The Summer of Big Transactions brought a lot of help to a lot of teams, or so it is hoped. The names in many cases are as big as the expectations.
But some of the NBA's biggest offseason additions will arrive not by airline, but through a back door, carrying no luggage and instead wiping off with a towel from another long, lonely workout in rehab. No one really has kept any records on this, but it's hard to recall any year in which more teams stand to improve simply by getting a key player back from a significant injury.
And we're not even talking about the prospects of full and healthy seasons for players such as Greg Oden, Jameer Nelson and Carlos Boozer, who missed serious time in 2008-09 but at least returned in some capacity before things ended this spring. Here are the players who can have the biggest impacts on their teams just by staying put and getting out of street clothes this season:
Gilbert Arenas, Washington, left knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 13.0 ppg, 10.0 apg, two games)
Arenas has a book scheduled to be published in February, which explains the self-imposed gag order that has stifled the Wizards guard's blogging, tweeting and other multimedia endeavors. As they say in the new-tech world, information wants to be free, but if you give it away in all sorts of social media forms, fewer people are going to shell out $24.95 for something in hardcover.
That leaves traditional news channels to fill in the blanks on Agent Zero's comeback from his third knee operation in 1½ years. Including eyewitness testimony from Washington coach Flip Saunders, who recently caught one of Arenas' workout/rehab sessions with noted NBA trainer Tim Grover in Chicago.
"He gets to wherever he wants to get on the court,'' Saunders said afterward. "His quickness is back. He's getting his scoring touch back and he's getting his confidence back. He's excited about where he's at. He looks good. His weight is lower than it's been in the last few years.''
Can't say that being ponderous played a role in any of Arenas' knee troubles. But if he is physically sound -- as well as his usual mentally obsessed -- that can only be a good thing for the Wizards.
Kevin Garnett, Boston, right knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 15.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 57 games)
The longest "two to three weeks'' in NBA history is expected to end when the Celtics open training camp and Garnett returns, toting his guarantees to owner Wyc Grousbeck about championship banners in 2010 and '11 to be hoisted into the Garden rafters. That was the initial timetable given for Garnett's aching knee, but it turned into a "will he or won't he?'' drama right through Boston's postseason exit.
Bigger than Garnett's recovery from having bone spurs cleaned from the knee is a heady number on his odometer; early this season, he will clock 40,000 regular-season minutes, a milestone by which most NBA stars are, well, done. He still has three years left on his contract, the Celtics added Rasheed Wallace as insurance/substitute as needed and coach Doc Rivers has cut his defensive anchor's minutes appropriately in the autumn of his career. But Garnett in a suit didn't help enough last spring and Garnett on the bench won't help much more.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs, right ankle fracture ('08-09 stats: 15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 44 games)
There is no truth to the rumor that the Spurs signed veteran center Theo Ratliff to delude Ginobili into thinking of himself, by comparison, as durable. Y'know, a perception-is-reality sort of mind game? There may, however, be some small truth to the notion that, by adding the oft-injured Ratliff along with AntonioMcDyess, the San Antonio trainer's room might get crowded enough to finally keep Ginobili out.
Ginobili was limited by the stress fracture in his right ankle to just 44 games, the third time in seven seasons that he has fallen short of 70. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard said before the draft that he already was pain-free, predicting a full recovery for what will be the final year of his contract. Availability, as in health, is the only thing interested teams might pause over, with Ginobili turning 32 last month. Of course, San Antonio will set the agenda on that -- if the Spurs feel he's reliable enough for a long-term deal, that's probably where Ginobili will stay.
In the meantime, San Antonio has boosted its firepower and manpower enough to ease some of the burden from Ginobili's bones, with Richard Jefferson aboard and Roger Mason Jr. fully blossomed as a contributor. In a recent chat with NBA veteran scribe Peter May, coach Gregg Popovich said: "If we had come to training camp with the same group we had at the end of last year, everyone would have gone into major depression. I would have been saying, 'Follow me,' and turned around to find nobody there. It was time to change the music and I think we've done that.''
