Now we’re into the part of our Summer Dreaming series where we’ve saved everybody eight months of waiting and handed out all of the official NBA awards for 2015. Next up is a look at a few off-the-record categories, starting with Comeback Player of the Year, which the league has not handed out since the 1984-85 season.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers — Go ahead, point to those 36 candles he just blew out on his birthday cake. Point to the torn Achilles’ tendon, the fractured kneecap, more miles on his body than an old pickup truck. But you might want to do that pointing from a distance, because the most relentless, driven, refuse-to-face-reality player in the league is apt to bite off that finger. There are all sorts of reasons to doubt that he can return as the player he once was. But, truth is, he won’t even try. While he’s got to carry the load for this revamped — OK, stripped-down-for-spare-parts Lakers team — he’s likely to do it closer to the basket. New coach Byron Scott wants Kobe to use his post skills and smarts to go to work on the inside and put less wear and tear on his body. It’s not likely that Bryant can work miracles and get the Lakers to the playoffs. But he’ll show a lot more than anybody has a right to expect from a player in his 19th NBA season.
Derrick Rose, Bulls — How quickly they turn. In 2011 he was the toast of Chicago as the youngest player ever named MVP. They were starting to line up artists to create the statue that would go up next to Michael Jordan outside the United Center one day. Now Rose has played just 10 games in the past two seasons due to injuries to both knees and a lot of the so-called loyalists are ready to turn the page and call him injury-prone. Remember, though, that he’ll be just 26 in October and that puts him a decade ahead of Kobe Bryant … plenty of time to return to form. He’s coming back to a team that’s added Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott to a core of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. It says here that playing with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup will prove to be a benefit in the long run, getting Rose needed minutes and a chance to get back on track before dueling it out with LeBron James and the Cavs for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Brook Lopez, Nets — A broken right foot last December sidelined him for the season. A short time later then-coach Jason Kidd went to a small-ball lineup that turned the Nets’ season around and got them to the playoffs. But Kidd is gone to Milwaukee, replaced by Lionel Hollins, who got the most out of the Grizzlies by going into the low post with the grind-it-out talents of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Lopez is Hollins’ kind of center, a big man with solid fundamentals who knows his way around the basket. Lopez has reportedly dropped 15 pounds during his rehab, looking noticeably lighter and a bit quicker in workouts. However, you can expect Hollins to slow the pace of the offense and make the most of Lopez’ ability, especially at the defensive end.
Al Horford, Hawks — Just when the hard work was starting to pay off with back-to-back selections to the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2010 and 2011, Horford virtually lost of two of the next three seasons due to an unusual injury — torn pectoral muscles, left side in 2012 and right side in 2013. In his absence, first-year coach Mike Budenholzer got the Hawks to buy into his share-the-ball beliefs that he brought over from San Antonio, and that got Atlanta into the No. 8 spot in the playoffs. The Hawks have definitely overpaid to put Thabo Sefolosha out on the floor as a needed wing defender. But if they’re going to take a step back up in the improving Eastern Conference, it will be Horford getting back to his old double-double self (17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds per game) from the 2012-13 season. His injuries have definitely drawn less attention than Bryant, Rose and maybe even Lopez, but his loss was just as significant to his team.
Roy Hibbert, Pacers — No broken bones, no torn ligaments, just a shattered confidence and reputation and a franchise left in pieces. Hibbert’s crisis of self-doubt resulted in his game falling faster than a piano off the rooftop of a skyscraper. When he was one of the league’s top rim-protectors in 2012-13, Hibbert solidified the Indiana defense, enabling the Pacers to sniff at the heels of the then-defending champion Heat. When he felt neglected in the offense over the second half of last season, the Pacers were a disjointed mess. Now they’ve lost the injured Paul George, likely for the season, and Lance Stephenson took the free-agent dollars and fled to Charlotte. That means the Pacers clearly don’t have the talent to compete at the top of the Eastern Conference. Still, this is an opportunity for Hibbert to accept the challenge and the burden as a leader and to start to lay a new foundation for the future. This time, at least, he should get his shots.
Deron Williams, Nets — It wasn’t that long ago when some scouts would have tabbed Williams as the best all-around point guard in the league. He has size, the ability to break down defenses and he can both get to the rim and nail his open jumpers. But that hasn’t been on display much since he joined the Nets. Now the soon-to-be 30-year-old is trying to overcome a series of ankle surgeries that have clearly slowed him down and made his whopping contract one of the most unrewarding in the league. New coach Hollins is not one to baby his players. He’ll lean heavily on Williams to run the offense and be the leader. But a slower tempo could be just what’s needed for a return to previous All-Star form.