Ranking the NBA's Top Comeback Stories Heading into the 2014-15 NBA Season

Thomas DuffyFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2014

Ranking the NBA's Top Comeback Stories Heading into the 2014-15 NBA Season

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    Who doesn’t love a comeback story?

    The 2014-15 NBA season is stocked to the top with inspiring storylines that will trigger applause and admiration

    Last year, the NBA was ravaged by injuries. Superstars like Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant got the most publicity for their season-ending wounds, but other key players got hurt, too.

    It’s always great to see a player bounce back from an injury and return to the level at which they left off. But those aren’t the only types of comebacks.

    Merriam-Webster defines the word comeback as “a return to a former good position or condition.”

    That opens the door to a wide variety of other comeback stories, including a certain team that was deserted by a megastar looking to bring a championship to his hometown.

Honorable Mention: Paul George

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    Paul George will not play a single game in 2014-15. So, why is he on this list?

    George is getting highlighted because this year, he's going to endure what many of the players on the following slides were forced to.

    George suffered a compound fracture in his right leg during a nationally televised Team USA scrimmage on August 1. It was as gruesome of an injury as they come.

    It’s terrible to see a player with such promise—one who has fearlessly gone toe-to-toe with the likes of LeBron James—lose an entire season at just 24 years old.

    The Indiana Pacers believe that their star will make a full recovery, though, as relayed by the Associated Press.

    George underwent successful surgery shortly after the injury occurred and is targeting the 2015-16 season for a comeback.

    Maybe he'll be forgotten as fans pay attention to the MVP race or postseason battles. But a year from now, George will remind us that he's a star.

    Expect to see him headlining this list next summer.

7. Nuggets Will Look to Kill the Injury Bug in 2014-15

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    Demolished. Devastated. Annihilated. The Denver Nuggets were absolutely, positively shattered last season due to circumstances beyond their control.

    The injury bug sunk its teeth deep into the Nuggets and stole Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson.

    Gallinari, Hickson and Robinson are returning from torn ACLs, though the former’s was actually injured two seasons ago. The 26-year-old Italian attempted to rehab the ligament and bypass surgery instead of going under the needle as soon as possible.

    Live and learn, Gallo.

    Hickson, who averaged 11.8 points and 9.2 boards a night through 69 games last season, hopes to be back before the end of training camp, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.

    But nothing is certain.

    Here’s what Nuggets trainer Steve Hess said about his recovering players, per Denver’s website:

    Gallinari, Hickson, McGee and Robinson have followed their respective rehabilitation programs to the letter. For one to two weeks every month, they work directly with Hess, athletic trainer Dan Shimensky, assistant strength-and-conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger and physical therapist Mike Keirns at Pepsi Center.

    When they are not in Denver, Hess and the athletic training staff are in constant communication with their physical therapists.

    “They’re not taking any shortcuts,” Hess said.

    “You have a basic plan you want to implement, and they’ve all been sticking to the games plans. They’re doing extremely well, exactly where we want them.”

    All four injured players are targeting a return sometime during training camp, the preseason or early in the regular season. Hess and the Nuggets, however, are not putting a timetable on their recovery.

    The site pointed out that among the four of them, 210 games were missed last season. Their absences showed in Denver’s 36-46 record.

    Denver had earned three consecutive postseason berths in the Gallinari era prior to 2013-14. Next season, with a clean bill of health, the Nuggets could throw a monkey wrench into the Western Conference playoff picture.

6. The Effect of Brook Lopez in Brooklyn

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    The Brooklyn Nets have had quite a summer.

    Jason Kidd hit the road after a failed front-office takeover and ended up with the Milwaukee Bucks. Lionel Hollins took Kidd’s spot on the sidelines, but the Nets weren’t done there.

    While losing Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston to free agency cut deeply, general manager Billy King stayed busy. King landed a trade for Jarrett Jack, signed promising forward Bojan Bogdanovic and managed to squeeze into the draft, adding freak athlete Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson to an aged Nets roster.

    Though those improvements will matter, Brooklyn will be carried by Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez next season. Johnson is reliable, but he ranks outside of the superstar category for a reason—he can’t carry a team by himself.

    That means that the health of Williams and Lopez will be more crucial than ever before.

