An untimely injury can surely derail a team's hopes in the middle of a playoff race. Conversely, the timely return of an injured player can spark renewed life in the thick of the stretch run.
There are currently a handful of quality players who are injured but are very likely going to return. Their return could not be helpful, but it could prove to be the difference between making or missing the playoffs—and even winning the championship or coming up just a hair short.
Here are eight players who could provide a jolt of energy and could drastically alter the playoff race. Quite frankly, the playoff outlook for certain teams is contingent upon the health of these important contributors.
Last season, sharpshooting wing Mike Miller proved to be a perfect mesh to compliment LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
This season, he's only appeared in 28 games and is currently sidelined with an ankle injury. His bout with injuries is a cause for concern for Miami, because he can be an "X-factor" when healthy.
He's currently leading the league in three-point percentage and must be accounted for by opposing teams. If he's inactive for the stretch run and the playoffs, the Heat are much less versatile and their hopes of winning the title are undoubtedly decreased.
But an effective return from Miller could uplift the Heat and prove pivotal as the final stages of the season unfold.
The Houston Rockets are in the midst of the playoff hunt, but their hopes are growing slim due to injuries. Point guard Kyle Lowry is potentially not going to return this season and potent scorer Kevin Martin has missed the last nine games.
Martin has been sidelined due to a shoulder injury and he's currently receiving therapy. He's listed as day-to-day, so he could very likely hit the hardwood again soon.
While the return of Martin isn't going to result in a title for Houston, it could spark them in the playoff race and lead to a postseason appearance.
It's unlikely that we'll see Al Horford play again in the regular season, but he's hoping to return for the playoffs.
Let's be honest, without Horford, the Hawks are a team destined to make the playoffs but promptly exit in the first round.
But if Horford returns, this team could give a team trouble in the first round, specifically Orlando (they beat them in the first round last year), Philadelphia or Indiana.
Horford provides frontcourt punch for the Hawks and they need his stable presence. If he's not around for the playoffs, the Hawks will rely on free-firing Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. This tandem is respectable but not enough to generate playoff success. They need more help, namely Horford.
Many Bulls fans are growing impatient with Richard Hamilton and have even questioned acquiring him.
Hamilton's played in only 16 games this season due to a bevy of injuries, and he's yet to prove if he can fill the void at Chicago's 2-guard position.
Hamilton can quickly erase all of these concerns by returning and showing his veteran poise in the playoffs.
Should we expect this to happen? Well, he's most likely going to return soon, and if he can produce effectively and remain on the floor for the rest of the season, he could be the final piece to the Bulls' championship puzzle.
But until that happens, the concerns remain.
Clippers guard Mo Williams has missed the last three games and is likely going to be out for at least two weeks.
This is a very untimely injury for the Clippers, who are battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They can most likely make the playoffs without Williams, but Williams' return in a couple weeks could spark them to a higher seed in the postseason (potentially home-court advantage in the first round).
More importantly, Williams could considerably alter the Clips' hopes of making a deep playoff run. His offensive abilities help give the Clippers a stellar weapon off the bench.
Amare Stoudemire will be sidelined for two to four weeks with a back injury. Interestingly, the Knicks have appeared to miss him in his first couple games away (they even blew out Orlando).
The Knicks are fighting for the eighth playoff spot and could even move up higher, and it will be intriguing to see what role Stoudemire plays for the rest of the season.
When he returns, will he enhance their playoff push and spark offensive pop in the playoffs, or will his return negatively alter the chemistry New York has created in his absence?
No matter what, he will return in the next month and his presence will be felt. Will it be positive or negative? That's the question.
Reigning MVP Derrick Rose is going to return, but the question is if he can remain on the floor.
He's been battered for much of this year, but the Bulls have remained competitive without him (a 13-5 record in his absence).
But we all know the Bulls can't win a title without D-Rose. They not only need him on the floor, but they need him at full strength.
If Rose is completely healthy, as well as Rip Hamilton, Chicago will very likely hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in June. But their hopes are contingent upon their health, namely the league's Most Valuable Player.