Tracy McGrady, Rockets, left knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 15.6 ppg, 5.0 apg, 35 games)
Yao Ming, Rockets, left foot surgery (17.1 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 77 games)
The whimpering you hear is the sound of Houston's NBA championship ambitions limping off, rather than ending with any sort of bang. Center Yao is out not only for 2009-10 but maybe forever, and the McGrady Era appears to have ended just a wee bit shy of his contract. Facing long-term reality rather than being seduced by some of the short-term success they had last season when one or both were out, the Rockets have retooled themselves as a pluckier, less star-reliant bunch. And it shows: They aren't booked for a single national TV appearance this season.
For McGrady, it isn't just the challenge of returning to form from microfracture surgery, no small order; it is staying healthy through assorted ailments past and presumably future. Will he manage that? Let's just say it wasn't a good sign when Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice wrote an entire piece about the team's '09-10 prospects ("Don't lose faith in the Rockets just yet'') and didn't mention McGrady's name.
Elton Brand, Sixers, right shoulder surgery ('08-09 stats: 13.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 29 games)
For Brand, it isn't just a matter of recovering physically. It's the challenge of rebounding psychologically, on the heels of his profoundly disappointing first season in Philadelphia. He arrived as a free agent last summer, penciled as the Garnett piece in a Boston-wannabe blueprint that had Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala in the Ray Allen and Paul Pierce roles. Well, in a way, it was a Garnett redux -- circa spring '09, not '08.
Brand missed 16 games after injuring his shoulder in mid-December, hoping that rest would heal it. He came back with both rust and pain, averaging 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds before opting for surgery. Compounding the discomfort, the Sixers went 17-11 in the first two months after Brand shut down for good, then led 2-1 in the first round against eventual Eastern champs Orlando. The team ran more, played more loose and won more with its intended franchise guy on the side. There were empty seats at the Wachovia Center in the playoffs and many of those who were there weren't happy with Brand or his fat contract.
"It's been an insane two years,'' Brand recently told The Associated Press, lumping in his '07 Achilles tendon injury and rehab. "It all pushes you to be better. I want to show the fans. They don't know .. I had a feeling that it would have worked out [blending his low-post game with the Sixers' ad-libbed running game].'' Thus, all his rehab workouts.
Al Jefferson, Timberwolves, right knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 23.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 50 games)
Good thing for the Timberwolves that they're still based in the Twin Cities, where the operative precipitation is snow. One rainy morning in June, three months after his surgery, Jefferson woke up to a throbbing that concerned him. He phoned teammate Corey Brewer, who had the same surgery after tearing his ACL in November. Brewer assured him that, yes, his surgically repaired knee also acts like a TV weatherman's Doppler radar when temperatures dip and the rain comes. "It made me feel better because I thought I was having a relapse,'' Jefferson said.
Wolves fans wouldn't be thrilled about having Granny Clampett in the frontcourt, though, so it will be on Jefferson between now and the start of the season to be ready rain or shine. At coach Kurt Rambis' introductory news conference earlier this month, Jefferson proclaimed himself 90 percent ready to go and said he was cutting his playing weight from 288 to 265 to keep up with Minnesota's intended faster pace.
"We've got a great young big man [himself] on the block, and we have to take advantage of that,'' Jefferson told me. "But I'm working on getting in shape so I'll be able to run with them.''
Despite the arrival of raw Ryan Hollins from Dallas, Jefferson still figures to log most of his minutes out of position at center. New team president David Kahn has talked openly, too, that if the Wolves are going to become serious contenders in the next few years, Jefferson needs to be their second-best player, not their cornerstone.
Mike Dunleavy, Pacers, right knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 18 games)
Reports of Mark Twain's demise were exaggerated; reports of Dunleavy's resilience were underestimated. After a breakthrough '07-08 (19.1 ppg), Dunleavy played just 18 games before having surgery to remove a bone spur and repair a tendon in his knee, with a projected return target of January 2010. Last week, though, coach Jim O'Brien acknowledged that he could be back in time for the regular-season opener Oct. 28 at Atlanta.
