There is nothing worse than a star player going down with an injury.

It’s especially bad when it occurs during the all-important stretch run toward the playoffs.

Yet three playoff teams are without major stars as they make that final drive for positioning and make all the necessary adjustments as they head into the post-season. Another team lost their brightest star and biggest reason to be optimistic going forward.

As fans, these injuries have robbed us the ability to enjoy these tremendous talents at a crucial point in the season. But we can take solace in the fact that the absence of the these stars certainly will shake up the dynamic of their teams and potentially make the final weeks of the regular season that much more intriguing.

Still, basketball is much better and much more entertaining with Joel Embiid, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Durant in uniform and on the court than it is without them. Their absences leave a huge void and pose difficult questions for their teams going forward. It’s always tough to regroup and move forward without a key piece of your team. Yet the Sixers, Cavs, Raptors and Warriors, respectively are going to have to try and do just that for the time being.

How will they manage it? Can they get through the stretch run? What does it mean for these teams going forward?

Joel Embiid

The Philadelphia 76ers are not in the playoff picture. They did, however, take a massive step forward toward respectability this season.

In 2013, the team began one of the most unashamed tank jobs in sports history. Forever immortalized as “The Process”, then-GM Sam Hinkie came onto the scene and immediately unloaded players like Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for developing talents and picks. Hinkie completely tore the franchise down in order to build toward a future that many thought would never come.

As a result, the Sixers bottomed out in ways we could never have imagined. They went 19-63 in 2013-14, 18-64 in 2014-15 before bottoming out last season with an abysmal 10-72 record, the third worst regular season mark in the history of the NBA. I went to a game in Philly last year and the atmosphere was more like a funeral as they were blown out by the Atlanta Hawks.

During the midst of that fiasco of a season, Hinkie retired which is too bad, because he never got to see his prophesy fulfilled. He always told Sixers fans to “Trust The Process”. He was right.

“The Process” arrived in the form of Joel Embiid. The young big man was actually selected by Hinkie with the third overall pick in 2014 but couldn’t play due to a broken bone in his right foot, which resulted in him missing the entire 2014-15 season and a resulting setback prevented him from playing the next year at all.

The young man out of Cameroon used his recovery time to make himself the single greatest social media star in the NBA. It took him about a month to claim that title and he’s been successfully defending it every season.

The 22 year old big man already had fans electrified before he set foot on the court. When he finally did, the results were even more magical. After three seasons of empty promises and the repeated “trust the process” mantra, Philly’s tank job had paid off.

Embiid is the real deal.

In 31 appearances this season, the rookie averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 blocks and just under 1 steal per game. He was the best player the Sixers had seen in quite some time and when Embiid was on the floor, all the tanking that Philadelphia did seemed well worth it. They had one of the best young players in the league to show for it.

Embiid showed an incredible ability to stretch the floor with his shooting as he displayed a remarkable range from three point range with 37% shooting and also a solid mid-range game. It’s almost a prerequisite now for modern big to have the ability to stretch the floor and Embiid excels in that area. He allows the Sixers to create spacing on offense and really shake up opposing defenses.

He’s also extremely agile for a 7’2”, 250 pound man. This athleticism has quickly allowed him to become one of the elite rim protectors in the entire NBA.

Just how good was Embiid on D this year? When he was on the floor, the Sixers were one of the best defensive teams in the association, when he was off it, they were dead last in defensive rating. Opponents shot almost 15% worse any time that Embiid was within 6 feet of the basket. That’s an incredible statistic. The fact that it was accomplished by a rookie is mind-blowing.

Joel Embiid has unlimited potential. He is already among the NBA’s elite on both sides of the floor and will only get better. There is no question that he was the undisputed rookie of the year before going down to injury, but likely won’t get the award having only played 31 games of the season.

His loss likely means that the Sixers are going back into the tank for the remainder of the season. Given that they moved Nerlens Noel at the deadline for a protected first round pick, Justin Anderson and the already-waived Andrew Bogut. Current GM Bryan Colangelo hasn’t spoke of a process yet, but I think at this point we just have to give it time.

