The NBA’s great equalizer: injuries impact postseason implications

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The best time of the year is here. And by that I mean the NBA playoffs. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always looked forward to the two months of the most intense basketball, and each year, the NBA has something different to offer. That’s the beauty of it.

For me, the past few years have been special because my Los Angeles Lakers have missed the playoffs, so I’ve had the opportunity to view the playoffs as much more of a basketball purist.

And through that lens, what I have observed to be unique about this year’s playoffs is the evenness of the playing field. To state it better: This season, before the playoffs began, I was more certain that the NBA Finals would feature a team not named the Golden State Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers. I know that I’m not alone when I say that I am much more excited for this season’s playoffs than I was for either of the past two years.

The narrative of the season was one that was conducive toward producing an interesting playoff picture. The Boston Celtics came out as the early favorite ─ despite Gordon Hayward’s injury ─ to take the No. 1 seed in the NBA East.

LeBron James and the Cavs seemed less potent than in previous years, and the late-season rise of both the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers has yielded an Eastern Conference that is quite difficult to decipher.

In the Western Conference, the Warriors, while they are still the super-team everyone is trying to dethrone, have certainly not looked as dominant as they did last season. In addition, the Houston Rockets are healthy at the right time, and with likely MVP James Harden at the peak of his game, it is far from guaranteed that the Warriors make it out of the NBA West.

This parity is incredibly important for the NBA because it ensures that the league can have an entertaining product. Viewership for the NBA had dipped last season, but this season, ratings showed the regular season to be the most watched since 2013-14. In addition, ESPN and ABC reported the highest ratings for the opening Saturday of the playoffs in five years.

Yet what is most intriguing about this season to me is what seems to be the cause of the more even playing field: injury, aka the great equalizer.

Five playoff teams had an injured All-Star on opening weekend, and while many people would argue that this actually takes away from the NBA’s entertainment value, I think that the uncertainty that comes with teams playing without a star makes the series far more interesting.

Just because a team may be lacking a star player does not mean that it can’t overcome the injury ─ as Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans have shown since DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. In fact, four of those five teams all came away with victories in Game 1 of their series, with role players making up for the injured star.

That being said, I obviously appreciate the value that star players add to the game and would never want injuries to occur simply to level the playing field — dominant teams are still good for the rest of the league.

Injuries happen every year, but for some reason ─ perhaps because the favorite Warriors’ Stephen Curry is out for the first round, or because more teams have injuries ─ this season they have created a more equitable playoff landscape, at least for now.

The injury bug has set up a scenario in which almost any team in either conference can compete or take their first-round series to seven games, and one in which the Warriors, who naturally have the target on their backs as defending champions, are somewhat more beatable.

Bottom line: I’m hyped for the next two months of basketball. Here’s to a postseason filled with seven-game series.

Vikram Muller writes the Tuesday column about current events in professional sports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @v_muller26