Monday, August 5, 2019

Return of the Goods

By Jonathan Lowe

This is the down time in the NBA calendar. The playoffs are well over. The awards have been handed out. The draft picks have all been selected. Free agency is, largely, over with. Heck, even the Summer League has crowned its champs.

So, while training camp is still a few weeks away, the speculation runs rampant. Most everyone has exhausted the analysis of draftees and free agent signings (including myself). What about some of those guys that need a comeback year, though? Several key components to postseason and playoff-hopeful teams hope to return from health concerns. What kind of impact do they possess when getting back on the court?

Blake Griffin

The Pistons' star actually played in the team's final game of the season, Game 4 of a postseason sweep at the hands of Milwaukee. Two days after that defeat, the power forward underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. Even though the knee ended up bothering him late in the season, Griffin did some of his best work in 2018-2019. He averaged the most points (24.5), the most three-point makes (2.5), and the second-most assists (5.4) per game in his career.

Now, Griffin didn't send that team to astronomical heights (it finished 41-41 on the season, good enough for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference). But this was the franchise's first season under Dwane Casey. The organization added Markieff Morris, Derrick Rose, and Tony Snell to provide more veteran presence for Griffin and center Andre Drummond. Griffin's health will be a key to finding out if Detroit can take advantage of a more wide-open Eastern Conference.

Victor Oladipo

This may have been the most important regular season injury in 2018-2019. Yes, I know that in spite of that loss, the Indiana Pacers still finished fifth in the East. However, you can't argue whether Oladipo would have made a difference in the first-round series against Boston. The sixth-year guard didn't have his best scoring effort when he went down in January, but he was showing his best per game averages in assists (5.2) and rebounds (5.6).

More importantly, everyone saw his increased sense of leadership that presented itself during the first round of the 2018 playoffs. That seven-game series against Cleveland appeared to be a precursor to the growth of this era of the franchise. When Oladipo gets back into the lineup, there will be some predictable changes. Bojan Bogdanovic is gone, but Malcolm Brogdon is among the additions that hope to help Indiana make another leap forward.

Kristaps Porzingis

What a career path for this young stud. First, no one knew who he was. Then, he got booed by Knick fans at the 2015 NBA Draft. After that, he became the Unicorn, averaging 17.8 ppg and 7.1 rpg in his three truncated years in NYC. All of this couldn't prevent Porzingis from the injury bug. He hasn't played since February of 2018, thanks to a torn ACL. But the interest didn't wane. Did Mark Cuban see a lot of him in a just-retired, Hall-of-Fame-to-be player?

Now, Dallas is hoping to return to playoff, and eventually title, contention through him and fellow European youngster Luka Doncic. If this is the new version of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash 20 years on, the Heart of Texas may be reinvigorated for the NBA.

Jusuf Nurkic

In my opinion, this was the most important piece missing from the 2019 postseason. Portland was able to find their way to the Western Conference Finals. The backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were enough to get the Trail Blazers past Oklahoma City and Denver. They had second-half leads of double digits in three of the four-game series against Golden State. But what would have happened if Nurkic was able to be on the court?

In the end, there were chances for Enes Kanter and Zach Collins to get valuable playing time. However, Nurkic's double-double presence (15.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg) would have been a difficult matchup for Golden State's Draymond Green or Kevon Looney. It's understood that today's Association caters more to guard play and outside shooting. Combining that, though, with a consistent inside presence can never hurt, no matter what era you play in.

Klay Thompson

This is going to sound like I'm a hater. I actually am a fan of this iteration of the Warriors. I was rooting for them to get one more title, because the overwhelming sense was this would be the last run for that core. I felt that, despite not having Kevin Durant, with a healthy Thompson, Golden State could still beat Toronto in the Finals.

But Thompson's injury in Game 2 of the series was of his own doing. I don't believe it happens if he doesn't kick out his leg to try and draw a foul on a three-point shot. Once that happened, the series altered even more. After coming back a couple of games later, he suffered his torn ACL.

Thompson may try to return this year. If so, we don't know how effective he'll be. One thing that is known ... he was a big part of a team that won an NBA title before Kevin Durant entered the picture. If he can return, be productive, and keep the knee sturdy, the Warriors could have another deep run in them (although that may have to wait until 2021).

Michael Porter, Jr.

This is the unknown. Porter did not play a single minute in his rookie season in the NBA. He played a total of 53 minutes during his one year at Missouri. So, basically, he hasn't played significant minutes in more than two years. The back injuries that plagued him since the opening game of the 2017-2018 NCAA season have kept him off the court. But there's no need to rush. He's in a situation that can allow everyone surrounding the situation to be patient.

Denver earned the second seed in the West last season. The Nuggets were a game away from the Conference Finals. They have a budding star in Nikola Jokic, a growing point guard in Jamal Murray, and a stable veteran presence in Paul Millsap. When Porter makes his way onto the court, he can find his sea legs. He could be the biggest x-factor in this upcoming season.

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