The NBA has been home to an unprecedented number of star-studded injuries this season. Everyone from the injury-prone Amar'e Stoudemire and Eric Gordon to the usually durable Dirk Nowitzki has had to ride the pine for an extended period of time.
The good news?
Some of them are back. Not all of them just yet, but some.
But while the complexity of a road to recovery is continuously echoed as they don street clothes, the magnitude of such a journey is not fully understood until they are back in the rotation.
At that moment, the instant they remove their warm-ups, set foot on the court and watch the game pass their still healing bodies by, is when everyone involved finally understands what these stars are up against.
That said, benchmarks are made to be broken and expectations exist only to be exceeded. Have any of the Association's recently returned stars proved to be the exception?
Most of us are still pining for the day Derrick Rose suits up, while optimists anxiously anticipate an Andrew Bynum return. But as we await on those comebacks and others, there's no shortage of restoration projects for us to take in.
Note: All stats in this article accurate as of January 1, 2013
Games Back: Five
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 4.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.2 steals on 23.8 percent shooting
There is a silver lining to be found in Ricky Rubio's performance thus far. Really.
The crafty point guard currently finds himself on the sidelines once again—this time courtesy of back spasms—and naturally, the Minnesota Timberwolves are concerned.
I myself chastised the team for limiting Rubio's minutes so drastically. In five games back, he has played more than 20 minutes just once. After a season debut that saw him dish out nine assists in 18 minutes, I was convinced the T-Wolves were being overly cautious.
But they weren't. He was indeed overcompensating for his reeling knee, and it visibly impacted his performance.
Rubio was still attacking the paint and his court vision was as sharp as ever, but his defense was less than Rubio-like. He was able to break up some passes, but opposing guards were attacking his left side constantly, and plenty of help defense was needed to keep them out of the paint.
The bright side?
Nothing about him changed. He wasn't apprehensive in his return to the floor, nor did he think twice about running the floor.
That's huge, and once he's actually healthy, his instincts will prove to be the difference between a successful return and an ineffective re-entry.
Games Back: Five
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 8.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.8 blocks on 39 percent shooting
For the first time since Dirk Nowitzki traveled to the wrong side of 30, the star forward finally looks his age.
Struggles on his part were to be expected upon his return—especially since it came as a surprise—but after five games of action, the degree to which he has been outmatched has been shocking.
There is plenty of solace to be found in his performance against the docile Washington Wizards. In less than 17 minutes of burn, he went 5-of-7 from the field for 11 points. Comfort becomes distress, though, when you realize that was the first time Nowitzki hit double-digit point totals since returning.
The German's field-goal percentage is also of some concern. His 39 percent conversion rate stands to be the worst of his career if it is upheld. I don't anticipate it to, but the rotation and lift behind his jump shot just isn't there yet.
Defense also remains an issue. Dirk has never been what you would consider a stout defender, but that right knee of his has hindered his strong side movements significantly. And that's a problem.
How much so?
To the point where opposing forwards are posting a 28.8 PER per 48 minutes with him on the floor.
The way Nowitzki is playing right now isn't going to help the Dallas Mavericks to anything better than a bottom-10 finish.
Games Back: Two
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.5 points, 1.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals on 33.3 percent shooting
For those wondering why the New Orleans even bothered to hold on to the fragile Eric Gordon, consider your doubts quelled.
Gordon has played in just 11 total games since the end of the 2010-11 season, yet each time he takes the court, we are reminded of what he can do.
In just two games back, he's already proved to be a point-totaling force as well as an improved facilitator. His defense has also been impressive considering he's operating on a set of knees with a troubled past.
But don't let the stat lines fool you—the combo guard is still struggling.
Gordon has been wildly inaccurate from the field in his first two appearances, converting on no more than 38.5 percent of his shot attempts. His deep-ball prowess continues to elude him as well, as he has hit on just two of his nine attempts.
But should we color New Orleans discouraged?
Absolutely not. Gordon has been able to play at least 23 minutes a night and has shown no hesitation in attacking the basket or hoisting up shots. His jumpers lack their graceful arc, but that will come in time.
As will Gordon's undeniable superstar status—provided he stays the course.
Games Back: One
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 6.0 points, 1.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks on 37.5 percent shooting
I expected Amar'e Stoudemire to struggle in his return, but not as much as he did on New Year's day.
Granted, he was nervous and emotional, but he really looked out of place for every one of the 16-plus minutes he was on the court.
Was I encouraged by his first basket, one that, fittingly enough, came off a pass from Carmelo Anthony?
Yes. Also, his first dunk of the year showed us that there was some explosiveness left in those legs.
Aside from that, though, it was ugly. Stoudemire's defensive rotations were as poor as ever, he lacked any sort of aggression on the boards or when boxing out and he moved about the court in a manner that suggests he needs a walker.
Am I being hard on Amar'e? Of course, but only because we have come to expect more based on his many All-Star campaigns in years past.
First game back or not, the fact that the New York Knicks posted a minus-nine with him on the floor is discouraging. Knowing he came off the bench against the Portland Trail Blazers, owners of the NBA's weakest supporting cast, only adds insult to injury.
It's been just one game, but that singular effort left no doubt in our minds that Stoudemire has a long ways to go before he returns to competence, let alone dominance.
Games Back: Five
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 10.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, eight assists and 0.7 steals on 53.4 percent shooting
Mike D'Antoni has no intention of limiting Steve Nash's minutes, especially if he wants the Los Angeles Lakers to have a shot at winning.
Luckily for D'Antoni and the rest of Purple and Gold nation, Nash has responded well to the heavy workload.
He's been everything—inconsistent point totals aside—the Lakers need. The fact that it hasn't been enough to push them above .500 isn't his problem. Rather, it brings to light a bevy of other issues Los Angeles must wade through.
But I digress.
In his five games back, the point guard has played less than 30 minutes just once, more than 35 three times and dished out at least eight assists in each contest.
Not bad for a 38-year-old, eh?
While I continue to be impressed with Nash's ability to run an offense, he does need to score more. He's dropped 15 or more points just twice all season, a mark the Lakers sorely need him to hover around to maximize their offensive potential.
Beggars can't be choosers, though. Considering he's playing some of the best defense of his career (hounding elusive guards like Raymond Felton and Stephen Curry), Los Angeles really can't complain.
Nor can we. Not when the oldest of the injured bunch is playing at the highest level of them all.