If all of last season’s injured superstars tried to announce their comebacks like Michael Jordan did 20 years ago, the fax machines would be beeping and whirring all night and a tiny forest worth of paper would be sacrificed. Jordan didn’t fully deliver on his famous “I’m Back” message—sent in March 1995—until the following 1995–96 season, when he guided arguably the greatest team in NBA history to a record 72 wins and the fourth title of his Hall of Fame career. Now, exactly two decades later, the league readies itself for a 2015–16 campaign that is shaping up to be the Year of the Comeback.
The coming season might not see a singular talent restore order quite like Jordan did, but it compensates through sheer quantity. From MVP candidates to living legends, from promising youngsters to crucial role players, and from scoring champions to Defensive Players of the Year candidates, there really are no limits to the flood of talent heading back to the hardwood. Absorbing the full scope of this potential pendulum swing requires quickly looking back at last year’s damage. Consider…
• The 25 players selected to the 2014 All-Star Game collectively missed an average of 19 games in 2014–15.
• Fourteen of those 25 All-Stars missed at least 10 games, eight of those 25 All-Stars missed at least 20 games, and five missed at least half the season.
• The top four 2014 MVP vote-getters missed an average of 25 games in 2014–15, with all four missing at least 13 games.
• Ten of the 15 players selected to the 2014 All-NBA teams missed significant time due to injuries during the 2014–15 season and 2015 playoffs.
• All four 2014 conference finalists—Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio—dealt with significant injuries or extended absences to key players in 2014–15, and none advanced out of the first round in 2015.
• A number of 2015 All-Stars who weren’t selected in 2014 missed 12+ games during the 2014–15 season (Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry) or suffered untimely, series-changing injuries during the 2015 playoffs (Pau Gasol, Kyle Korver).
In that climate, it was no surprise that the least-impacted contender ultimately proved victorious, as good health and the excellent chemistry it fostered were key drivers of the Warriors’ 67-win romp to the 2015 title. In the first round, they swept an upstart Pelicans team that had juggled lineups and responsibilities all season and was forced to bring Jrue Holiday (leg) off the bench. In the second round, they beat back a Grizzlies team that was without Mike Conley (face), who missed Game 1 and donned a mask and a brutal shiner the rest of the way. In the conference finals, they brushed off a perseverant Rockets squad that was dealing with an ailing Dwight Howard (knee) and that was without Patrick Beverley (wrist) and Donatas Motiejunas (back). In the Finals, they outlasted the Cavaliers, who limped to the tape without Kyrie Irving (knee), Kevin Love (shoulder), and Anderson Varejao (Achilles).
Needless to say, the Warriors can expect a tougher road as they begin their title quest. The following is a rundown of the 10 most important comebacks of the upcoming season, with special emphasis given to players returning to contending teams and those with the ability to singlehandedly change their teams’ fortunes. Players must have suffered season-ending or catastrophic injuries to be considered.
10. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Played 35 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
In terms of impacting the championship discussion, Kobe Bryant’s return from a season-ending shoulder injury in January is as unimportant as it gets: The Lakers are on track to be one of the league’s worst teams, with or without their $25 million man. But there are other good reasons to track his return. For starters, Year 20 could—and probably should—wind up being Bryant’s final campaign, meaning his army of fans could be treated to an emotional victory lap down the stretch. There’s history too: Every point he scores raises the bar for James and Durant when it comes to defending the No. 3 spot on the all-time scoring list, and Bryant will likely extend his record-setting All-Star Game selection streak to 18 games (no game was held in 1999). Some Lakers fans might also find themselves perversely rooting for the 37-year-old Bryant to emerge as a covert tanking weapon, as L.A. only gets to keep its 2016 first-round pick if it lands in the top three.
9. Patrick Beverley, Rockets
Played 56 games in 2014–15, sat out playoffs
The only role player to grace this list, Patrick Beverley will be welcomed back to the Rockets with a battle for the starting point guard spot with Ty Lawson, an off-season trade acquisition. Beverley, a fierce defensive stopper who missed the 2015 playoffs due to a wrist injury, is a more natural complement to All-NBA first team guard James Harden, as he doesn’t need the ball in his hands on offense and he’s clearly a better defender than Lawson. Houston GM Daryl Morey rewarded Beverley, 27, with a four-year, $25 million contract this summer, and he’s a nice card to keep in the deck come playoff time, where Westbrook, Conley, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker will all be looming.
The Lawson addition makes this comeback even juicier: If Beverley starts, Lawson becomes a tone-setting Sixth Man of the Year candidate who could run rampant through second-unit point guards. If Lawson starts, Rockets coach Kevin McHale will need to find a way to deploy Beverley effectively while making sure that Lawson and Harden pairing doesn’t get in each other’s way. Houston has other variables in play—Howard’s health, Josh Smith’s departure, Terrence Jones’s expected emergence—but the point guard position will play a central role in determining how close the franchise comes to repeating its run to the conference finals.
