||08-24-2009 09:14 PM
Coming off the injury.......
The wild card in the NBA is health.
All general managers can do is put together the best teams possible. They can hire the top training staff, conditioning experts and support personnel that money can buy.
In the end, their championship hopes may be dashed by a player tripping over a cameraman.
A number of key players missed significant time last season. Their successful return for the upcoming 2009/10 NBA Season could have a major impact on who is left standing next June.
Kevin Garnett: The Boston Celtics never really had a chance to defend their title. When Kevin Garnett went down on February 19th with a knee injury, so too did Boston's hope at a repeat.
It wasn't clear at first. Bone spurs and a strained popliteus muscle proved too painful despite Garnett's attempt to return in March.
Without him, Boston took the Orlando Magic to seven games in the second round of the playoffs. Now the Celtics are more than bolstering their roster with free agent signing Rasheed Wallace, they're also adding back Garnett.
Not only is Kevin Boston's best defender, he's their emotional leader. A Garnett/Wallace front court (along with Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis) is daunting.
While Boston could use depth in the back court, the trio of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is nearly unmatched in the NBA.
A healthy Kevin Garnett could make the Celtics the favorite to win it all.
Manu Ginobili: The San Antonio Spurs were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks. Manu Ginobili was nowhere to be found.
Manu had hurt his ankle last offseason, slowly working his way back into the rotation in late November. He got through early February before he started breaking down once again.
He'd shoot for one last come back in later March but it wouldn't take.
Tim Duncan (2) and Tony Parker (1) may have earned the NBA Finals MVP award through San Antonio's run of three rings in five years but Ginobili was a major, major reason why the Spurs were champions.
With the additions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, the Spurs are already better on paper than they were a year ago.
If Manu can return to form, the Spurs have a very real chance at returning to the NBA Finals.
Gilbert Arenas: It's been a long time since the Washington Wizards were relevant but then it's been a long time since Gilbert Arenas has been healthy.
Arenas played in all 15 games the past two years (including just two this past season) as he tried to shake off a nasty knee injury.
Washington won just 19 games but fared poorly in the draft lottery, earning the fifth pick which they would trade away for depth (Mike Miller and Randy Foye).
With Brendan Haywood also returning from injury, the addition of Fabricio Oberto and year's worth of experience for the team's young players (who had to shoulder the load for the depleted roster), the Wizards could be a force in the East once again.
To do so, they'll need Arenas back in force. At his best, Gilbert averaged 28.4 points, six assists and 4.6 boards a game (06/07).
The offseason reports suggest Gilbert is healthy, tearing up informal workouts and scrimmages. If he is indeed back at full strength, a playoff berth should be there for the taking. Last year a .500 record was good enough for a sixth seed.
With Arenas back in action, Wizard fans should expect in the neighborhood of 45 wins. They may not be able to crack the top three but the goal should be the fourth seed, guaranteeing home court advantage in the first round.
Amar'e Stoudemire: The Phoenix Suns are rebuilding but the process may be easier to swallow if Amar'e Stoudemire can return to form.
Stoudemire went down in mid-February with a dethatched retina, requiring surgery. He's since had follow-up procedures and will likely wear goggles for the rest of his career. While they'll certainly be more stylish than the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy looks of yesteryear, the immediate future of the Suns depends on Amar'e's right eye.
Despite persistent trade rumors, Stoudemire remains a Sun. If they have any designs on moving him in the future for value, he needs to prove himself on the court first.
Even with Shaquille O'Neal (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers), Amar'e was Phoenix' leading scorer at 21.4 points a night on 53.9% shooting with 8.1 boards a game.
With Shaq gone, the Suns hope to return to the "D'Antoni" up-tempo style of play, led by Coach Alvin Gentry.
The starting five, projected to be Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Stoudemire and Channing Frye (or possibly Robin Lopez) has tremendous potential. Depth and maturity remains an issue but a healthy Stoudemire keeps Phoenix in the mix for a low playoff seed in the West.
If Stoudemire isn't 100% and misses significant stretches, the Suns are a lottery team.
Elton Brand: The Philadelphia 76ers finally got under the salary cap last summer, throwing $80 million at former Los Angeles Clipper Elton Brand.
Brand had recovered from a torn Achilles' tendon suffered in the summer of 2007, returning late to the Clippers for just eight games. Obviously the Sixers were confident enough in Elton to give him such a significant contract.
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View Eric Pincus Archive In Philadelphia, Elton never seemed to find a comfort zone. The Sixers struggled early and by mid-December, Brand would dislocate his shoulder.
After resting a month and an unimpressive six-game return, Brand went under the knife to repair the shoulder (torn labrum). He averaged a career low 13.8 points in 29 games, shooting just 44.7% from the field.
The Sixers finished the season well without him with 41 wins and a strong showing against the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs (ultimately losing in six).
It remains to be seen if Brand can fit into the up-tempo style of the Sixers although exactly what Philadelphia will look like is uncertain with starting point guard Andre Miller leaving to join the Portland Trail Blazers.
Thaddeus Young had successfully taken over at power forward with Andre Iguodala sliding up to the three. Presumably both will drop down a position with Louis Williams taking over for Miller - Willie Green moving to the bench. Philadelphia drafted UCLA's Jrue Holiday, expected to back up Williams at the point.
The Sixers should still be in the playoff mix despite an evolving situation at the point. Their chances improve dramatically if Brand returns to form.
Luol Deng: The Chicago Bulls' epic first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics showed that the Bulls may be one of the burgeoning teams of the Eastern Conference.
The catch - leading playoff scorer Ben Gordon (24.3 points a game) left to join the Detroit Pistons.
For the Bulls to keep their momentum, they'll need a strong return from forward Luol Deng who played in just 49 games after suffering a stress fracture (tibia).
In his best season (06/07), Deng averaged 18.8 points a night on 51.7% shooting. Through 10 post-season games, he was even better (22.2 a game) as the Bulls swept then-defending champion Miami HEAT - before losing in six to the Pistons.
Now Chicago projects to start Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, John Salmons, Deng, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. The Bulls have some pieces off the bench with Brad Miller, Kirk Hinrich and Jannero Pargo.
Without Deng, who is capable at either forward position, Chicago just doesn't have the depth it needs to be a true contender.
Despite Gordon's playoff magic - something the Bulls will miss - he only shot 38.8% from the field throughout the Boston series. Even if Deng doesn't average as many points, his greater efficiency and vastly superior skills defensively (compared to Gordon) could be the boost Chicago needs for another fine season.
Honorable Mention: Jameer Nelson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut, Tracy McGrady, Al Jefferson, Kevin Martin and Leon Powe
Ginobilli and Garnett are most important as their influence can bring hom a championship.