While most of the players in this league are barely catching their breath following the shortest offseason in NBA history, they don’t speak for others who mainly haven’t broken a sweat since March, or in some cases, long before that.
They are the players who didn’t suit up in Orlando last summer for the season restart or are coming off long layoffs due to injury. For many of these players, it’s the longest stretch they’ve gone without basketball since they first picked one up.
Their comebacks will be anticipated and examined, if only because curiosity will greet them from the opening tip. Can they be the player they were before the layoff? Can they be better? How do they fit in a team environment and dynamic that changed in their absence? Those are all reasonable questions and concerns in most cases.
Here are the 10 players whose reappearance on the court will generate buzz, in no specific order:
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Kevin Durant is set to make his Nets debut on Dec. 23.
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets: It was just 18 months ago when the former Kia MVP and regular All-NBA star was generally considered the best player in the sport. And now, after Achilles surgery and an extended recovery period and watching Giannis Antetokounmpo win two MVPs and LeBron James claim another championship, Durant can finally re-enter that conversation. The Nets are his team, and New York can be his city, and it’s really about his ability to elevate Brooklyn into the championship mix. Because he’s such a great shooter and doesn’t totally rely on speed and quickness, his injury history shouldn’t be a major obstacle in his comeback.
John Wall, Houston Rockets: Once a fixture among the finest point guards, the five-time All-Star hasn’t played since the winter of 2018 because of leg injuries. Suddenly, he became “a contract,” meaning, someone whose enormous salary (four years, $170 million) overwhelmed his basketball worth. After the Wizards lost patience and went with a more sure-thing with Russell Westbrook in a trade with Houston, Wall is now the Rockets’ problem or solution, depending on how he returns from those injuries and meshes with James Harden, who’ll dominate the ball.
DeMarcus Cousins, Houston Rockets: Does anyone know if Cousins is getting a championship ring from the Lakers? That’s the second-biggest question facing the big man. The more important one: Can Cousins still perform? He essentially hasn’t performed in about three seasons, after major injuries wrecked his plans in New Orleans, Golden State and last season with the Lakers. After missing out on generous free agent paydays along the way, he’s at a crossroads in Houston, where he’ll at least share a comeback story with Wall, his old college teammate. It would be shameful if his best NBA life was wasted in Sacramento, but that appears to be the case.
Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons: Two of his last three seasons were cut short because of knee issues and Griffin saw just 18 games in 2019-20, when he had surgery twice on his left knee. He’s 31 and still on a max contract, not a great combination when you also consider his string of injuries. The last time he was reasonably healthy, in 2018-19, Griffin averaged 24.5 points and improved his range and became third team All-NBA, so the talent remains, but what about his body? If he can stay on the floor long enough and play well enough, the rebuilding Pistons will certainly showcase him before the trade deadline, if anyone is tempted.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Nobody had a tougher summer than the former No. 1 overall pick, who said he lost seven family members — including his mother — to coronavirus. You simply can’t recover from that. So it’ll be interesting to see how Towns copes with that tragedy when basketball arrives to provide a temporary and welcome distraction. He’ll join the Wolves’ newest No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, and seek to bring the Wolves closer to uncharted territory — the playoffs — by at least qualifying for the play-in tournament. Having his friend D’Angelo Russell around for a full season will help Towns on and off the court.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: There’s undoubtedly plenty of anxiousness within the former two-time MVP and three-time champion, held to just five games last season because of a broken left hand. That, and the absence of Klay Thompson this season will give Curry all the motivation he needs. The game’s premier shooter will have his hands full trying to lead a team in transition and also putting Golden State back among the top tier of teams in the NBA, or at least the Western Conference. It’s the type of challenge Curry has embraced throughout his basketball career, back when he was forced to attend Davidson because few of the big schools wanted him.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets: Aside from his personality quirks and questionable leadership ability, the fact remains Irving is an elite playmaker who can change any game with his scoring and court sense. A bum shoulder limited him to 20 games last season, his first with the Nets, but his injury recovery has coincided with Kevin Durant’s and now Brooklyn is ready to launch a journey that can take the Nets deep into the post-season. In that sense, it doesn’t matter how Irving relates to the media after he recently declared he’ll only speak through prepared statements; rather, it’s how he relates to Durant. And all signs are positive so far.
Take a look back at Trae Young’s best plays from 2019-20.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: He had a massive 2019-20 season, ranking among the leaders in scoring and assists, and hardly anyone noticed because the Hawks didn’t make the playoffs or participate in the restart. And, besides, some people still haven’t gotten over Luka Doncic being traded for Young. Fine. But he returns with a far better cast, one that should put the Hawks in the playoff discussion. He’ll get to sit at the knee of Rajon Rondo, who knows a thing or three about running a team. Given those goodies, there’s no reason why Young shouldn’t be an All-Star again, even if if his defense doesn’t improve drastically.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls: There are some in the basketball world whose eyes will always tell them to question players who post good numbers on losing teams. LaVine seems to be one of those players, fair or not. Last season he averaged 25.5 points on 45% shooting and 38% on 3-pointers to make himself a certified offensive weapon. And yet, his name was tossed about in trade rumors. The Bulls are under new management, which heightens those rumors, yet they have resisted any urge to deal LaVine (who is arguably their best player). LaVine is only 25 and plays an exciting game — a better defensive effort and more wins this season will change plenty of opinions.
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs: He’s still a fairly efficient mid-range specialist who can play both power positions, but Aldridge will turn 36 this season and The Other Side Of The Hill is beckoning. Do the Spurs, who rarely make trades, seek to re-route him before the deadline to a contender in exchange for youth and/or Draft picks? Given that San Antonio is coming off its first non-playoff appearance in more than two decades, and isn’t exactly bringing a loaded roster or a true star to 2020-21, this is a topic it may explore. Aldridge was held to 53 games after shoulder surgery last season and sat out the restart.
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