8. Jabari Parker, Bucks
Played 25 games in 2014–15, sat out playoffs
Although Jabari Parker, 20, almost certainly isn’t ready to catapult the Bucks to the East’s crowded second tier, his return from a season-ending knee injury suffered last December is worthy of serious scrutiny. The 2014 No. 2 overall pick looked like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, and he has the ability to accelerate Milwaukee’s entire roster-building process. If Parker establishes himself as a legit No. 1 scoring option, the Bucks suddenly have a core group (Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe) that looks like it would be ready to make serious postseason noise as soon as 2016–17. While it was heartbreaking to watch Parker lose a year of his development, he might just be the easiest player to root for on this list, even if his comeback takes more than one season to fully play out.
7. Paul George, Pacers
Played 6 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
Technically, Paul George returned to the court in April after suffering a devastating leg injury during a USA Basketball camp last summer. His abbreviated comeback was easy to overlook: he played just six games, never logged more than 18 minutes, and he had to be carried off the court at one point, although he thankfully avoided a serious re-injury. George, 25, is on this list not because he will immediately lift the Pacers back to the league’s upper echelon, but because it still remains to be seen whether he can recapture the all-around athleticism that earned him All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive honors in 2014.
At the time of his injury, George was arguably the best player besides James in the Eastern Conference, and Indiana’s future moves will be entirely influenced by how effective their franchise player can be going forward. Pacers president Larry Bird added a wrinkle to this comeback when he floated the idea of playing George as a small ball four, an idea that George didn’t exactly embrace publicly.
6. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
Played 40 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
Like Bryant, no one is expecting Carmelo Anthony to lift his team anywhere near the contention conversation. The Knicks made some solid investments this summer—adding Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and intriguing rookie Kristaps Porzingis, among others—but this is still a team that would need an exceptional, fully-healthy year from Anthony to make a run at the No. 8 seed in the weaker East. Anthony, 31, might be capable of such heroics: After all, he did lead New York to 54 wins and the No. 3 offense by averaging a league-leading 28.7 points in 2012–13. Just don’t bet on it. His cast of teammates is generally lacking in talent, his head coach Derek Fisher is lacking in experience, and his organization is still facing a philosophical identity crisis when it comes to president Phil Jackson’s love of the triangle offense.
Anthony’s comeback is worth keeping an eye on for two reasons: his multi-dimensional abilities as a scorer provide perpetual entertainment, and his patience (or lack of it) could lead to (more) rumors about his future. The eight-time All-Star is under contract through 2017–18, with a player option for 2018–19, and he’s stuck on a team that’s going nowhere at the moment and failed to attract any A-list or B-list free agents this summer. How will Anthony handle the frustration of what will likely be another losing season? Will his commitment to the Knicks waver if the team doesn’t make serious strides?
5. Chris Bosh, Heat
Played 44 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
It’s easy to be skeptical of the Heat: Dwyane Wade looks well past the point of no return when it comes to his health, Hassan Whiteside isn’t exactly Mr. Reliability, Goran Dragic didn’t immediately set South Beach on fire upon his midseason arrival, and Josh McRoberts is working back from a season-ending injury. All four players represent potential hurdles to the Heat’s goal of a deep playoff run, and yet none is as important as Chris Bosh, whose 2014–15 season ended in February due to blood clots on his lung that hospitalized him. The 31-year-old Bosh was averaging 21/7 at the time of his injury, and Miami played sub-.500 ball without him down the stretch.
The Heat are staring at a pretty clear relevancy fork in the road: Totally Healthy And Productive Bosh makes them a tough, tough playoff out, while anything less almost certainly drops them to the East’s fourth tier. That might sound like Miami is asking a lot of Bosh, or like Miami is facing a somewhat depressing outlook, but remember that guys like Anthony, George, and Bryant would kill to have the Heat’s supporting talent. The best-case scenario here: Bosh moves past his potentially deadly health crisis to lead the Heat to a 2016 postseason showdown with James’s Cavaliers. The thought of that matchup makes the eyes mist and gets the adrenaline flowing.
4. Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Played 64 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
This is the comeback that everyone is overlooking. It’s easy to see why. Serge Ibaka’s two All-Star teammates—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—both dealt with multiple injuries last season. Durant is about to enter free agency. Westbrook threw together an insane run of triple-doubles. The Thunder missed the playoffs, they shook up their core with multiple midseason trades, and they fired longtime coach Scott Brooks this summer. That’s like every single possible way for Ibaka to be forgotten about, listed one after another after another.
Warning: Do not sleep on Ibaka’s return. Yes, the Thunder are getting an MVP back with Durant, but they’re also getting a potential Defensive Player of the Year back in Ibaka. The 25-year-old shot-blocking extraordinaire has three All-Defensive First Team selections to his name, he ranked No. 15 league-wide in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, and he’s a potential ace in the hole for new coach Billy Donovan. If the Thunder decide to go smaller more often, Ibaka’s rim protection and shooting range make him an ideal option at center, and Oklahoma City could trot out some of the league’s most devastating lineups by surrounding the Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka trio with two shooters.
