Since its inception in the late 1940s, the NBA has accommodated thousands of players, around 4,500 to be almost exact. A small section of those players have stood out over the years, becoming household names, even outside Basketball Fan-dom. A few elite players earned Super-Star status. Unfortunately, some of the some of these elite, or would be elite, players prematurely wound up their time in the league after sustaining career-altering injuries.
Who are the best NBA players who got injured? It is almost impossible to come up with an exhaustive list, some of the best players who suffered career ending injuries include Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Penny Hardaway and Yao Ming.
For every Karl Malone, Abdul Jabar and Lebron James who seemed able to play at the elite level night after night, season after season without ever seeming to succumb to injury, there is another player. That would have reached much higher heights if their careers hadn’t been de-railed by serious or persistent injuries.
Injuries are part of the game
Though injuries are untimely, they are part and parcel of most professional sports leagues including the NBA, where players are required to feature in up to (or at least) 82 games a season condensed into only five months. For this reason, leagues and franchises or teams have put measures in place and invested heavily to ensure that they keep most, if not all, of their players healthy throughout their careers. More recently we have seen the rise of “load management”, where players are rested, when not injured in order to prevent injury. A contentious issue, because some say it robs fans of the night to night action of the full strength teams. The goal for all teams doing this is to ultimately have their best players at 100% ready for the games that matter, in the postseason.
Players on the other hand go out of their way to ensure that their livelihood is secured in case they are injured in the line of duty. NBA players, for example, have legally-binding documents like the Uniform Player Contract with specific terms and clauses outlining what should happen following an injury.
The aforementioned document guarantees that an NBA player won’t be penalized for failing to give their “best services” if they are medically declared unfit to carry out their duties. The standard contract also guarantees that a franchise or team will pay a player their salary or wages and cover their medical expenses, which can sometimes run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This may seem obvious in 2022, but for decades gone and in other sports even now, this isn’t always the case.
What do we mean by career ending injury?
In order to keep this list of the best NBA players who got injured objective and light, some players will respectfully have to be exempted. These include players who got injured, recovered and later had a measure of success like ex-Chicago Bulls star (and current New York Knicks point guard) Derrick Rose and former Golden State Warriors playmaker, Shaun Livingston.
This list will also not include players who managed to partially recover from injury or players who found a way to play through their injuries and continue their careers at a somewhat high level.
For this reason, players like Celtics legend and three-time NBA World Champion, Larry Bird and former Utah Jazz talisman “Pistol” Pete Maravich will only be mentioned in passing despite having a strong case to make this list. Former Portland Trail Blazers center Bill Walton and Sacramento Kings big Chris Webber, whose NBA career lasted 17 years, will also not be featured.
Players who sustained injuries away from the court like former Chicago Bulls standout Jay Williams, whose career-altering injuries stemmed from an unfortunate motorcycle accident, will be excluded as we focus on things that happened on-court.
Finally, players who could not be cleared or were declared unfit to play for medical reasons other than a conventional injury like recent NBA Hall of Fame inductee and former Miami Heat ace, Chris Bosh, will also not be included.
Who are the top NBA players that had their careers ended by injury?
With all these considerations in mind, the simple criteria for the NBA players who make this list are those who beg the question, “What would have happened if (player’s name) had not gotten injured before or at his prime?” Here is the list of the best NBA players who got injured in descending order:
1. Grant Hill
Former Detroit Pistons superstar Grant Hill tops this list for a number of reasons. Hill, simply put, was LeBron James before LeBron James. A 6’ 8’’ forward with good handles, outstanding playmaking and passing instincts and exceptional athleticism. In 1994 as he entered the league many experts and players believed that Hill would be the player that His Airness himself, Michael Jordan, would pass the baton to once he retired.
Like Jordan, Hill was a winner right out of the gate having bagged back-to-back NCAA championships with Duke’s Blue Devils in 1991 and 1992. The forward was then selected as the third overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft and was named co-NBA Rookie of the Year alongside Jason Kidd (drafted 2nd behind Glen Robinson) after Hill averaged 19.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.0 APG and 1.8 SPG – a feat that earned him an All-Star selection in his rookie season.
Hill’s numbers hit a high of 22.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 6.3 APG before the injury got hold of him in 2000. An ankle injury suffered on April 15, 2000, 7 days before the start of the playoffs, in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Hill continued to play, aggravating his injury further. Eventually he was forced to leave halfway through the second game of their first round playoff series against the Miami Heat. Hill would never fully recover from this injury and he managed to play less than 50 games over the next three seasons.
