It’s fitting that a regular season that was defined by injuries and absences has been followed by a postseason that has been … defined by injuries and absences.
Every remaining team in the playoffs has suffered an injury or unexpected absence. Last night, The Milwaukee Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo for most of the second half. The Atlanta Hawks were without Trae Young for the entire game. The Los Angeles Clippers have been without Kawhi Leonard since the second round. And the Phoenix Suns were without Chris Paul for two games earlier in the Conference Finals.
And that’s just among the remaining teams.
Earlier rounds featured high-profile injuries to Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving to name just a few. Then there are the guys who played through injuries — like Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, and LeBron James — and the guys who had pre-existing injuries that kept them from logging a single minute of postseason basketball in the first place, like Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, and Mitchell Robinson.
I have no idea if the shortened season is to blame for this. All I know is that we’ve never seen a postseason like this one. More All-Stars have missed playoff games due to injury than any year on record. But that stat downplays the impact injuries have had on this postseason because it doesn’t include injuries to rotation-level players.
One way to illustrate the glut of injuries to key players is to look at the total number of different starting lineups that teams have cycled through in the postseason. While a change to the starting lineup doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been an injury to a key player, an injury to a key player is almost always followed by a change in the starting lineup. It’s an imperfect measure, but I think it captures unexpected injuries to players that matter.
So far, in this postseason, teams have rolled out 46 different starting lineups. That’s tied for the most of any postseason since 1984, which is as far back as starting lineup data goes. And with the injury to Antetokounmpo, that number will only tick upward assuming that he misses at least one game.
Once we adjust for total games played in each postseason, it’s clear this year is an outlier. Over 60 percent of games in this postseason have featured a starting lineup a team hadn’t used before. That’s the highest share in nearly 40 years and we still have another round of games to go.
The teams that have cycled through the most starting lineups this postseason — Clippers, Nets, Lakers — all did so because of injuries to key players (Leonard, Harden/Irving, and Davis, respectively). Even teams like the Celtics and Wizards, both of whom were summarily dismissed in five games in the first round, went through multiple different starting lineups because of injuries to players like Kemba Walker and Davis Bertans.
Before this year, the 2017 playoffs featured the highest number of different starting lineups used. That season, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Durant all missed time due to injury in the playoffs. But I think most people were able to look past those injuries because everyone knew the Golden State Warriors were going to win the championship anyway.
This postseason feels different, though, because injuries have robbed multiple contenders of their title aspirations. I guess, in the end, it was better for a team to be healthy than good.
Ups And Downs
Over on Reddit, each NBA fan base has its own subbredit or message board where fans congregate to discuss team news, dream up fake-Damian Lillard trades, and gripe about how referees, national media, and Adam Silver has it in for them. I like to poke my head into these subreddits from time-to-time to read their latest complaints.
The chart below shows the daily comment activity for each team subreddit since the start of the season.
All we really can see here is that there a lot of Lakers fans. Not that revealing!
So I transformed the data and scaled each chart to its highest point. Kind of like the charts used in Google Trends.
Now we can get a better sense of the highs and lows of each fanbase this season and what got them talking.
We can see things like:
Peak activity in the four subreddits belonging to the remaining playoff teams
Lakers fans getting excited for the playoffs and immediately losing interest once their team was eliminated
Thunder fans praying to the draft lottery gods
Magic and Bulls fans chatting around the trade deadline
The explosion in activity in the Nuggets subbredit immediately after the acquisition of Aaron Gordon
Cleveland fans losing their shit after beating the Nets twice early in the season