If the 2012-13 NBA season was "The Year of the Setback," then, perhaps, the 2013-14 campaign will be remembered as "The Year of the Bounce-Back."
Injuries are an unavoidable part of sports, but they seemed to strike the best and brightest of the NBA with alarming frequency last season. As a result, teams across The Association—from the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls in the East to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves out West—saw their hopes and dreams for bigger and better things scuttled by the unfortunate facts of life on the hardwood.
Predicting strong and quick recoveries for the likes of Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo, the aftereffects of whose devastating injuries figure to carry well into the fall, is a delicate endeavor, to say the least.
There's no telling how the Black Mamba, at the age of 35, will handle his return from a torn Achilles tendon (i.e. arguably the most agonizing ailment in the game) or even when he will. As for Rondo, a torn ACL like his usually requires at least a year for full recovery, though he may be ready to play in some capacity before January.
There are a myriad of other stars, though, for whom prognosticating reclamations of their former glory requires little to no agonizing over the outcome, as is the case for these six stars.
Not since Michael Jordan quit his brief foray into baseball has the NBA seen a return as hotly anticipated as Derrick Rose's. It's fitting, then, that both should involve the Chicago Bulls. A team that, with Rose's help, should contend for the Eastern Conference crown—and then some—just as Jordan's Bulls did in his first full season back from the diamond.
Last time we saw D-Rose on the court, he was hobbling his way through an injury-plagued, lockout-shortened campaign. Even amidst his myriad maladies, Rose managed to averages of 21.8 points and 7.9 assists, albeit while sitting out 27 games during the 2011-12 regular season.
When Rose takes to the court against the Miami Heat on opening night in late October, he will have spent more than 18 months between live NBA games. As such, expecting Rose to excel from the get-go seems like a bit much to ask, even from him.
Except, we know what Derrick Rose is and can be when he's fully healthy: an MVP-caliber player, top-10 scorer, one of the best at his position and the sort of performer who can elevate his team into legitimate title contention.
Chances are, too, that Rose has used at least some of his rehab time to work on the weaker aspects of his game, including long-range shooting and ball security. If that is, indeed, the case, the soon-to-be 25-year-old Rose may well be better than ever once he gets his basketball legs back under him during the season.
Kevin Love didn't miss the entirety of the 2012-13 season, but he might as well have. Love played in just 18 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year while dealing with broken bones in his shooting hand.
Love suffered the initial injury during a pre-practice workout back in October of 2012. He was back on the court by late November, though he clearly wasn't right—physically or mentally.
He expressed doubts about his future with the T-Wolves in a piece penned by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, for which the All-Star drew heavy criticism. His usually sweet shooting was hindered by the presence of a protective brace on his hand, to the point where his percentages (season average of .352 from the field, .217 from three, .704 from the free-throw line) plummeted across the board.
As a result, Love opted to shed the brace as a means of finding his comfort zone again. Unfortunately, that also left him susceptible to further injury. He re-fractured the bones in his shooting hand on Jan. 3 and proceeded to undergo season-ending surgery.
With all of that time away from the game and tumult, it's easy to forget that, not long ago, Love was arguably the premier player at his position. Two All-Star appearances, an All-NBA nod, victory in the Three-Point Contest and rebounding title all served to highlight Love's gift for the game and the hard work he'd put in to establish himself as one of the NBA's elites.
Love's less than two years removed from his transcendent 26-13 season in Minny, and—with his 25th birthday right around the corner and the playoffs on his mind—should have plenty of motivation to make sure that the upcoming campaign is anything but a lost one.
If not for the way the Los Angeles Lakers handed over the interior to Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard over the last two seasons, Gasol might still be a steady All-Star. And if not for the degree to which Gasol was run into the ground from the start of the lockout-shortened season until the early stages of 2012-13 (with the London Olympics in between), he might not have suffered through such debilitating knee and foot injuries as those that ravaged his season.