The real question in Philadelphia needs to be what Embiid’s prospects are for a healthy a career. A freakishly talented big man with bad feet brings to mind the career of Bill Walton, one of the greatest big men of all time, whose career was tragically cut way too short and riddled with a litany of knee, hip and back problems all stemming from broken bones in his feet. When Walton was on the court and healthy, he was capable of anything. He lead the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA Championship and would later reinvent himself as the Sixth Man of the Year on the 1985-86 Boston Celtics. But there were all those seasons in between where he spent more time on the IR than on the court.

Is this what Joel Embiid’s future holds?

Medical science has come a long way, but still a big man with bad feet is going to experience a ton of resulting medical problems. Problems that can be treated but may result in a long time away from the court. There is no question that Embiid is a sure bet to be a dominant superstar based on his talent alone but can he stay healthy enough to do it?

As a basketball fan, I want the answer to be yes.

The Sixers future can still be bright. Croatian rookie Dario Saric finally made his way to the team after being taken in the same draft as Embiid and has been fantastic as he’s averaged 19.4 points,8.6 boards and 3.3 over his last 10 games. He’s really stepped up in the absence of Embiid and can be a major offensive presence is Philly going forward. He’s great on the catch-and-shoot and has translated the cutting ability that made him a star in Europe over to the NBA as he can find gaps in any opposing defense. Saric has skills that will keep him a major player for years to come.

Jahlil Okafor has been openly shopped for a while and doesn’t seem to be in the Sixers long-term plans – particularly with an already jammed front court – but the assets he nets the team undoubtedly will contribute in some way.

Meanwhile, the team is still waiting on last year’s number one pick Ben Simmons, who – like Embiid – showed dynamic talent and athleticism for a big man, but also missed his entire rookie season with a broken bone in his right foot.

In an ideal world, Simmons and Embiid will be the Sixers version of a Twin Towers front court. Realistically though, we don’t know what the future holds for two big men with foot issues or how much we’ll be seeing either man on the basketball court as opposed to on the IR.

The tragedy for Philadelphia is the taste of what The Process was always supposed to be only to have it snatched away from them due to injury. The team currently sits at their best mark in four years with a 23-38 record, but without Embiid or Noel that could get a lot worse really quickly.

Hopefully Embiid comes back next year 100% and stays healthy. But all we have are hopes in the face of a very uncertain future.

Kevin Love

The Cleveland Cavaliers are unquestionably the best team in the Eastern Conference. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will be able to knock them off their throne as they look to return to their third straight NBA Finals, but the longer Kevin Love is out, the more it hurts the team going forward.

Since Love went down on February 11th, an incredible burden has been placed on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to pick up the slack in scoring. The result has been games like last night’s win over the Atlanta Hawks in which Kyrie and The King combined for 81 points in order to stave off the Atlanta Hawks 135-130.

The game really exemplified what things have been and will continue to be like for the Cavaliers as long as Love is out. The first, of course, is the major story of the game. The fact that Cleveland put up a record 25 threes. The Cavs are going to continue to rely on outside shooting without Love’s interior or is ability to open up space as he stretches the floor with his own shooting. It’s a miracle that the shots fell as well as they did without Love or JR Smith in the line-up.

The second big take-away from this game is that the Hawks put up 130 points on the Cavs. I like the current Atlanta team, but even I don’t like them enough to think that Tim Hardaway Jr should be putting up 36 points on the best team in the Eastern Conference. The lack of Kevin Love is really hurting the Cavs defensively.

While Love has been criticized in the past for his D, there is no question that he has completely transformed this facet of his game especially over the past two seasons in Cleveland. Remember the job he did on Steph Curry during the NBA Finals last year? He’s kept that level of performance up throughout this season. Keeping his feet moving and not backing down on potential mismatches with smaller guards.

Remember that epic Cavs-Wizards overtime thriller last month? Cleveland would never have won that game without Love doing a similar job on John Wall. Again, Love moved his feet, used his athleticism and size and won what should have been a complete mismatch in favour of the Wizards.

I know most of us aren’t ready to live in a world where Kevin Love is a defensive juggernaut – especially those of us who watched him throughout his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves – but the numbers don’t lie. Love has the highest defensive plus/minus rating on the Cavs. Opponents offensive rating drops from 112.0 to 105.1 and effective field goal shooting percentage drops from 52.1 to 50.3 with Love on the floor.