Hill was an all around player, leading the league in triple doubles – his early career stats read like a modern day point forward. In the seasons before his injury, Hill amassed a total of 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds, and 2,720 assists. The only players that can claim to have hit these 3 totals in their first 6 years in the league are Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, and LeBron James. This should give you some idea of the trajectory he was on.
In August 2000 Hill was sent to the Magic in a sign and trade, a good deal for him financially and setting him up with a potentially strong team to run with. However recurring ankle problems relegated Hill to a shell of his former self, he would become a journeyman, never achieving his full potential. and the Phoenix Suns. The seven-time All-Star ended what would have otherwise been a stellar career at age 40 with the Los Angeles Clippers. In six years with the Pistons he played 435 games. In the remaining 12 seasons of his career he would play just 591 in total. The next Michael Jordan never led a team out of the first round of the playoffs.
2. Tracy McGrady
McGrady began his NBA journey in 1997 with the Toronto Raptors where he played alongside his cousin, who was a superstar in his own right and the winner of the historic 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Vince Carter.
Wanting to be a star of his own team, McGrady forced a trade to Orlando in the 2000 offseason after three seasons with the Raptors. Orlando had hoped to sign the forward alongside Grant Hill and San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan but only managed to land the former two.
T-Mac got his chance to shine since Hill was almost always sidelined by ankle injuries and went on to win a pair of scoring titles, peaking at 32.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.5 APG and 1.7 SPG. The standout then joined the Houston Rockets who had hoped to pair him with star center Yao Ming before injuries came knocking in his 2005 and 2006 seasons in the form of debilitating back spasms.
Two seasons later, McGrady suffered shoulder and knee injuries which forced him to have fluid drained from both and take painkillers – developments that further derailed his prime. The marksman had a couple of average seasons with the Rockets before moving to the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and finally to the San Antonio Spurs. He retired aged 34 having never sustained the peaks that his potential indicated he should.
3. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Penny Hardaway burst onto the NBA scene as one of the top prospects of the 1993 NBA draft. After being selected third overall by the Golden State Warriors, Hardaway was immediately traded to the Orlando Magic, for Chris Webber.
At Orlando, Penny teamed up with one of most dominant big men in NBA history in Shaquille O’Neal and formed a formidable duo, which had great success in the mid-1990s. Standing at 6’7’’ and being a good shooter, passer and playmaker, the point guard thrived in the league which traditionally had shorter players at that position.
During this period, Orlando rivaled the Chicago Bulls as the kings of the East and even beat them and a returning Michael Jordan to make the NBA finals in their 1994-95 season before ultimately falling to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The following season was Penny’s statistical best and he averaged 21.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 7.1 APG and 2.0 SPG.
Hardaway’s problems began in his 1997-98 season with the Magic after he injured his ACL. This injury was followed by multiple foot and ankle injuries which robbed him of his prime and culminated in him being traded to the Phoenix Suns, the New York Knicks, back to the Magic before calling time on his career after a stint with the Miami Heat. Hardaway was quite simply one of the best point guards the NBA will ever see. Sadly, we never got to see enough of it for him to be remembered as his talent says he should.
4. Yao Ming
Yao Ming always made headlines since being selected first overall in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. Ming, an export from mainland China, stood at 7’6” and possessed elite fundamentals, footwork and a smooth finishing and shooting touch.
Many experts believe that Ming was a man ahead of his time and that the juggernaut would fit well in the modern-day NBA game which requires centers to carry out their primary duties of finishing around the rim, rebounding and blocking shots as well as stretching the floor.
Ming’s career was drastically shortened by knee, back and ankle injuries attributed to his lower body’s failure to carry his massive frame up and down the basketball court. The eight-time All-Star averaged 19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 1.9 BPG in his short career that lasted only eight seasons.
The big’s ill-fated partnership with fellow injury-prone teammate Tracy McGrady is one of the most common “what if?” stories in NBA history. Ming was on track to be arguably one of the best centers of all time before injuries forced him to retire at only 30.
- Greg Oden. (Portland Trail Blazers)
- Brandon Roy. (Portland Trail Blazers)
- Ralph Sampson. (Houston Rockets)
- Anthony Davis (LA Lakers)
I’ve added Anthony Davis to the honorable mentions list. Sure he’s won a title in the Bubble with Lebron and sure, at the time of writing he’s not even 30. The thing is though, availability is the best ability. Comparing the young man I saw DOMINATE the NCAA finals without even scoring until very late in the game, to his NBA resume, it doesn’t stack up. The whole basketball world hopes that Davis recovers and is able to put a run of consistent title challenging seasons on his scorecard before he retires. If he can’t, he’s surely joining the list above.