    Lopez, who has struggled with injuries to his feet in recent years, broke his right foot 17 games into last season. During that span, however, he led the Nets with 20.7 points while adding six boards and nearly two blocks a night.

    Johnson and Williams are both more significant pieces than Lopez. After all, the Nets won a playoff series without him last year.

    However, the 7-footer’s return will be one of the biggest factors in keeping Brooklyn's postseason hopes alive in 2014-15.

5. Carmelo Anthony and the Curious Case of the New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony got his wish.

    Barring the type of hissy fit trade demand that landed him in the Big Apple, Melo will be a Knick for life.

    As a Knicks fan, you’ve got to be thrilled. Locking up one of the league’s top two scorers for five years is a huge stride in Phil Jackson’s attempt to build a contender.

    Some athletes get paid and get content. Not Melo.

    Over the summer, Anthony posted several Instagram pictures that showed a striking weight loss.

    Idan Ravin, Anthony’s personal trainer, told Marc Berman of the New York Post that Anthony wants to lead by example. Ravin also noted that Anthony aspires to be quicker and a better distributor in the triangle offense.

    With the amount of talent that last year’s team had, NYK should’ve at least made the playoffs. Instead, New York floundered for long stretches of time and finished short of a postseason berth with a 37-45 record.

    It was the first time in his 11-year career that Anthony missed the playoffs.

    Jackson has made some improvements to help Melo this summer. Shipping out Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks was huge on and off the court. Both are declining players and financial burdens.

    Jose Calderon and second-rounder Cleanthony Early, both products of the Mavs deal, are expected to be the biggest contributing newcomers.

    J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. are still around, too. Anthony will have some serious help next year.

    During his time with the Knicks, Anthony has missed the playoffs. He's gotten bounced in the first round. He's led New York to its first division crown since 1994.

    It's certainly been a roller-coaster ride.

    Melo has made himself the man in New York. Now, let’s see whether or not he can live up to it.

4. The Big Two: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    If there were ever a time for a Dwyane Wade comeback, it’d be in 2014-15.

    Wade’s good friend and teammate of four years, Mr. LeBron James, left the Heat in the dust this offseason after getting drubbed by the San Antonio Spurs in an embarrassing five-game NBA Finals series.

    But Miami is far from dead.

    Chris Bosh re-upped with Miami for a max deal worth $118 million over five years while Wade agreed to a new two-year deal that will pay him $31.1 million.

    The Heat also made a key move in adding forward Luol Deng. Deng is no LBJ, but he’s a very strong defender who can put the ball in the basket. Over the course of his 10-year career, Deng has averaged 16 points a night on 45.7 percent shooting.

    Mario Chalmers—a "beast" in Lil Wayne's eyes—returned to Miami, and the team also added NCAA champion Shabazz Napier to the backcourt through a draft-night swap with the Charlotte Hornets.

    When asked to name his favorite opponent to play against, here’s what Wade told SB Nation's Heat blog, Hot Hot Hoops, on July 25:

    “Well, it used to be Kobe Bryant…the second best all time. … Now, I have a new favorite player to play against…my former teammate, LeBron James.”

    The Heat are poised to contend in the East with a healthy D-Wade, a testament to Pat Riley and the rest of the front office. Despite losing the undisputed best player in the world, the team is projected by ESPN to finish sixth in the conference.

    Oh, and here’s something to mark on your calendar: Wade, Bosh and the rest of the gang will face James in South Beach for the first time on Christmas day.

3. Can Kobe Bryant Defeat Father Time?

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    A message to the rest of the NBA: Be afraid.

    Kobe Bryant—after about a year and a half of turmoil, injury trouble and utter frustration—is back.

    Be very afraid.

    At 35 years old, Bryant’s superstar days are coming to an end. But if you think that the Mamba's tank is completely empty, you've got another thing coming.

    At no point in his illustrious 18-year career has Bryant been so doubted.

    Bryant tore his Achilles tendon with his Los Angeles Lakers on the brink of the 2012-13 postseason. While fighting off the urge to pounce on the happy-go-lucky Dwight Howard all year, the Black Mamba was running the point (and claiming that he could be the best PG in the league), scoring 27.3 points a night and shouldering the city of L.A. and all things purple and gold.

    Last season, Bryant shocked the world and returned (perhaps prematurely) from said Achilles injury. Six games into his overambitious comeback, the 16-time All-Star fractured his knee.

