As teams add rookies, sign free agents and make trades in the offseason, it's easy to forget that the biggest difference-makers next season may be the guys who were injured last season. FOXSports.com NBA editor John Galinsky lists 10 players who will be making comebacks after missing significant portions of last season. The order of the rankings isn't based on the talent of the players. It's based on which comebacks could make the largest impact around the league, with the top three involving key players on contending teams.
Tracy McGrady, SG, Houston Rockets
When healthy, McGrady is one of the league's best athletes and most explosive scorers. At least we think so. Truth is, we're not sure since he hasn't been healthy in so long. Since his first season with the Rockets five years ago, back spasms have plagued T-Mac along with other injuries and ailments, sapping his enthusiasm for the game. Last season he called it quits after 35 games and underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee. If he comes back strong a big if McGrady may be able to re-establish himself as an NBA star. But will it matter? The Rockets, without Yao Ming and Ron Artest, are no longer a contender in the West. And no matter how well he plays, McGrady will be grossly overpaid, making an NBA-high $23,239,561 next season.
Michael Redd, SG, and Andrew Bogut, C, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were flirting with a .500 record and playoff contention when the sweet-shooting Redd went down with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee on Jan. 24. Bogut, the top pick of the 2005 draft, ended his season a week later because of back spasms. Without them, Milwaukee plunged to the bottom of the Central Division. Their impending return normally would create optimism for Bucks fans, but the cost-cutting front office traded Richard Jefferson and lost Charlie Villanueva to free agency. So it's looking like another date with the lottery in 2010 for Milwaukee.
Al Jefferson, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
"Big Al," as he's known in Minnesota, was averaging 23.1 points and 11 rebounds when he went down with a torn ACL in his 50th game last season. The Wolves, who weren't very good with him (17-33), were horrible without him (7-25), and they probably won't sniff the playoffs next season even if Jefferson returns at full strength. But besides Dwight Howard, the 24-year-old Jefferson is the league's best big man under 25, so Minnesota's hopes for the future rest on his development along with rookie point guards Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio.
Luol Deng, SF, Chicago Bulls:
As Deng struggled last season, with his stats falling in every major category, many wondered what happened to one of the NBA's rising stars. He was hurt, yes, but even Bulls management questioned his toughness while he missed 33 games and the epic first-round loss to the Celtics with a stress fracture in his right tibia. Since then, however, doctors treating Deng have said that his injury was serious and slow-healing in other words, not his fault. Now he's determined to prove that he's the same player who averaged 18.8 points and 7.1 rebounds three years ago, not the one who tried to play on one leg last season. Deng will have to fill the void left by leading scorer Ben Gordon, who went to Detroit as a free agent, if the Bulls are going to build on last year's progress.
Amar'e Stoudemire, PF, Phoenix Suns
Due for free agency in 2010, Stoudemire says he wants a maximum contract extension from the Suns. The Suns, quite sensibly, say they want to see how he plays after missing the final two months of last season with a detached retina. Stoudemire has bounced back from worse, producing two huge seasons following microfracture knee surgery in 2005. If his eye is OK, he could put up monster numbers again now that Terry Porter and Shaq aren't around to slow him down. But with the aging Suns on the decline, look for the 26-year-old Stoudemire to again be the subject of trade rumors if Phoenix doesn't commit to him as its centerpiece of the future.
Gilbert Arenas, PG, Washington Wizards
These days, most NBA fans think of Gilbert Arenas as an overpaid blogger with a quirky personality and bad knees. That's what happens when you play just 15 games in two years. But in the three seasons before that, Agent Zero, or Hibachi, or whatever he was calling himself at the time, was one of the league's most prolific scorers and colorful personalities. Sure, he wasn't perfect passing and defense were never his specialities but he made the Wizards relevant and fun again. Because of that, they gave him a six-year, $111 million contract last summer despite his knee problems, which may go down as one of the dumbest deals in sports history. But if he regains his old form, Washington should be the league's most improved team after going a pathetic 19-63 last season.
Elton Brand, PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Brand has two challenges facing him next season. First he must show he's healthy after a separated shoulder limited him to 29 games in 2008-09. Then, more importantly, he needs to prove the Sixers are better off with him than without him. No one imagined Brand would face such doubts after arriving in Philly as a marquee free agent last summer. But with the Sixers slowing their tempo to force-feed him in the post, the power forward averaged just 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 45 percent far below his career averages of 20, 10.1 and 50.3. When he went down, Philly's running game took off and gave Orlando a scare in the playoffs. We'll find out next season whether the team's two stars with contrasting styles, Brand and Andre Iguodala, can figure out a way to mesh on the court.
Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs
Even if Ginobili hadn't missed the playoffs with a reoccurrence of his sprained left ankle, it's unlikely the Spurs would have been good enough to beat the Nuggets or challenge the Lakers in the West. Without him, they couldn't even handle the Mavs. Now, however, with the acquisition of Richard Jefferson in a lopsided trade with the Bucks, San Antonio is being called a serious contender again. Hmm, we'll see. Jefferson certainly gives the Spurs the versatile and athletic forward they need, but the Spurs' championship hopes still ride on Ginobili's ankles and Tim Duncan's knees. If those don't hold up and Ginobili hasn't been right since getting hurt in the Beijing Olympics San Antonio's glory days will remain in the past.
Jameer Nelson, PG, Orlando Magic
Technically, Nelson did come back from the torn labrum in his right shoulder during the NBA Finals, but it was clear that he wasn't the same player who earned his first All-Star roster spot with a superb first half of the season. A tenacious competitor who turned himself into a deadeye shooter, Nelson's edge and stroke were both missing against the Lakers no surprise after missing four months with the injury. Still, Orlando was good enough to win the East without its starting point guard and on-court leader. So with Nelson at full strength, and with Dwight Howard becoming more dominant by the day, and with Vince Carter essentially replacing Hedo Turkoglu, there are plenty of reasons to think the Magic will be right back in the Finals in 2010. And this time, they may win it.
Kevin Garnett, PF, Boston Celtics
No injury last season crippled a contender like Kevin Garnett's right knee sprain on Feb. 19. Though he was never ruled out for the season, KG ended up missing the final 25 games and the playoffs as the Celtics played a pair of seven-game series, beating the Bulls before falling to the Magic. With the Big Ticket, who knows if Boston would have successfully defended its 2008 title that's useless speculation. But after adding Rasheed Wallace, there's no doubt the Celtics will be back among the NBA elite as long as Garnett's surgically-repaired knee allows him to stay on the court instead of the bench, where his hypercompetitive zeal seemed misplaced in June. Garnett has reportedly promised team owner Wyc Grousbeck two more championships in 2010 and 2011. While that's unlikely, would you really bet against him?