NBA All-Injured Team: Top Players Whose Returns Could Shake Up Playoff Picture
NBA teams are approaching the stretch of the season that will determine their playoff fates. With more than half of the season in the books, the playoff picture is starting to take shape.
The teams atop the conferences have all but guaranteed playoff spots. They will battle it out to see who can claim home court advantage.
Then there are the teams fighting to remain playoff relevant.
In the East, six teams will be competing for the last three playoff spots.
The West is much more up for grabs with five teams currently outside the top eight that could squeak into the postseason.
These races are sure to come down to the wire and there is good potential for the littlest thing to be the difference.
Here are some players who will be returning from injury with the hopes of being that difference maker.
10. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Lakers
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The Los Angeles Lakers' Matt Barnes is expected to be out until March after having surgery to fix a torn meniscus on his right knee.
Before his injury, Barnes was averaging 20 MPG and 7.4 PPG.
The Lakers' success down the stretch and into the postseason will depend heavily on their role players. The return of Matt Barnes to the Lakers' lineup will allow Kobe Bryant and the rest of the starters to cut down their minutes.
With an aging team like the Lakers, the added rest for the stars could have much more of an impact than the 7.4 points Barnes will bring to the game.
The Lakers find themselves third in the West with the Oklahoma City Thunder hot on their heels. Phil Jackson's team is going to need to play well in order to lock up one of the top four seeds.
The return of Matt Barnes could be that little spark they need to do just that.
9. Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat
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Haslem is another role player that has a big impact on his team.
The Miami Heat have been without a strong big-man presence all season, and Haslem's injury does not help their cause.
Udonis is set to return the the Heat in late March after undergoing foot surgery. He could return just in time for the playoffs.
Haslem's ability to rebound will allow the Heat to compete with the top tier Eastern Conference teams.
Don't expect coach Erik Spoelstra to rush Haslem back, but his return is sure to boost the Heat's playoff chances, and prospects of making a deep playoff run.
8. Delonte West, Boston Celtics
Delonte's return to the Boston Celtics has been anything but smooth.
He played in only five games before fracturing his wrist in mid-November.
West's return will give coach Doc Rivers a shooting option off the bench. This option will be a huge boost because the Celtics are thin when it comes to players who can shoot the ball from beyond the arc.
Delonte will eat up quality minutes, allowing the starters to get their rest. This will be vitally important for an aging Celtics team.
7. O.J. Mayo, (Suspension) Memphis Grizzlies
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While not out with an injury, O.J. Mayo will miss 10 games due to violation of the league's drug policy.
Even though Mayo claims the banned substance came from an energy drink, the young guard will have to learn his lesson watching his Memphis Grizzlies from the bench.
Memphis is in a closely contested battle for the final playoff spot in the West. Mayo's suspension is untimely as there are two teams that could easily overtake the Grizzlies for eighth place.
The Grizzlies will be without Mayo's 12 points per game until February 15. His return will surely boost a team that will be in the thick of the playoff race.
6. Tyrus Thomas, Charlotte Bobcats
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The Charlotte Bobcats are clinging to eighth place in the East with teams nipping at their heels. They are currently a sub .500 team that is lucky to even be considered a playoff hopeful.
Tyrus Thomas will hope that his team continues their luck into the month of March when he is expected to return from a meniscus injury.
Prior to his injury, Thomas was coming off the bench and averaging eight points per game. While this is not the most impressive of stats, there is always potential for him to have a big game here and there.
In a race that will most likely come down to the final games of the season, the Bobcats will be eager to usher Thomas back into the lineup.
5. Emeka Okafor, New Orleans Hornets
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New Orleans Hornets' Emeka Okafor will be out through the All-Star break due to a side injury.
The Western Conference playoff picture is up in the air.
New Orleans currently sits in fifth place, but could find themselves anywhere from third to eighth by season's end. The difference between fifth and sixth place is huge when it means avoiding a first round date with Bryant and the Lakers.
New Orleans does not have another big man with the defensive quality of Okafor.
Come playoff time, they will count on him to match up against the likes of Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan.
Okafor's return may dictate where New Orleans ends up in the playoff picture.
4. Brandon Rush, Indiana Pacers
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Much like his Indiana Pacers, Brandon Rush has been having an up and down season. Rush was averaging just over 10 PPG before injuring his ankle.
The Indiana Pacers hope that they can keep pace with other playoff contenders in the East while Rush is out.
He is expected to be back mid-February which will give him ample time to help his team make the postseason.
3. Michael Redd, Milwaukee Bucks
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Michael Redd has not been 100 percent healthy since the 2008 season and it shows in his production. His most recent knee injury could really shape the rest of the 31-year-old's career.
Entering the last year of his contract, Redd will be looking to prove to everyone that he still has it.
Milwaukee does not know if Redd will be returning this season. A lot will depend on their postseason status.
Just a game and a half out of the eighth seed, the Bucks are still in it, and if they maintain their position, Redd could come in down the stretch and make an impact.
Don't expect Redd to come back this season if they Bucks aren't in contention. However, look for him to make an impact if he is needed.
2. Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
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Portland fans are hoping that Brandon Roy's most recent knee surgery will solve the problems that have ailed him during his young career.
Roy has not set a timetable for return, but he should be out no longer than late February.
There is no debate about what Roy means to the Trail Blazers. In the 23 games that he played this year, he averaged 16.6 points while playing hurt.
The Trail Blazers are eager for their star guard to return to the lineup. They are on the brink of breaking into the top eight in the West and Roy could get them there.
Portland does not want to unnecessarily rush Brandon's recovery, but look for him to return and be the spark that propels the Trail Blazers into the playoffs.
1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
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The Chicago Bulls have been the surprise team in the East so far this season, and they have done it without the services of their star center.
After undergoing thumb surgery in December, Joakim Noah is set to return in late February or early March.
There is no question that the Bulls will welcome his 14 points and 11.7 rebounds per game.
With all the talent in the East, the difference between the second and third seeds could mean the difference between a conference finals appearance, or bowing out in the second round.
The return of Noah to the lineup could be that difference maker for the Bulls.