    In regard to Bryant’s 2014-15 campaign, new Lakers coach Byron Scott put the world on notice. Here’s what Scott told Fox Sports after seeing the Mamba work out this summer:

    The man is driven. He’s ready. He’s still a guy capable of getting 25 points every single night. When I tell you that he’s going to surprise a lot of people this year and does he still have it, the answer is yes, the Black Mamba is still the Black Mamba.

    The Western Conference is loaded. But could the Lakers slither into the eighth playoff spot when the time comes?

    Maybe.

    If Los Angeles can pull off a playoff berth, not only will it be miraculous, but it will be a testament to one of the greatest players to ever pick up the rock: Kobe Bean Bryant.

2. D-Rose's Pursuit of Redemption

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Enough with the jokes. Enough with the Twitter memes. Enough with the idea that Derrick Rose is no longer an elite point guard in this league.

    That's it. No more.

    After sitting out for all of the Bulls’ 2012-13 run with a torn ACL, Rose returned last season only to tear the meniscus in his other knee after 10 games.

    But now, with essentially two years on the sidelines behind him, Rose is back.

    Rose’s athleticism has been jaw-dropping during his time with Team USA this summer. The Most Valuable Player of 2010-11 has been as acrobatic and explosive as ever.

    Here’s what the 25-year-old told ESPN’s Nick Friedell on August 14:

    I don't have no fear. I have faith. I know that I'm going to be fine. I know that I've busted my [rear-end] the entire two summers, two seasons, in getting back to where I am right now. I'm just trying to keep it moving and stay positive every day. Do everything consistent like I've been doing...just getting my mind clear before I step out here on the floor. And I'm doing everything that Coach K and them want me to do.

    Rose, like Bryant, has been doubted. But in this case, there has been a greater element of disrespect.

    Rose has been abused for his unwillingness to play in the playoffs, after getting cleared by team doctors two years ago, and he has been mocked incessantly for his lengthy absence from the game.

    But when the lights come on and the ball is tipped up, Derrick Rose will be Derrick Rose again.

    Here's an excerpt from Friedell on August 5:

    "It takes an exceptional person, which is why we're talking about Derrick," Krzyzewski said, discussing how difficult it is to return to such a high level after missing so much time. "I think he's exceptional in every way. He went right at it. The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball handler, moving his feet, attacking him. There was a buzz right away because it was basically his saying, 'Look, I'm not just back. I'm back at a level that's elite.'"

    Team USA players and coaches continually said Rose was playing like he did before the ACL injury in April 2012. Krzyzewski maintained that during his conference call with media.

    "Derrick was sensational the whole week," Krzyzewski said. "He really did that every day, how fast and strong and decisive he was. He really created an air of excitement for the team because we all were anxious to see who he was right now. And who he is is very, very good. We're ecstatic about it and so happy for him."

    How redemptive would it be for Rose to hoist another MVP trophy, look into the cameras and simply smile at all the people he proved wrong?

    Doubt him all you want now. But don't be surprised if Rose is in the running for the league's most coveted individual award as his Bulls position themselves for a long run through the postseason.

1. LeBron's Heartfelt Return to Cleveland

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    USA TODAY Sports

    After taking his talents to South Beach four years ago, the best player in the world returned to where he belongs.

    Home.

    This summer, James and Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins penned what may go down as one of the most memorable pieces of writing in the history of the NBA.

    In a concise essay, James told the world he was heading back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    The SI letter stands in stark contrast to James’ announcement that he was heading to Miami.

    The all-about-me Decision television special, the concert-like dance party, the “not four, not five, not six, not seven” quote—all of that was forgotten upon reading James’ letter.

    It was simple, humble and heartfelt. James had made the right decision for his family and his inner self.

    As heartwarming of a story as it is, whether James can finally lead the Cavs to their first NBA championship will be an even more compelling one.

    The King has made it clear that he will not desert his kingdom again, and that he’s in this battle for the long haul.

    But the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, the Bulls and even the rebuilt Heat are not going anywhere.

    James has a steep road ahead of him. Kyrie Irving and, perhaps to a greater extent, Kevin Love, will be there to shoulder the load at times.

    But in the end, this championship journey is James' to make. And it begins this year.

     

    All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball Reference.