Granted, some of that improvement is due to the fact that Love is currently playing in tandem with the much defensively stronger Tristan Thompson, but there is absolutely no doubt that he’s committing to improving in that facet of the game and his absence impacts the Cavs on the back end as much as it does on the offensive side.

Going forward for the Cavs, an extended Kevin Love absence could have dire consequences for LeBron James. The King has gone to six straight NBA finals. He played in the 2010 Olympics as well. That is an insane amount of basketball over a six year stretch. He’s 32 years old and not getting any younger. It’s at this point in the schedule where you’d look at resting LeBron to get him ready for the playoffs and a run at his 7th straight finals appearance, but that’s no longer looking like much of an option with Kevin Love out and the Boston Celtics only 3 games back for first place and home court advantage the East.

Those same Celtics who beat the Cavaliers on Wednesday despite a LeBron James triple double (28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Isaiah Thomas absolutely shredded the Cleveland defense, torching them for 31 points and cutting and slashing through the lane at will in the process. We all know the success that Kevin Love has had in terms of guarding speedy point guard over the last two seasons. He was definitely missed in that contest.

Without the spacing that Love creates with his ability to hit from distance and stretch opposing defenses, the Cavaliers have a greater challenge finding holes in opposing defenses and creating good opportunities inside as well as out. Cleveland can’t rely on the three ball every game because the shots just aren’t going to fall every night like they did in Atlanta. When that option doesn’t work, they’re going to need LeBron James to take over games by driving inside, which is only going to put more strain on a man who has played an unprecedented amount of basketball over a seven year period.

I think the Cavaliers can manage the Kevin Love injury in the short-term, but the longer he is out and the more of a burden is placed on LeBron, the more impact it could have on the team as they head into the playoffs.

Kyle Lowry

Living in Toronto, you get used to a lot of media-engineered controversies, but I can safely say that nothing needed to be forced in terms of how pissed off Toronto fans were when it was announced that Kyle Lowry was likely going to miss the rest of the regular season due to surgery on his injured wrist.

The same injured wrist he’d been dealing with for a while and the same injured wrist that somehow didn’t keep him out of the all-star game including participating in the three-point contest.

While I can understand why the fans would be frustrated by that, they should also consider that Lowry toughed out what is now quite obviously a very serious injury for a long time and thought he could do it for the rest of the season. We don’t know how or why this decision was made – if Lowry somehow made the injury worse or if it just wore out over time – but what we do know is the procedure will likely have him ready for the playoffs.

I’m not going to pile on Kyle Lowry because I think it’s commendable that he kept going with an injury for any length of time. I also don’t have a problem with him participating in all-star weekend at all. He earned his spot and we don’t know if anything that happened there was even a factor in the decision for him to have wrist surgery.

What we do know is that the Raptors will have to fight for playoff positioning without a man who has been there best player at different times throughout this season.

At any other point in the team’s recent history, this would have been disastrous but Masai Ujiri and the team’s brain-trust worked some magic over the trade deadline and made their team much deeper with the acquisitions of PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka.

We’ve already seen how much Tucker’s defense has added to the Raptors. Especially in their key win over the Boston Celtics in the their first post-All Star weekend game. Tucker’s excellent defense on Isaiah Thomas held the MVP-candidate point guard to just 20 points on 6-17 shooting and extinguished his usual 4th quarter heroics which allowed the Raptors to win arguably their most important game of the season and remain within striking distance of the Celtics, sitting three games back of them for second in the Eastern Conference.

Serge Ibaka has also had an immediate impact on the Raptors. His presence on the floor has really helped to open up the Raptors offense as Ibaka continues to develop his long range game at an exponential rate, hitting 40% from downtown since coming to Toronto. He’s also averaged 16.8 points a game and created more room for star DeMar DeRozan to operate.

DeRozan has been outstanding in Lowry’s absence and with his new teammates, averaging an 33.8 points per game, including a career high 43 in the win over the Boston Celtics. He’s been the beneficiary of an increased offensive role in Lowry’s absence as well as better looks and opportunities due to the new holes in opposing defenses opened up by Ibaka and Tucker.

The new look Raptors are a definite power in the Eastern Conference, but the team is still incomplete without Kyle Lowry, exemplified in the fact that they were barely able eke out wins against the lowly Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks and looked completely lost getting hammered in the first game of a home-and-home against the Washington Wizards. Although they did bounce back quite nicely against the Wizards last night.

