Five injured players who could play key role down the stretch

Chris Paul, Pau Gasol and J.R. Smith are just some of the players itching to return

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

There are times when a struggling team needs a lift, and other times when it could desperately use an elevator. Such was the case with the Raptors, previously known as The Second Best Team In The East, who saw their footing come in contact with a few too many banana peels lately.

Just a few weeks ago the Raptors were sitting rather comfortably behind Cleveland, and then suddenly, what-the-heck-happened, they fell to fifth. Most of this was understandably caused by the ankle injury suffered by DeMar DeRozan, which happened at the absolute wrong time, sending Toronto into a tailspin.

But DeRozan returned Monday form missing four games and resumed a breakout season by scoring 31 points on the Clippers in victory, and seemingly all is well again up north. Their rotation and confidence has been reset.

“It kind of puts things back in the pecking order,” said coach Dwane Casey.

And DeRozan said: “Sitting out, you kind of regain a certain hunger … it gives you the hunger all over again to get back out there and do what you were doing, but at a higher level.”

It happens every season: A team becomes energized once an injured player returns and brings back a sense of normalcy and optimism. The Raptors can use DeRozan, obviously, but they’re not the only team hungering for a missing piece.

DeRozan was just one of a select handful of key players who pulled up lame this season, or before the season started, and temporarily shortchanged their teams in the process. Another such player is ready for relaunch; Khris Middleton is expected to return to the Bucks Wednesday after sitting since September with a torn hamstring.

Middleton was the Bucks’ leading scorer last season, and without him, Milwaukee has missed his 19 points and ability to stress opposing defenses. With Middleton rejoining Giannis Antetekounmpo and Jabari Parker, the Bucks stand a solid chance of finishing strong this season and grabbing one of the final playoff spots.

There are others whose injuries put the team’s season in a holding pattern, but the anticipated return of these players is expected this month or next and could have major implications for the playoff picture:

Chris Paul

The level of concern for Paul is rather mild because his injury isn’t crippling or threatening. The ligament tear was on his non-shooting thumb and he should return by early March from surgery. It shouldn’t impact his sharpness, touch or movement. This is an injury that Paul can recover from and immediately play 30 minutes a night upon return. And he can use the final three weeks of the season as a warm-up to the post-season, shake off any rust and give himself momentum going into the playoffs, where his minutes and importance will rise.

Coach Doc Rivers is using a committee to replace Paul with the kind of results you’d expect to get from Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton. The unspoken goal was to, at the very least, break even in the standings without Paul and hope the backups aren’t a liability, and that’s been the case for the most part. Getting Blake Griffin back form injury has helped because, in addition to being All-Star quality, Griffin can create his own shots.

The Clippers wanted to see a measure of seasoning from Austin Rivers, who’s getting the bulk of the minutes. Consistency has been a problem, but when Rivers has played well — 27 points and six assists against the Hawks — the Clippers have benefited as a team. His playmaking skills may never be what the point guard position demands, yet the Clippers hope his efficiency will rise and he doesn’t hurt the Clippers in the playoffs when Paul needs a breather.

Ben Simmons

The coincidence is too strong to ignore here. Should the Sixers even let Simmons step onto the court this season, likely right after the All-Star break, given that they took such precious care with Joel Embiid the last two years?

Philly has 26 games after the break, and even if they green-light Simmons, he’d probably play in 20-22 of those games (resting for a few) and would be kept on a strict minutes limit (perhaps 20 per game). How much would that small sample size benefit the development Simmons, or the Sixers for that matter? And would it be worth the risk for Simmons, who suffered a Jones fracture last fall and required foot surgery?

The easy option would be to stash him until next season if only to eliminate all possibility of something going wrong. Remember, Kevin Durant had the same surgery a few years ago and, upon returning, needed a second surgery and missed the remainder of that season. There’s too much invested in Simmons, who is projected to be just as important, if not more, to their future as Embiid.

There’s a chance of Simmons returning and helping the Sixers’ playoff hope, though those aren’t great and the team might benefit better by cashing in on another lottery pick instead. Giving their long-suffering fans 20 games of Simmons and Embiid would be an appropriate reward for putting up with so much grief the last three seasons, a tease designed to amp anticipation for next season and beyond, but the big picture is what’s important.

Pau Gasol

He’s been out since January after surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand, although the Spurs expect to get him back either right before or after the break. Assuming the injury will be fully healed and not problematic, the break from basketball that Gasol is receiving was and is actually beneficial.

First, the Spurs haven’t missed a beat without him, sitting just behind the Warriors (as expected) in the standings. Second, David Lee has done decently with the extra minutes in replacement and this will do wonders for his confidence once the post-season begins and he comes off the bench.

Finally, Gasol is 36, and chances are he would’ve received ample rest in Gregg Popovich’s system even if he’d stayed healthy. So there’s no real harm, except for the hand, in this situation.

Gasol therefore qualifies as a bonus for the Spurs when he returns. He proved to be an instant fit here in his first season, averaging nearly 12 points and leading the team with eight rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 26 minutes a night. The front line of Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard is one of the best in basketball and clearly the strength of the Spurs. Whether it’s enough to beat the Warriors is questionable, but a healthy and rested Gasol will make it interesting.

Enes Kanter

The next time he wants to take a swing at something to blow off steam, he’d best do it with a golf club in his hand. Taking it out on a chair wasn’t the wisest decision for Kanter when he broke his forearm two weeks ago and instantly saw Russell Westbrook’s job become harder in the process.

Before the injury, Kanter was the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year (14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in just 21 minutes) and at times was Westbrook’s best teammate. He’s a big man with a soft touch, smart feet and a knack for scoring around the rim, precisely what Oklahoma City needed in the post-Kevin Durant era. Westbrook loved his ability to catch his passes and do something smart with them. But now the Thunder are looking at three more weeks, at least, before Kanter removes the cast and helps drive up Westbrook’s assists total.

In the meantime, the Thunder are shuffling a handful of bodies, hoping for positive results, which are mostly mixed instead. Domantas Sabonis, Joffrey Lauvergne and Jerami Grant all have their flaws, either size, shooting inefficiency or lack of inside scoring limiting their minutes and impact. Which means Westbrook must work extra hard to keep OKC in games and finish them at the buzzer. Without Kanter, Westbrook has one less option.

As long as OKC stays in playoff contention, Kanter’s absence won’t be a massive issue, and barring another major injury, OKC appears safe.

JR Smith

When he broke his thumb in late December, Smith was given a 12-to-14 week recovery period, so the Cavs are staring at early March. They’ve missed his defense and doggedness, along with his outside shooting; if Smith was healthy, would LeBron James feel better about the Cavs’ makeup? Instead, without Smith, LeBron complained about the lack of “help” and for a few weeks sent fans and media hotly debating about roster changes and possible trades.

It wasn’t the best situation for a player given a rich contract extension last fall, and lately in his career, Smith has been hurt by inconsistency with his shot and impact. But LeBron loves him and pushed the Cavs to re-sign Smith so he must be living right. Curiously, the Cavs made a recent move to fortify their 3-point shooting in his absence, adding Kyle Korver, who plays the same position.

And so it’ll be worth watching to see what decisions will be made by coach Tyronne Lue once Smith returns. Does Smith return as a starter and get the bigger minutes, or will Lue split the playing time between Smith and Korver? And how much say will LeBron have in the matter?

If Korver and Smith are both playing well by April and putting Lue in a tough spot, then it’s all good for the Cavs. It’ll mean LeBron has all the help he needs to defend the title.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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