SAN ANTONIO – In case you hadn’t heard, Kawhi Leonard is injured and the sky has grown overcast and God is weeping and the world is a snow globe of gloom.
At least, that’s how the situation is viewed in the heart of Texas.
Leonard’s most recent ankle twist knocked him out of much of Game 2 in Oakland, and all of Game 3 here, and the Spurs have not recovered. The Warriors are likely to sweep them out of the Western Conference finals tomorrow night.
As if the Spurs’ tailspin in Leonard’s absence weren’t enough proof of his value on both ends of the court, the NBA announced Saturday that he is among the three finalists for this year’s MVP trophy, along with Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
It seems so unfair, to San Antonio and to basketball lovers everywhere, that one of the three best players in the league should miss time in the conference finals. (Leonard is listed as doubtful for Game 4, and it would seem sort of nutty to play him at this point.) But how uncommon is it?
I can tell you. Using the invaluable resources of basketball-reference.com, I went back to 1975 (when the NBA added a conference quarterfinal round to its postseason) and identified players who missed playoff games in a year in which they finished 1,2 or 3 in MVP voting. As it turns out, it’s a rare occurrence at the conference or NBA Finals level.
Here’s the full list, with Player, Team / Year / MVP position / Games Missed / Round(s) It Occurred
Bill Walton, Portland / 1978 / 1st / 4 games / First round
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lakers / 1980 / 1st / 1 game / NBA Finals
Larry Bird, Boston / 1983 / 2nd / 1 game / Conference semifinals
Larry Bird, Boston / 1985 / 1st / 1 game / First round
Magic Johnson, Lakers / 1989 / 1st / 1 game / NBA Finals
David Robinson, San Antonio / 1992 / 3rd / 3 games / First round
Allen Iverson, Philadelphia / 2001 / 1st / 1 game / Conference finals
Tim Duncan, San Antonio / 2002 / 1st / 1 game / First round
Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers / 2005 / 2nd / 2 games / Conference semifinals
Stephen Curry, Golden State / 2016 / 1st / 6 games / First round, conference semis
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio / 2017 / ? / ? / Conference finals
And a few random notes…
* After his best season as a pro, Walton missed games with a foot injury that would signal the beginning of his slow demise. Blaming the Portland staff for mistreating the injury, he would sit out the entire 1978-79 season in a mix of pain and protest.
* Abdul-Jabbar’s absence in Game 5 in the 1980 NBA Finals (bum ankle) is iconic, because rookie point guard Magic Johnson subbed at center and cemented his legend with a brilliant performance. But I had totally forgotten that Magic had an NBA Finals injury of his own, sitting out most of Game 3 and all of Game 4 in 1989 with a strained hamstring. His Lakers were swept by the Pistons.
* Who would have guessed that ironman Bird would be the only player to appear on this list twice?
* Robinson’s missed games in 1992 were the result of a thumb injury. Phoenix bounced the Admiral-less Spurs in three games.
* Curry missed more games than any other MVP finalist in NBA history, hurting his ankle, then his knee (more seriously) against Houston in the first round. Warriors fans will tell you he was never truly healthy that postseason.
* Iverson joins Leonard as the only MVP finalists to miss time in the Western/Eastern finals.
* It’s certainly a bummer for the Spurs to lose Leonard. But let’s be honest, he is unlikely to win the MVP award considering the historic seasons turned in by Westbrook and Harden. So at least seven previous teams can say their loss was bigger.