We’ve all heard the catchphrase: “The best ability is availability.” That sports motto rings true more than ever as the NBA playoffs are set to begin.
No team has been exempt from the injury bug this season. In fact, only five players have played every game in the 2021-22 season – Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, Golden State’s Kevin Looney, Dallas’ Dwight Powell, Detroit’s Saddiq Bey and Washington’s Deni Avdija – the fewest number of players in NBA history.
Some teams have dealt with more setbacks than others, like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls. But several playoff contenders are missing key players that could affect their postseason.
Here’s 5 players whose return could impact their teams’ playoff run:
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Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The three-time NBA champion was ruled out the rest of the regular season after he sprained a ligament in his left foot on March 16 after Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart made a diving lunge and landed on his lower leg, but he will return for Game 1 Saturday.
On Friday, Steve Kerr said they “expect him to play” in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday after Curry responded well to rehab and ramp up work, although he said Curry will be on a minute restriction. He’s listed as “probable,” as of Friday.
His return can’t come soon enough for the Warriors, who went 6-6 without Curry in the lineup. The Warriors’ offensive rating also dropped to No. 26 during that stretch. Curry averaged 25.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists this season.
Golden State has been plagued by injuries all season long. Thompson returned to the lineup in January following a two-year absence after back-to-back Achilles and ACL injuries. Draymond Green was out two months with a back injury and returned to the court mid-March. The trio reunited for two games before Curry was injured.
Curry, Green and Thompson have only played 11 minutes together this season.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic has been ruled out of Game 1 against the Utah Jazz on Saturday after he suffered a left calf strain during the regular-season finale against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Mavericks announced Tuesday that Doncic started treatment on his calf after an MRI confirmed his injury, adding that there’s no timetable for his return.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported there’s “a great deal of skepticism” within the organization on Doncic’s availability the entire first-round out of fear of worsening his calf injury.
It’s worth noting that Doncic’s left calf strain is similar to Kevin Durant ‘s injury in 2019. Durant suffered a right calf strain during the 2019 Western Conference semifinals while playing for the Warriors. After missing nine games, Durant returned to Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals and ruptured his Achilles tendon. He missed the full 2019-20 season.
Doncic averaged 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.7 assists this season. Dallas, who secured home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs, went 8-9 without him.
Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics
Robert Williams III underwent a partial knee meniscectomy late March after suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 27. The Celtics said Williams is expected to miss four to six weeks, positioning him to possibly return for a second-round series if the Celtics advance past the Nets.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka hasn’t ruled out Williams returning sooner as he ramps up his rehab, but Udoka said the team’s operating as if they won’t have Williams this month.
“We haven’t looked at him being here for the first round, honestly,” Udoka said. “Four-to-six timeframe is what it is and everybody kind of reacts differently to surgeries. But if possible, we haven’t really ruled him out, obviously, being if he’s ready. But we’re going in with the mindset that he won’t be there for the first round.”
Williams has been key to the Celtics top-rated defense this year, averaging 10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks this season. Without Williams, the Celtics went 4-3 in the last seven games of the regular season, allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions, compared to 105.9 points before Williams’ injury.
Ben Simmons, Brooklyn Nets
Ben Simmons has been ramping up his conditioning in anticipation for his season debut with the Brooklyn Nets after being traded by the Philadelphia 76ers, but he hit a setback with his back in February. Although his injury was initially described as back soreness, Simmons was confirmed to have a herniated disk on March 21.
Nets coach Steve Nash said Simmons had an epidural to relieve some pain, but by early April, Simmons was ruled out the regular season and the play-in tournament.
On Thursday, Nash said it’s unlikely Simmons will return in the near future and Kevin Durant said he’s “not expecting him to play” in the first-round series against the Celtics.
“I’m not putting any pressure on Ben to come out there and hoop,” Durant said. “I’m not expecting him to do anything but just to get his body right and get healthy as fast as he can. So in my mind, I’m preparing as if we’re playing with the team we have.”
The Nets are in good hands with Durant and Kyrie Irving, who’s available full time after the private sector coronavirus vaccine mandate was lifted in New York last month, but Brooklyn could use a defensive boost from Simmons, last year’s DPOY runner-up. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.6 steals a game last year with Philadelphia. Brooklyn has the No. 20 defensive rating in the league this season.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Murray has not played a game since he tore his left ACL on April 12, 2021.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Murray was able to “go though parts of practice” with the team on Wednesday, fueling speculation that Murray could return to the lineup sooner rather than later. But Malone said he would “lean more towards him being doubtful.”
“I haven’t closed that door. We’ll see how this series (against Golden State) goes and how Jamal feels,” Malone said. “But zero pressure from me to Jamal. He’s going to come back when he’s ready.”
If Murray was ready to go, would it be wise for a player who missed the entire season to jump into the mix during the high-intensitplayoffs? Thompson took three-months to get into game shape and find his rhythm. However, Murray’s teammates are confident he can contribute.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Jeff Green said. “I’m pretty sure he would help us no matter how many minutes he plays. Given what he can do for us on the court.”
Nikola Jokic is having another MVP-caliber season and the addition of the Nuggets’ second best player would only bolster their postseason run. Michael Porter Jr. is sidelined indefinitely with a back injury and Facu Campazzo has been suspended for Game 1 against the Warriors following an altercation with Lakers’ Wayne Ellington.