That being said, the improvement in Gasol's condition with regard to the latter two points could and should help in his pursuit of the former. Dwight's departure to Houston may not be good for the Lakers on the whole, but it should prove a boon to Pau's prospects for a return to prominence. No longer will he have to worry about floating out toward the perimeter to make room in the middle for another big man.
Instead, Gasol, 33, should have his run of things on the low block along with occasional work from the high post. He can get back to being the same, super-talented center on whom the Lakers leaned so heavily during their back-to-back championship seasons in 2009 and 2010.
Better yet, he'll have the specter of impending free agency to motivate him during this most crucial of campaigns in his Hall of Fame career. It's no wonder then that Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has such high hopes for Pau this fall.
Because, realistically, Gasol should have those same hopes for himself.
If you didn't start paying attention to the NBA until the playoffs rolled around, then you probably had no idea that Roy Hibbert's 2012-13 season was, by his own standards, subpar.
Prior to the All-Star break, Hibbert averaged just 10 points on 41.4 percent shooting from the field—an abysmal mark for any player, but especially for a 7'2" behemoth who spends so much time next to the hoop.
After the All-Star break, though, Hibbert's play improved dramatically. His scoring average jumped by nearly six points (to 15.7 points per game) while his field-goal percentage shot right past the .500 mark. That trend carried into the postseason, wherein Hibbert tallied 17 points (on 51.1 percent shooting) and 9.9 rebounds per game to lift the Indiana Pacers within a game of cracking the NBA Finals.
Why the spike? Probably because Roy's wrist was in bad shape when the season started. That shouldn't be a problem this fall, especially considering the hard work that Hibbert has put in to improve his body and his game this summer.
With confidence from his superb postseason play, proper strength and conditioning, and a healthy mind and body, look for Hibbert to dominate like never before for a Pacers squad with lofty aspirations in the Eastern Conference and beyond.
While Roy Hibbert grew stronger as the playoffs wore on, Dwyane Wade appeared to weaken, game by agonizing game. The condition of Wade's bruised knee never seemed to improve, leaving him with only one semi-solid leg off which to properly launch his signature attacks.
It's no wonder, then, that Wade's scoring average for the postseason plunged just south of 16 points per game, with only five 20-plus-point performances in his 22 outings.
There's no telling how much healthier Wade's knees will be from here on out. They've already been through multiple operations and, with Wade's wear and tear in 10 seasons, they're never going to be as strong or as healthy as they once were.
That being said, bone bruises don't require surgery. Rather, they're the sort of injury that only heals with time and proper rest. Of which Wade has (hopefully) gotten plenty this summer. If the bruises have subsided, Wade should be good to go in the Miami Heat's chase for a historic three-peat.
Wade likely won't be able to attack with the same frequency and ferocity as he once did if he's planning on playing through the entirety of Miami's title defense. But with some age-related adjustments to his game and proper game management by Erik Spoelstra and his coaching staff, the player formerly known as "Flash" should be plenty able to recapture just enough of his former glory to earn his fourth ring overall and his third as LeBron James' superstar sidekick.
Of course, Dwyane Wade's knees were still in better shape than Russell Westbrook's by season's end. Westbrook's weren't worn down, but rather forced into surgery by an unfortunate bump with Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley.
That injury forced Russ to rest for the remainder of the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff run, which ended in a five-game ouster at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. The silver lining: The early ouster highlighted Westbrook's individual brilliance and pivotal importance to OKC's success as Kevin Durant's near-equal second fiddle.
Russ will have every opportunity to remind folks of that, and more, once the 2013-14 season tips off. He'll be tasked with shouldering an even bigger burden for the Thunder, particularly on the offensive end. Kevin Martin's departure leaves the Thunder scrambling to find (at best) a third scorer and (at worst) someone to produce consistently off the bench.
Until that fill-in is found—be it Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Ryan Gomes or any number of candidates among OKC's reserves—it'll be up to Westbrook (and Durant, of course) to make up the difference and keep the Thunder atop the Western Conference.