Seven Early Picks for NBA Comeback Player of the Year
Let me preface this piece by saying that there is no Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning in this year's crop in the Comeback Player of the Year running. Sure, there are plenty of players coming off injuries but none that have played to the transcendent style that Peterson and Manning did in this past NFL season.
Saying that, there are plenty of impressive bounce-back campaigns from various players. Be it injuries, down season, or simply a season so good that it's an outlier from their career, there are seven players that have outplayed expectations.
Injuries play a big part in one's failure to live up to expectations but players also need a certain type of resiliency and focus that bring them back from a state of regression. Barring a Derrick Rose-recovery-turned-MVP comeback, the likes of which have never been seen before, no one will run away from this year's competition.
But that doesn't mean there aren't worthy candidates. Ranked from their level of difficulty to rise above their strife and current production, these seven players emerge as frontrunners for the NBA's Comeback Player of the Year.
Over a year ago, Jeff Green had heart surgery to repair the aortic aneurysm. It was not only career-threatening but also life-threatening. Now a year later? A solid rotation player on a Boston Celtics team that has thrived in the past few weeks without its best player, Rajon Rondo.
The better part of the story? The team has played much better because of Jeff Green and not in spite of him. Earlier in the season, Green struggled shooting the ball and pretty much all aspects of the game.
Fast-forward mid-season and the Celtics may have found an excellent defender that can harass the best players in the world like LeBron James and a capable shooter from the outside.
His aggregate numbers this season have been subpar but as the season winds on, he's been playing better and better, perhaps getting acclimated again to NBA speed. With Rondo out, he's been playing around 30 minutes a game, up from his season total of 24.6, and shooting a slash line of 51.2/86.1/38.9, according to NBA's new advanced stats tab. Those are easily good enough for his career numbers.
It's only a nine-game sample size but as he becomes more comfortable playing with such a great defensive team, his chances of blossoming increases. And if the Boston Celtics decide to trade Paul Pierce, watch out.
Ricky Rubio didn't play the last half of the 2012 season because of an ACL injury sustained after bumping knees with Kobe Bryant. He didn't play until the 21st game of the season and hasn't played much due to the minutes limit he was on.
However, he's beginning to show signs of coming back to life after a slow start. Rubio still can't make a jump shot or move as quickly on a lateral plane as he would like, but the timing is nearing his usual legendary status and the rest should come sooner than later.
After playing 18.8 and 25.3 minutes in December and January, respectively, Rubio is averaging 32.8 minutes per game in February. Ever since he played his first game of the season over 30 minutes he has shot well over 40 percent shooting and almost ten dimes per game.
It isn't like his game is predicated on the explosion he finds from his knees. Unlike Derrick Rose, he spends less time slashing to the rim and probing the defense for passing lanes. If Rubio can keep progressing health-wise and get Kevin Love back to full-strength for the last month of the season, they'll be scary for teams fighting for a playoff spot.
O.J. Mayo has been lucky to avoid serious injuries unlike the two aforementioned players, but that hasn't stopped him from having a couple bad seasons.
Stuck in the forever offensively-challenged rotation of the Memphis Grizzlies, Mayo struggled to shoot the past two seasons, averaging under 27 minutes and shooting under 40.9 percent in both seasons. Lo and behold, a move to the Dallas Mavericks and he is reborn.
He is shooting 46.3 percent from the field, averaging 17.9 points, and a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 16.37 (a career-high). As a matter of fact, those are all career-highs. On a team devoid of much talent, Mayo will look to keep improving his game and leading his team in minutes played.
With Dirk Nowitzki out, Darren Collison struggling, and no type of low-post threat (Elton Brand and Chris Kaman average 19.7 points between them in 45.5 minutes), Mayo should have the freedom and talent to have a strong second half.
His ankle is the only thing that is keeping Stephen Curry from becoming a bona-fide superstar. After incurring several ankle injuries that were each harder to watch than the next, he has remained relatively (only a couple non-serious sprains) healthy throughout this season.
Thanks to those ankle problems, Curry only played 26 games last season. This season, he has played in 48 games, and averaging 44.7 percent on 6.9 three-point attempts per game. Not only that, but he is also playing 37.6 minutes per game, easily a career-high and good for 3rd among all point guards.
While he may be a bit overworked, the Warriors have needed him as he is their MVP in what has been a surprising 30-22 start in the Western Conference.
His prolific shooting has led to a very odd Warriors offense that has been amazingly effective this season. With Andrew Bogut back in the fold, the sky is the limit for the Curry-led Warriors.
Raymond Felton played the worst season of his career as a Portland Trail Blazer last year, averaging 11.4 points on 40.7 percent field goal shooting and 30.5 percent three-point shooting. It didn't help that his usage rate was higher than it was in the previous season even though he was shooting and playing so badly.
And to top it off, Felton came into the season out-of-shape and proceeded to play like so all season long. The Blazers started the season a solid 14-10 before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a controversial call and nosediving the rest of the way, finishing a dismal 28-38 and firing head coach Nate McMillan.
After being essentially pushed out of Portland, he was traded to the New York Knicks and is having a resurgent season with a team at the top of the Eastern Conference. While most of the credit should go to Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, it has been Felton's presence as a slasher that has the offense humming. Without a consistent driver in the lane, Felton fits the role of a four-out offense with Chandler running the pick-and-roll.
According to 82games, Felton has driven the offense to a full eight points better when he has been on the court. Not even a broken hand has stopped him this season. The basic stats aren't that great as he has shot only 40.4 percent from the field, but it is his drive-and-kick penetration that make them a serious threat in the East.
Brook Lopez is not only in possession of the much better-looking hair between him and his twin brother, but he is the better basketball player as well.
However, in 2012, Lopez broke his foot in the preseason and missed the first 32 games of the regular season. When he finally came back, he only played five games before being shut down.
Lopez then signed a four-year extension—prompting critics to question the length of the contract with his foot issues and his height—and has exploded this season. Even with Joe Johnson and Deron Williams on the team, Lopez has been by far the best player on the team.
Long known for his lack of defense and rebounding, he has excelled in both this season. In 2009-10, Lopez's five on the floor allowed 5.5 more points with him on the court. This season, his five on the court has allowed one less point per 48 minutes, according to 82games.
He also owns an effective field goal percentage of 52 percent, according to NBA.com. Lopez's post moves are as effective as ever as his rip moves from the wing have been unstoppable for opposing centers. His awkward, yet unique floater for a seven-footer gives him an extremely good touch for a tall player.
If the Brooklyn Nets want anything to do with the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, and even the Miami Heat, Lopez will have to dominate down low to give them a chance.
Between Carmelo's injury, the rise of "Linsanity" shortly thereafter, the Knicks struggles when Melo returned, and finally Mike D'Antoni's firing after an 18-24 start, it was somewhat of a hellish year for the gifted scorer from Syracuse.
Under an enormous amount of pressure to fit in with Jeremy Lin, Melo played very little defense and struggled to find his place.
When Mike Woodson finally took over the team and installed his offense for the new year, the Knicks took off. Carmelo at the power forward spot simply is impossible for teams to defend as his quickness is hard to track for slow-footed players. He is shooting 40.5 percent from distance on 6.8 attempts per game. While PER is a stat that values a ball-dominator, Melo owns a career-high 23.85 and he hasn't slowed down in the past few weeks.
While the team isn't winning as much as it did during its early season run, Carmelo Anthony's Knicks are a true contender against the defending champion Miami Heat.
Just the thought of that after the mess in New York last season makes Melo the front-runner for the award.