Ibaka is just so important in so many ways: he lets the defense-less Enes Kanter stay on the court, he provides spacing for Oklahoma City’s playmakers, he can match up with big fours like LaMarcus Aldridge, athletes like Blake Griffin, bruisers like Zach Randolph, and versatility guys like Draymond Green. Following Ibaka’s season-ending knee injury in February, the Thunder’s defensive rating ballooned to 107.7, a mark that bested only the injury-ravaged young Timberwolves down the stretch. As the 2014 Western Conference finals demonstrated, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka all need to be healthy for the Thunder to claim their first title since moving to Oklahoma City.
3. Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
Played 75 games in 2014–15, suffered injury during playoffs
Kyrie Irving’s comeback checks just about every box when it comes to importance: he’s an All-Star talent, he came into his own as a clear No. 2 scorer alongside James, he put together a gutsy postseason run that helped the Cavaliers make the Finals, and he plays for the East’s overwhelming favorite in 2016. The major takeaway from Cleveland’s postseason run—that James, as amazing as he was, couldn’t quite do it alone—further underscores Irving’s central importance to the 2015–16 Cavaliers and to the championship picture. If Cleveland is going to get over the hump against the West’s best, it will need better balance, better consistency, and better fluidity. Irving can help, a lot, on all of those counts.
It’s not yet clear when Irving will return from the knee injury he suffered during the Finals, but Cleveland would be wise to take the patient approach. The Cavaliers re-signed fill-in Matthew Dellavedova and added backup combo guard Mo Williams this summer. James’s play during the postseason adds a nice confidence boost and should remove the early-season pressure on coach David Blatt. This team is perfectly positioned to let Irving return at his own pace. Will anyone really panic in December knowing that James, with Irving riding shotgun, can turn it on and take over come April and May? The real key to Irving’s comeback, of course, will be his ability to stay healthy: the 23-year-old guard has dealt with a laundry list of injuries dating back to his days at Duke, and he’ll be needed in the playoffs against the likes of lowry, John Wall, and Jeff Teague in the East, and Curry, Paul, Westbrook, and Parker in the West.
2. Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Played 75 games in 2014–15, suffered injury during playoffs
Some of what was just said about Irving above applies to Cavaliers forward Kevin Love too: he’s an All-Star talent playing for the East’s top team. There are two major differences that help make Love’s comeback just a touch more important than Irving’s when it comes to the NBA’s championship picture. First, he never quite found his groove from a role standpoint last season. Second, his shoulder injury occurred during the first round of the playoffs, making him a spectator for Cleveland’s final three rounds.
Together, those two points turn Love into perhaps the biggest wildcard of the 2015–16 season. Once James, Irving, and Love are all healthy, it’s possible that the Cavaliers could really terrorize the league, a la the 2012 Heat. There were plenty of flashes down the stretch following the midseason trades that landed Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert: Cleveland’s net rating went soaring through the rough, and suddenly Love’s perimeter role made more sense and his lack of interior defense no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. Give that a few more months to cook, and watch out. Regardless of who the Cavaliers might face in the Finals—whether it’s the Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, or Clippers—Love would be a major X-factor. All four teams have productive players at his position, all four have the ability to shift their lineups up or down, and all four would likely try to exploit him at times defensively. Love’s market value didn’t take a hit this summer—he cashed in for a five-year, $110 million max deal—but his reputation has suffered during his transition from Minnesota’s No. 1 guy to Cleveland’s third wheel. That was a predictable development, and it’s on him now to push back.
1. Kevin Durant, Thunder
Played 27 games in 2014–15, team missed playoffs
There’s zero debate at the top of this list. Kevin Durant, 26, is coming off of three foot surgeries that ruined his follow-up to his 2014 MVP campaign. Appearing rejuvenated during USA Basketball’s minicamp this summer, the Thunder forward is expected to be ready to go out of the gate. His comeback will be the NBA’s top storyline to open the season, as it occurs under the care of a new coach in Billy Donovan and under the cloud of his impending unrestricted free agency. Oklahoma City’s core developed a reputation as an obscenely talented group when it came of age, but this is a truly competitive group as well. Russell Westbrook laughs at broken bones, Serge Ibaka is always ready to put his dukes up, and Durant still possesses massive chips on his shoulders because he’s yet to win a title or unseat James as the consensus top player in the game.
What you have, then, is a rested, ruthless, skilled, experienced scoring machine ready to be unleashed on the league at the precise moment that the scrutiny of his new-look team and the rumors about his future will both be at all-time highs. This should be great.
Alec Burks (Jazz); Jrue Holiday (Pelicans); Al Jefferson (Hornets); Brandon Knight (Suns); Wesley Matthews (Mavericks); Josh McRoberts (Heat); Chandler Parsons (Mavericks); Julius Randle (Lakers); Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves); Thabo Sefolosha (Hawks).