HANG TIME, Texas — Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.
But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.
Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:
Kobe Bryant, Lakers — Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”
Dwight Howard, Rockets — Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.
Derrick Rose, Bulls — He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves — Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Rajon Rondo, Celtics — When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.
Danny Granger, Pacers — On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder — Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.
Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers — If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.