You could create an All-Star or championship team with the half-dozen or so major players sitting out with injuries. The question is, though, how many will seriously upgrade their own team when they return?
Dirk Nowitzki, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum, Steve Nash, Danny Granger and Amar’e Stoudemire haven’t seen a minute of action this season. Nash, only 25 minutes. Their teams are stuck in a holding pattern, some to a greater degree than others, until they return. The good news is, with the exception of Bynum, all are close. They’re breaking a sweat in the gym and plotting a comeback in anywhere from a week to a month.
So … what can we realistically expect from them? And from their teams? Each player has his own unique situation and level of pressure to face when the time comes to finally suit up. In some cases, teams are conveniently using these missing players as an excuse for their own poor play and the fans, at least for now, are buying it.
Still, when these players return, they can only help their teams and the NBA. It’s getting painful to see a marquee team like the Lakers looking ragged in these prime-time TV games. They need Nash and we need Nash. Here’s a look at the players and the stakes:
Steve Nash. Even for a two-time MVP, this has to be an intimidating situation. And, one might add, an unfair situation. The Lakers, a team built to win now, are staking their season on Nash being a 39-year-old get-well card. He’s the key to Kobe Bryant matching Michael Jordan for titles won, to Dwight Howard re-signing next summer, to Mike D’Antoni confirming that he was a better coaching choice than Phil Jackson, to revving the up-tempo offense and -- this is a total stretch -- the key to the Lakers playing better defense.
Maybe Nash is all that (except the defense part). Most likely, he’s only part of that. This isn’t 2003. He’s still sharp, by all indications, but not that sharp. He can only do so much to erase some of the doubt beginning to creep inside Staples Center and a team that has the initial look of a disaster. Right away, Nash will lift spirits just with his presence. His ability to spot the open man and hit jumpers for a poor outside shooting team will instantly enhance chemistry. And he’ll be greeted enthusiastically by Pau Gasol, the current whipping boy in L.A. But unless the Lakers collectively elevate their game, one man’s return won’t swing the season in their favor.
Amar’e Stoudemire. He’s the opposite of Nash, in that fans fear he’ll do more harm than good when he checks in. On the surface, that sounds insane: Stoudemire is a former All-Star who’s terrific offensively and a decent rebounder. Plus, he runs the floor better than most big men, even with his history of knee issues. Finally, wasn’t it just a year ago this time that he was saving the Knicks with game-winning shots and considered a better addition than Carmelo Anthony?
But the Knicks haven’t looked this cohesive since 1973, the last time they won a championship, and so Stoudemire is walking into a potentially explosive situation. If the Knicks somehow go on a losing streak of any length when he returns, the knee-jerk reaction will be to blame him. Well, chances are good that Stoudemire won’t be foolish enough to demand the ball and minutes. He’ll likely come off the bench and yield to Carmelo and could make for a smoother transition than you think.
Ricky Rubio. The Wolves are 25th out of 30 in scoring and their best passer is Andrei Kirilenko, so yeah, you might say Rubio is missed. If he doesn’t have any knee issues, he’ll make Minnesota’s role players instantly better: Nikola Pekovic (inside baskets) and Chase Budinger (open shots from deep) in particular. Maybe he’ll even find a way to salvage Derrick Williams, the former lottery pick who’s gone from starter to the bench. It’ll be fun watching Rubio play alongside Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, a pair of unselfish and creative passers whose job will be to find Kevin Love.
Derrick Rose. The word from the Rose camp is he absolutely will not return until he’s confident he has no fear physically, and that he can be the MVP Rose. That might happen eventually, but this season? Who knows? Rose suffered about the worst knee injury imaginable for a player who relies on cutting and planting and jumping like he does. If he’s all the way back, then the Bulls will steal some of the attention currently enjoyed by the Knicks in the East, because the team is virtually intact from before Rose’s injury and there won’t be an adjustment period. And who knows, by playoff time, maybe they’re a bigger threat to Miami than the Knicks. But again, this is best-case-scenario stuff.
Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks are a break-even team without Dirk and in all likelihood a bottom-half playoff team with him. Although Dirk did lead a team of role players to a championship two years ago, these Mavericks haven’t been together as a unit as long. Besides, there’s a big dismantling coming in the off-season anyway, when the Mavericks have money to spend and half the roster hits free agency. Truth be told, Dallas would rather have a bigger July than a big finish to 2012-13. Which means Dirk can take his time if he wishes.
Danny Granger. Two years ago the Pacers were taking offers for Granger. Now they’re praying he gets back quickly. They’ve been one of the biggest disappointments of the early season, which they’ve played without Granger, and so the theory says he’s the reason. Well, yes and no.
Granger is a 20-point scorer and will take some of the responsibility off Paul George, his young understudy, who isn’t ready to step into a leading-man role just yet. The Pacers are dead last in scoring, astonishing for a team that struck fear into the Heat last spring in the playoffs and returned virtually everyone in the rotation. But the roster, with the exception of David West and George Hill, suffers from underperforming players. The most notable is Roy Hibbert. After signing a big contract this summer and considered one of the top five or six centers in the game, his minutes are being cut and he has regressed offensively. How is it possible to shoot 38 percent as a seven-footer? Until the Pacers get more from George, Hibbert and the bench, they’ll sputter, with or without Granger.
Kyrie Irving. He probably doesn’t belong in this group because he did play 10 games before busting an index finger. Still, the value of Irving to the Cavs can’t be understated. He’s the box office in Cleveland. He averaged 22.9 points, 5.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds before the injury and was on All-Star pace. It’s not too late to make the All-Star team, which would be a major step in the right direction for the Cavs, just 4-17 and hurting from a five-game losing streak. Irving won’t put them in the playoffs but will give people a reason to watch the Cavs, which is probably harder to do. He should play Tuesday against the Lakers.
Andrew Bynum. He told reporters Monday that he feels pain just walking around. Are you like me? Do you suppose Bynum could miss the entire season? Lots will depend on his tolerance, his recuperative skills and whether he wants to risk returning just months before hitting free agency. Either way, this is turning into a nightmare for Philly, still looking to show something for giving up their best player, Andre Iguodala, last summer. At this point, Philly would be gambling big in giving Bynum anywhere near a max deal next summer.