The Six Biggest What-If Careers in NBA History

Derrick RoseWe don’t often think about it this way, but the NBA is a league where dreams come true. All of the league’s players were, at one time, young boys who aspired to become some of the greatest basketball players in the world.

Unfortunately, not every player who enters the league has a career that goes perfectly according to plan. In fact, many players have unfortunate incidents, usually injuries, that derail their careers.

USAbetting will be looking today at the six players in NBA history whose careers were most altered by unfortunate incidents. I’m ranking the players based on how big the difference is between what I believe they could have accomplished in their careers versus what they actually accomplished.

Apologies to Drazen Petrovic, Reggie Lewis, Tracy McGrady, Sam Bowie, Grant Hill and the many other players who were close to earning a spot on this list.

6. G Derrick Rose

Chicago Bulls (2008-2016), New York Knicks (2016-17), Cleveland Cavaliers (2017-2018), Minnesota Timberwolves (2018-19), Detroit Pistons (2019-20)

Rose is the only player on this list who still has a chance to add to his NBA legacy. It is crazy when you realize that he is still only 31 years old after all that has happened in his 12-year career.

At just 22 years old, Rose won the MVP award in 2010-11 as he led the Chicago Bulls to a 62-win season. The 6’2” Memphis product was a player unlike any other in NBA history at the time — a superstar point guard with both the explosiveness to rise up for posterizing slam dunks and the finesse to use advanced dribbling moves and fancy below-the-rim finishes.

From that point, everything fell apart for Rose. His 2011-12 regular season was littered with minor injuries but the big blow came in the first round of the playoffs that season. Rose tore his left ACL and missed the entire next season. In the subsequent season, he played 10 games before tearing his meniscus on the right side.

Rose has since suffered a host of injuries all over his body. He has struggled to put together a fully healthy season, but he has had several stretches of strong play in the last few years. This season, as a member of the Pistons, he played 50 out of 66 games and averaged 18.1 points and 5.6 assists per game on a respectable 55.5 true-shooting percentage.

The prime version of D-Rose’s key weakness was his outside jump shot. If he never had his major knee injuries and had more healthy offseasons to work on that shot, I believe he would have been a perennial MVP candidate throughout the 2010s decade.

5. G Penny Hardaway

Orlando Magic (1993-1999), Phoenix Suns (1999-2003), New York Knicks (2003-2006), Miami Heat (2007-08)

Hardaway was simply no fair for opposing teams in the first few years of his career. He was a 6’7” point guard with elite athleticism whose skill level matched up favorably with any other point guard in the league. He made two All-NBA First Teams in the first three his NBA career, a feat accomplished only by Larry Bird, David Robinson, Hardaway and Tim Duncan since 1980.

Of course, Hardaway suffered a major left knee injury early in his fifth NBA season, and he was never the same after that. The floor general still had size, skill and basketball IQ going for him, but athleticism was no longer an advantage. He had two more knee surgeries in 2000 as a member of the Phoenix Suns, further eating away at his physical gifts.

All in all, Hardaway’s career ended with him playing a few seasons as a legit superstar, a few more seasons as a very productive role player and then a few more with him hardly contributing anything of value. He never really shook his propensity to suffer injuries.

It is easy to point to Hardaway’s reduced athleticism from leg surgeries as the reason for his decline. That was certainly a big part of it, but it was also the fact that the time needed to develop and maintain his skill level was disrupted by constant injuries. Those also likely wore on him mentally.

4. G Brandon Roy

Portland Trail Blazers (2006-2011), Minnesota Timberwolves (2012-13)

When Roy made the 2010 All-Star Game, it was an impressive third All-Star appearance for the 25-year-old guard. From that point on, though, he played just 77 more games in the NBA.

Roy struggled with a degenerative knee condition starting in his college years at Washington and those knees really started to bother him during April 2010. He had surgery that month, and then it was revealed in December of that year that his knees were significantly lacking in cartilage. He played 47 games in the 2010-11 season in mostly a reserve role, but he was inconsistent. He then retired before briefly attempting a comeback in the 2012-13 season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Roy was on a consistent upward trajectory in his first three seasons before the knee issues flared up in season No. 4. He went from Rookie of the Year to All-Star to All-NBA Second Team member and appeared to be a future MVP candidate. In 2008-09, he was the best player on a 54-win Trail Blazers squad that majorly overachieved.

Unfortunately, we will never know whether Roy could have continued his upward trajectory. We do know that he was an elite all-around guard who “had no weaknesses in his game,” according to the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant.

3. C Bill Walton

Portland Trail Blazers (1974-1979), San Diego-Los Angeles Clippers (1979-1985), Boston Celtics (1985-1988)

One of the best college basketball players ever, Walton was drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers in 1974 on the heels of three straight NCAA Player of the Year awards. He had broken an ankle, leg, multiple foot bones and had knee surgery in high school, but he was able to avoid major issues in college.

Unfortunately, those lower-body injury issues cropped up again several times in the NBA. Overall, Walton played just 468 out of a possible 1148 regular-season games during his NBA career. He did manage an MVP award, two All-Star appearances, an NBA championship and a Finals MVP award in his first four seasons. After that, the talented center just couldn’t stay healthy, playing in a combined 14 games over the next four years.

Walton did get a second championship as a reserve for the Boston Celtics in 1986, but he was a shell of his former self by then. If it weren’t for injuries, I think we would be talking about him as one of the most accomplished big men in NBA history next to guys like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.

2. C Greg Oden

Portland Trail Blazers (2007-2010), Miami Heat (2013-14)

Like Walton, Oden was a highly-touted center drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers. While Walton gave us a few extended stretches of superstar play, Oden unfortunately never even got that chance.

The 7-foot, nearly 300-pound beast out of Ohio State missed his rookie season to rehab from microfracture surgery in his right knee. He returned in year 2 and played 21.5 minutes per game, but knee issues again caused him to miss plenty of games. After one more promising but injury-shortened season, Oden then had a string of surgeries that essentially ended his NBA career. He played just 212 more minutes in an NBA jersey in a minor role with the Miami Heat.

Oden’s second season was his best. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 16.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game with a fantastic 64.7 true-shooting percentage. Comparisons to Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal were certainly fair for Oden. When fully healthy, his combination of size, speed and strength was unreal and he knew how to maneuver his body around the basket on both ends of the floor.

1. F Len Bias

Drafted No. 2 overall in 1986 by the Boston Celtics

The Celtics had one of the greatest seasons in NBA history in 1985-86. The squad won 67 regular season games and went 15-3 in the playoffs to secure its third title in six years. Just nine days after Boston clinched its 1986 title, the rich got richer when the Celtics tabbed Bias out of Maryland with the second overall pick in the NBA draft.

Just two days later, the 22-year-old forward tragically passed away from a cocaine overdose. The news was a total shock to everyone. Bias was a 6’8” forward with elite athleticism, great strength and a reliable outside jumper. Some people compared him to a bigger Michael Jordan with a better outside shot.

While the MJ comparison is probably a bit hyperbolic, I have no doubt he would have been a perennial All-Star in the NBA. He might have been able to prolong the Celtics’ dynasty through the 1990s. The fact that Bias has no NBA games to his name makes his the greatest “what-if” career in NBA history.