Basketball requires athleticism, skill, and creativity. Some of the best athletes in the world can’t compete in the NBA unless they possess all these traits and more. Good health may be the most overlooked requirement to acquire long-term success in the league. Superstars from every decade have seen their careers careen into the gutter because they are plagued with knee issues, ankle surgeries, or chronic back pain.
The 22 best players whose careers were stunted by injuries have flabbergasted and entered the pantheon of the greatest “what ifs” in history.
1. Bill Walton
When Bill Walton was on the floor, very few centers have ever looked so complete. Walton could pass like a point guard and bang like a traditional center, and his personality made him an easy beacon of leadership. The UCLA legend missed 680 NBA games in his professional career, the equivalent to about eight full seasons of gameplay!
2. Penny Hardaway
Penny Hardaway teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to make the Orlando Magic a formidable opponent in the Eastern Conference in the 1990s. Hardaway looked like the second coming of Magic Johnson with his speed, height, and athleticism, but several knee surgeries stole his potential and left him as only a role player on the Suns and Heat.
3. Grant Hill
Grant Hill was LeBron James before the King entered the league. The Duke legend invented the point forward position (Scottie Pippen deserves a shout-out for that, too) and seemed destined to lead a team to the title at some point after his stint with the Detroit Pistons. A tragic list of ankle injuries destroyed his superstardom in Orlando.
4. Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose introduced soaring explosion to the point guard position in the early 2010s. He became the youngest MVP in league history with the Chicago Bulls before tearing his ACL and re-injuring his knee in the years after. Rose has remained a role player in the decade since his accolades, but he would have looked like Russell Westbrook or even better without the injuries.
5. Chris Webber
C-Webb brought dynamic energy to the power-forward position in the 1990s. Webber did a lot of the stuff Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett eventually perfected. Still, injuries during his time in Golden State and eventually Sacramento prevented him from entering the upper echelon of all-time forwards.
6. Andrew Bynum
The Lakers won two titles with Andrew Bynum as their starting center despite him never playing in an entire season more than once. His career ended in Cleveland less than a decade after he was drafted, but Bynum had many tools traditional centers needed to become All-Star-worthy in the mid-2000s.
7. Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade is one of the rare players who still had a fantastic career despite being limited by poor health. Flash won three titles with the Miami Heat while breaking records for blocked shots from the shooting guard position. Wade’s knee injuries later in his career hampered his movement and speed but also helped him settle into a secondary role next to LeBron James.
8. Brandon Roy
Brandon Roy feels mythical in the Pacific Northwest. After a great college career with the Washington Huskies, Roy was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. He was an assassin from the midrange and competed with Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant for All-Star berths in the late 2000s. Degenerative knee injuries ended his career after only six seasons.
9. Amar’e Stoudemire
Amar’e Stoudemire blended Shawn Kemp’s jumping with Blake Griffin’s offensive skills to terrify defenses with the Suns and Knicks. Knee injuries on both legs caused him to miss most of two different seasons and curtailed his outstanding gifts until he had to retire after 13 years in 2016.
10. Tracy McGrady
T-Mac mesmerized his fans and peers, often playing better than contemporaries like Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. He shot the ball like Kevin Durant and leaped over defenders in his wake. While McGrady didn’t suffer as many significant injuries as others listed, he always got hurt right when his team was about to enter a lengthy playoff run.
11. Yao Ming
Yao Ming towered over defenders in his first three seasons, playing almost all 82 games each year. The center then crumbled due to foot injuries in the five seasons after and retired after nine total years in the league. Yao helped the Rockets to the playoffs several times, even bringing the Lakers to seven games in 2009.
12. Shawn Kemp
Seattle SuperSonics fans will remember the Reign Man taking over the 1996 NBA Finals and leading the team deep into the playoffs throughout the 1990s. Once Kemp signed in Cleveland, injuries and weight gain hindered his play and saw his scoring averages drop to under 10 points per game.
13. Andrew Toney
Andrew Toney became one of the most critical players on the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1980s, slithering through the defense and becoming a nightmare for the Celtics and Lakers. Foot injuries cut his career to eight seasons and only two All-Star appearances, but every NBA fan should know his talents.
14. Klay Thompson
Injuries haven’t ruined Klay Thompson’s career, but his potential to become a first-option superstar ended with Achilles and ACL surgeries in 2019 and 2020. He missed two consecutive seasons at a point in which he was ready to elevate into the top shooting guard in the league. Thompson may have looked similar to Devin Booker without these injuries.
15. Maurice Stokes
Maurice Stokes was well on his way to becoming a rival of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Walt Bellamy before hitting his head on the hardwood and suffering life-altering brain injuries. Stokes had to retire after only three years and died tragically at 36 years old. He was an All-Star every year of his career and remains one of the league's genuinely sobering figures.
16. Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh proved he could lead the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs as the solo star and then fit in next to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Bosh revolutionized the power forward position by shooting three-pointers before it was in vogue before retiring due to blood clots at 31.
17. Arvydas Sabonis
Arvydas Sabonis toiled away in the European leagues for nine years between his selection to the Portland Trail Blazers and his debut for them. He endured many injuries, including an Achilles tear, while overseas. These issues prevented him from displaying his best skills in America, talents that looked a lot like Nikola Jokic’s.
18. Pete Maravich
Pete Maravich could never mirror his college magic to the fullest in the NBA because of several knee injuries in the late 1970s. He retired after ten seasons playing for the Jazz, Celtics, and Hawks. He astounded fans with trick shots and modern skills like behind-the-back passes and three-pointers from distance.
19. Larry Bird
Larry Bird is another player who played a complete career despite leaving several years on the table. Chronic back issues in the early 1990s forced Bird to retire after only 13 seasons. LeBron James is in his 21st season, and it can be assumed that Bird would still be considered a historical rival if he had more time to stack stats and titles.
20. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard has one of the most fascinating careers in NBA history. He barely has more points than Andrew Wiggins but also holds multiple NBA Finals MVPs. Leonard led two franchises to the promised land with a combination of offensive and defensive finesse, but knee injuries have ruined his late 20s and early 30s.
21. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis typically comes back into the game after getting hurt, but most modern fans have come to expect the Lakers’ power forward to miss at least a quarter of every season he plays in. Davis has only played over 70 games in a season twice since his rookie year in 2013. When he remained healthy in 2020, Los Angeles won the title.
22. Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons started his career as one of the league's best floor generals and creative passers. His height and deer-like strides down the court made the Sixers challenging to guard, but Simmons’ injuries and mental and emotional reactions to them ruined his career. Simmons is trying to regain his former talent with the Brooklyn Nets.