Things won’t come together fully for the Raptors until their point guard is back to join in on the attack and benefit from all the room the new additions are going to give him to operate in. There has to be some concern, however, about how well Lowry will be able to integrate with his new teammates before returning for the playoffs. Practices are one thing but real game situations are quite another and there is no potentially worse situation than having to learn on the fly in the playoffs.

Another intriguing question will linger after the post-season. PJ Tucker, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry are all free agents. MLSE has never shown a willingness to go into the luxury tax. If the Raptors continue to do well down the final stretch of the regular season but falter in the playoffs with Lowry, is there a possibility that they would move on from their star point guard? Especially considering that he will want and will get max money somewhere.

I would say no. If anything, I see the Raptors saving money by parting ways with Jonas Valanciunas, who very clearly no longer factors into their plans as evidenced by his continuing to ride the pine during key situations in games. I think that Lowry, Tucker and Ibaka will be back.

Still the speculation will continue and the situation could get a lot murkier if the Raptors don’t have a deep playoff run after making some big moves at the deadline.

Kevin Durant

This one hurt quite a bit. I was actually doing cardio at the gym this past Tuesday during the Wizards-Warriors match-up in which Marcin Gortat threw Zaza Pachulia into Kevin Durant’s knee (there may have been a slight flop on Pachulia’s part). My knee buckled watching that play. It looked bad.

The results are worse than I could have imagined. Durant is out for at least the remainder of the regular season and won’t even be evaluated for four weeks.

There is no way to classify the loss of a former MVP as anything but a complete disaster. The Warriors certainly looked like a team reeling from one in their loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night. Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis feasted on the Warriors weak interior D and the Warriors were ice cold in response with the Splash Brothers going a combined 3 for 22 from downtown.

They Warriors scored only 87 points in their lowest total of the year and suffered a second straight regular season loss for the first time since April 2015.

I can’t see things staying this bad for Golden State. Steph Curry in particular has shot uncharacteristically poorly over his past three games, going 4-31 (just 13%!) from three point distance in what has been just a terrible cold streak for the two-time MVP. You can to believe that he’ll find his stroke again soon.

Without Durant, the Warriors still have a potent offensive attack with Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green leading the way, but without him they are lacking a guy who many had in the MVP race and also open up glaring positional holes.

Durant was thriving in Golden State, in addition to averaging 25.3 points per game, 8.6 boards per game and 4.8 dimes per game, KD had become an absolute force on defense for the Warriors.

In adding Durant, the Warriors had to gut their entire interior D to make room for him. He responded by becoming the interior defender that the Warriors lacked. He lead the team with 1.6 blocks per game, also a career high for him, and he put up an incredible defensive box plus/minus rating of 2.5 which is the highest of his career by a large margin. Durant used his athleticism and competitive drive to become an elite defensive presence for Golden State. Without him on the floor, they’re now vulnerable.

KD was also the team’s best rebounder, which is going to really hurt them in terms of gaining possessions. Without Durant’s ability to grab boards, the team’s rapid transition game will suffer a great deal. There is now a hole in the Warriors that can’t be filled.

The longer Durant stays out, the more the Warriors are going to be hammered by teams with strong interior scoring. When they match-up with teams like the Spurs, Rockets or even Grizzlies, they are going to have more trouble with them than ever before. This new reality does not bode well for the Warriors ability to hang onto the top spot in the West unless they can shoot their way out of it. Not with a red hot San Antonio team on their tail.

The team that once looked like clear cut title favourites now doesn’t look like even the favourite to come out of the West. It’s highly unlikely that Golden State could overcome Houston or the Spurs without being able to rely on Durant. If by some miracle they were able to pull that off, they’d be running into a Cleveland team that is even deeper than it was last season.

The Warriors don’t just need Durant back, they need him back in the same form he was in before his injury or they could be in a lot of trouble.

The Western Conference is now a lot more interesting than it was a week ago.

It only takes one injury to turn the entire league upside down. Let alone four of them.

From a fan’s perspective it really does suck to be without some of the game’s biggest stars but we can take solace in the fact that some intriguing new possibilities and uncertain futures are in play in terms of playoff positioning.

Bring on the stretch run.