This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
During an interview with basketball writer Zach Lowe at the beginning of the NBA season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers caused a bit of stir by pointing out the good fortune enjoyed by the Golden State Warriors during their successful 2014-15 run. Discussing his own team's potential, Rivers noted, "You need luck in the West." He then added, less diplomatically, "Look at Golden State. They didn't have to play us or the [San Antonio] Spurs."
On one level, this sounded like sour grapes, likely because it was. There's little love lost between the Clippers and the Warriors. On another level, Rivers was speaking from the perspective of a former NBA champion, and frankly he was right. You do need to be lucky to win it all.
In fact, a review of league history reveals that a specific kind of luck—good injury fortune—is not just a historical footnote but practically a prerequisite for championship success.
Look again at the 2015 Warriors, whose title run went through the New Orleans Pelicans, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Houston Rockets, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Golden State guard and Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry was relatively healthy during the postseason, opposing starting point guards were not: injuries to Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley, Patrick Beverley, and Kyrie Irving, respectively, meant huge postseason minutes for backups Norris Cole, Nick Calathes, Pablo Prigioni, and Matthew Dellavedova.
Unsurprisingly, Curry and the Warriors took full advantage.
Aside from a few early ailments to reserve big men Marreese Speights and David Lee, Golden State was pretty much injury-free during the 2015 Playoffs. Warriors veterans Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, and Andre Iguodala have checkered injury histories, but all were healthy during their team's title run; Iguodala even won Finals MVP.
By contrast, Cleveland was without All-Star-caliber starters Irving and Kevin Love. Would the Cavs have won a title with better luck? Perhaps. Improved health certainly wouldn't have hurt their chances, whereas worse fortune could have sunk Golden State's.
Indeed, Curry's ailments in this year's playoffs could prove crucial in the Finals. And if Cleveland can continue free of maladies, that might be all they need.
Let's dig in.
A History of Playoff Injuries during NBA Championship Runs
A simple surrogate for a player's injury history during a given postseason is the number of games he played and, by inference, the number of games he missed during the playoffs. It's not completely specific—players miss games for suspensions and personal reasons in addition to injuries—but that's not a major problem here, since we're interested in the impact of any missing player.
More troublesome is the fact that players also miss playoff games for strategic purposes, as denoted in the box score by the dreaded "Did Not Play—Coach's Decision" (DNP-CD). To avoid misclassifying DNP-CDs as injuries, I'm focusing on the five players from each championship team who played the most minutes during the regular season.
(For simplicity, I'll refer to these five players as "starters," even though a team's minute leaders and its starters aren't always interchangeable. For example, the Warriors' minute leaders this year and last year were Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Iguodala, despite the fact that Bogut generally started instead of Iguodala).
Why focus on the each title team's top five minute-getters? Well, compared to a rotation player, it's much less likely that a "starter" would miss an entire playoff game due to a strategic decision. Using this index of injuries—playoff games missed by starters—in the plot below, we can see the history of important playoff injuries during every NBA title run since 1952:
What stands out? Exactly what you'd expect. The vast majority of NBA champions have had extremely good health in the playoffs. On 40 of the 64 Championship squads—62.5 percent—none of the five starters missed a single game; on another 11 teams (17.2 percent) only one starter missed a single game.
Of particular interest is the sustained good health exhibited by some of the NBA's most successful dynasties. From 1959 to 1966, Bill Russell and his fellow Boston Celtics starters missed a total of two postseason games during eight straight championship runs. During their five title-winning seasons in the 1980s, Magic Johnson and the starting "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers missed one playoff game.
By comparison, Michael Jordan and his fellow Chicago Bulls starters were a veritable M.A.S.H. unit: they missed a whopping six games over the course of six championships.
Of course, not every starter is created equal, and the loss of a star player is felt most deeply. To quantify the relative cost of playoff injuries, let's use the summary statistic Win Shares, developed by Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference. When a team wins a game, it earns one Win Share, which is divvied up between its players based on points produced (scored plus assisted), shooting efficiency, rebounds, defensive rating, and so on.
By design, players who make large contributions to a team's success collect a large number of Win Shares. More so than simple games lost, Win Shares lost to injury is a useful measure of the cost of a playoff injury, because it accounts for the importance of the missing player to his team.
Let's see how that looks:
By this measure, the injuries to Vernon Maxwell on the 1995 Houston Rockets (21 games) and Rasho Nesterovic on the 2005 San Antonio Spurs (eight games) suddenly appear a bit less insurmountable; both teams lost less than 1.0 Win Shares due to their absences. By contrast, Chris Bosh's abdominal strain during the 2012 Miami Heat postseason (nine games) emerges as the biggest injury challenge that any NBA champion has ever overcome given that the Heat lost 1.6 Win Shares.
