuries that changed the course of modern NBA history (since the NBA-ABA merger, to be precise), presented in chronological order.
Bill Walton, Trail Blazers, 1978
Walton battled injuries before he even made it to the NBA, and his body mostly refused to cooperate once he turned pro. He had one glorious stretch during the 1976-77 season, when the Portland Trail Blazers won the championship; two years later, he would miss the entire season due to a foot injury he blamed on a lack of proper medical treatment from the franchise.
Walton would go on to serve as a title-winning role player for the Boston Celtics in the '80s, but that foot injury in particular leaves us wondering what might have been for one of the most skilled big men in history.
James Worthy, Lakers, 1984
Old-school Lakers fans had flashbacks when Julius Randle went down with a broken leg in his first game as a rookie in 2014. Twenty-one years earlier, Worthy suffered the same injury in his first year in the NBA just as the Lakers were gearing up for the third of four straight Finals appearances. Without their talented rookie, Los Angeles was swept by the 76ers in the 1984 Finals before bouncing back the next season to win the third title of the Magic Johnson era.
With a healthy Worthy, perhaps the Lakers would have entered 1984-85 as defending champions.
NBAE/Getty ImagesAndrew D. Bernstein
Larry Bird, Celtics, 1988
The cracks in the Celtics' foundation were readily apparent for anyone looking closely enough in 1988, following retirements and the tragic death of Len Bias in the preceding couple of years.
Everything came crashing down on Nov. 15 of that year, when Bird landed awkwardly after a layup and had to take a seat for the rest of the game. That soon became the rest of the season, and the mighty Celtics were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the 1989 playoffs just two years removed from their last Finals appearance.
Bird toughed out three more seasons in Boston before retiring in the summer of 1992, giving way to one of the darkest stretches in Celtics franchise history.
NBAE/Getty ImagesAndrew D. Bernstein
David Robinson, Spurs, 1997-98
Whether the Spurs tanked or merely allowed the injured Admiral to recuperate, there's no getting past the impact of Robinson's injuries in the late '90s. He started the season on the shelf due to a back injury before returning in December, only to break his foot and miss the rest of the season.
San Antonio fell to the third-worst record in the NBA during the 1997-98 season and landed No. 1 pick Tim Duncan for its efforts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Grant Hill, Pistons, 2000
Although Hill's ankle injury reared its ugly head in the playoffs, the former Detroit Pistons standout believes to this day his health issues started at the tail end of the 1999-00 campaign. A misdiagnosed sprain turned into a fracture, derailing Hill's career with Detroit.
He joined Tracy McGrady with the Magic the following season in what was supposed to be the start of a new NBA dynasty. Instead, Hill continued to fall apart before one final swan song as a veteran presence for the Phoenix Suns in the late aughts.
Karl Malone, Lakers, 2003
Oh, what might have been in Los Angeles were it not for the Mailman's knee injury in 2003-04.
Malone suffered an MCL tear in December that the Lakers misdiagnosed as a sprain, costing him nearly three months. Although Malone returned to wrap up the regular season, he was sidelined by another knee injury in the postseason that helped cost the Lakers a championship at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.
Shaquille O'Neal said in 2015 he'd still be a Laker "to this day" if Malone and Gary Payton had stayed healthy that year. In reality, he ended up in Miami and the Lakers entered a barren wasteland ahead of the Pau Gasol era.
NBAE/Getty ImagesJesse D. Garrabrant
Amar'e Stoudemire, Suns, 2006
Stoudemire and Steve Nash discovered an instant chemistry when the Suns signed the latter as a free agent in 2004, as they helped lead Phoenix to a 62-20 record in their first season together.
The Suns looked poised as title contenders for the foreseeable future with their ridiculous offense — then the team discovered cartilage damage in Stoudemire's knee during the 2005 preseason. After microfracture surgery, he missed the majority of the season before an aborted attempt at a comeback in March.
STAT had several All-Star-caliber seasons after his injury, but he was never really the same, and the Suns had to settle for being an incredibly fun offensive team that never made the Finals during Nash's tenure.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Kevin Garnett, Celtics, 2009
The Celtics' "Big Three" era started to fall apart in Feb. 2009, when an unusual knee injury sidelined the Big Ticket for all but four games of the final two months of the season. Even worse, he aggravated the injury with no contact from other players during his brief attempt at a comeback.
Garnett went on to miss the entire postseason as the defending champion Celtics lost to the Magic in the Eastern Conference semis. The next season, Kendrick Perkins' knee injury in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers put the final nail in this Boston-shaped coffin.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder, 2013
Unlike the rest of the entries on this list, Westbrook's problems started in the postseason, when he tore the meniscus in his right knee after a collision with Houston's Patrick Beverley in April 2013. He was expected to be ready for the start of the 2013-14 season but did not make his return until early November following a second surgery in October.
By December, Westbrook had to undergo a third procedure on his knee. He missed 36 games in all as the Thunder lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference finals.
While Westbrook was back in action for that series, he certainly wasn't 100 percent. With Kevin Durant winning MVP that season, it seems fair to say that a healthy Thunder team could have topped the Spurs and faced LeBron once again in the NBA Finals.
Speaking of KD ...
Kevin Durant, Thunder, 2014
This gallery should serve as proof positive the 76ers are making the right decision to shut down Ben Simmons for the rest of the year.
Durant suffered a Jones fracture in the 2014 preseason, just months after being named the 2013 MVP, and had surgery in October that was supposed to have him back before the end of the calendar year. When KD did make his return, however, he was noticeably still in pain and battled through ankle and toe injuries related to the initial break.
After 27 games he never should have played, Durant required a bone graft in March that cost him the rest of the year — and cost the Thunder a playoff berth for the time in six seasons.
If Durant is healthy, who knows? Perhaps the Thunder face the injured Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals and win the franchise's first title, ensuring KD and Westbrook stay together in OKC for a long, long time.