"I've changed my viewpoint from a pessimistic one from a standpoint of him being ready in the middle of the season to one that I'm hoping he'll be ready to go for game one,'' O'Brien told the Indianapolis Star.
A month ago, Dunleavy said the most difficult part of his rehab was reining himself in vs. doing too much. Lately, he has been dunking. "I want to do more than they are allowing me to do,'' he told the Star. "I understand the process, though. I have to be patient.'' Just less patient, maybe, than a lot of folks thought.
Michael Redd, Bucks, left knee surgery ('08-09 stats: 21.2 ppg, 2.7 apg, 33 games)
Andrew Bogut, Bucks, stress fracture, spine (11.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 36 games)
No one is rushing anything in Milwaukee these days, where sharpshooter Redd still hasn't been on a basketball court eight months after his season-ending injury in January and center Bogut hopes, but doesn't know, that he can be ready for the start of the season.
"I think it's on pace,'' Bogut told reporters at the news conference for summer acquisition CarlosDelfino. "If I can be ready to go then, the goal will be achieved. But obviously it'll be re-evaluated all throughout September.''
Bogut missed the Bucks' final 31 games last season and felt stir-crazy at times heeding his doctors' orders to rest. Recently he has done some shooting, while consulting with a back specialist in Vancouver.
Redd, who shredded his knee when he landed on Milwaukee guard LukeRidnour's foot in a late-January game, has kept his spirits strong while being stuck in that back room of all rehab players, doing the grind work without any fun payoff.
"I'm doing a lot of scar-tissue work, machine work and cardio,'' he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's getting the scar tissue to heal. I'm making progress. The whole process is good because it's a chance to build your body up again.''
Amar'e Stoudemire, Suns, detached right retina ('08-09 stats: 21.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 53 games)
The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy look might be back in vogue if Stoudemire is able to master the goggles he intends to wear this season, a precaution based on the eye injury he suffered against the Clippers in February. The Phoenix forward had gone to the goggles after enduring a partially torn iris in the preseason but discarded them after seven games.
It's a pivotal year, obviously, for both the Suns as they retool and for Stoudemire as he heads toward a possible change of scenery (he holds the option on his $17.7 million contract for 2010-11).
"If [this is my last year with Phoenix], I'm going out with a bang, baby,'' Stoudemire told students at a local grade school this week. He said he wasn't satisfied with his "legacy'' to this point. "So now, I'm back with a vengeance.''
The power forward also had a build-up of fluid removed from his eye this summer, so he won't start contact work -- or generate any serious contract extension talk -- until sometime in the next several weeks.
Luol Deng, Bulls, right tibia fracture ('08-09 stats: 14.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 49 games)
There had been talk that, if Chicago's playoff run lasted long enough, Deng might have been able to return in time to help. Which explains all those overtimes in the first round against Boston. The bad news is, Deng never played again after Feb. 28. The good news is, Deng opted not to play for Great Britain's national team this summer, focusing his rehab on the start of Bulls preseason games. Makes sense, since international summer workloads can cause breakdowns even in otherwise healthy players.
Martell Webster, Trail Blazers, left foot fractures ('08-09 stats: 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg, one game)
If there is anything positive about breaking your foot in your team's first preseason game, it lets you get a head start on the healing process. Or, in Webster's case, the first of two healing processes. He thought he was on his way back when, exactly two months after breaking his fifth metatarsal, he came back for five minutes in a game at Toronto -- and broke it again.
The timetable for his return kept getting pushed back until he and the Blazers ran out of season. But they'll be glad to have him back this fall; Webster brings an energy and reliable three-point range to a team that, while improved and developing, still figures to have a need for his bundle of skills. That's why, while he's a role player rather than a star, he's on this list too.