Interestingly, only one title-winning team in league history was forced to overcome a severe injury to its regular-season Win Share leader, with "severe" defined as an injury that forced a player to miss an entire game. Read that again: it has happened once. This occurred in 1980, when the Lakers were forced to play a single game without their Win Share leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar injured his ankle in Game 5 of the Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. In the subsequent and deciding game, Johnson famously started at center. The Lakers prevailed in the game and won the title.
In every other season in NBA history, the biggest contributor to the title-winning team played in every postseason game, a list that includes some of the league's starriest stars: Russell ('59, '60, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '66), Wilt Chamberlain ('67, '72), Johnson ('82, '85, '87, '88), Larry Bird ('84, '86), Tim Duncan ('99, '03, '07), Shaquille O'Neal ('00, '01, '02), LeBron James ('12, '13), and Curry ('15). Some of these players won additional championships when they weren't their team's biggest regular-season Win Share contributor—Russell ('57, '68, '69), Johnson ('80), Bird ('81), Duncan ('05, '14), and Shaq ('06)—but they didn't miss any playoff games during these seasons, either.
Steph Curry's Injuries in 2016
Curry led Golden State in Win Shares during the 2015-16 regular season, but he has battled through a sprained ankle, a sprained knee, and a knotted elbow during the current playoffs. So far, he has missed six postseason games: two against Houston in the first round, and four more against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Those six games the Warriors played without Curry are the equivalent of 1.9 Win Shares lost to injury—if he doesn't miss another game and Golden State wins the title, it would stand as the biggest-ever potential contribution lost to injury for any NBA champion. Moreover, if the Warriors can outduel the Cavaliers for a second straight year, they would be only the second NBA champion to overcome a severe injury to their best player during the playoffs, and the first NBA champion to overcome multiple absences by their star.
Assessing the precise impact of Curry's injuries on the Warriors during a tightly contested Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City has been a popular debate topic. The Vertical reported that a now-less-explosive Curry was playing at 70 percent of his peak against the Thunder. Golden State coach Steve Kerr ridiculed this report and its anonymous source, and quipped that he felt Curry was playing at more like 91 percent in the Warriors' pivotal Game 5 win.
Kerr's probably right to mock any attaching of an exact percentage to any player's health, but it's pretty clear that Curry hasn't been quite as spectacular as he was in the regular season.
The Thunder were the only team all year to successfully switch defensive assignments against the Warriors' high pick-and-roll, asking Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka to chase Curry around the perimeter; Curry was uncharacteristically unable to abuse the Thunder big men with his patented step-back threes, often choosing to defer and swing the ball to one of his teammates in these situations.
Well, at least until he erupted for 36 points in Game 7.
It's hard for an outsider to know the extent of Curry's lingering injuries, but we can look for evidence in his recent shooting efficiency. In Games 3 through 6 against the Thunder, Curry posted four consecutive games with sub-0.500 field goal percentages—which would be normal for a regular human, but it's rare for Curry.
Over the entire regular season, Curry had only two cold streaks where he shot below 50 percent on field goals for four consecutive games. Over the same span against the Thunder, he shot a cumulative 31-for-79 from the field for a four-game average of 39.2 percent. That matched his season-low four-game average, from December 23, 2015, to January 2, 2016; tellingly, Curry battled calf and shin injuries during that period, which suggests that there may be a link between Curry's more recent leg injuries and his shooting slump.
That said, it's also worth noting that one of the Warriors' four victories during Curry's previous cold steak was on Christmas Day against the Cavs. In that matchup, the Warriors were able to grind out a low-scoring victory despite Curry's relatively poor shooting.
Cleveland's Injuries in 2015
If Curry is still hampered by his injuries, he'll get no sympathy from the Cavaliers. As previously mentioned, Cleveland had more than its fair share of player absences during last year's playoffs: Love missed 16 games with an injured shoulder, Irving missed seven games with a broken kneecap, and shooting guard J.R. Smith missed two games due to suspension. That's a total of 25 games lost from the starters, amounting to 4.2 Win Shares down the drain—more than double the total that any NBA champion has lost in the postseason.
Irving, for one, believes that the Cavs would have won the Finals last year if he and Love had been healthy for the series. Love seconds that notion. Perhaps they're right. Starting tonight, we'll find out. Maybe this time around, it's Cleveland's turn to get lucky. Or maybe Golden State will overcome Curry's issues, much as it already has, and continue to rewrite NBA history.
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