Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Santa Claus is certainly a busy man this
time of year.
He's checking his list, maybe even twice, and he's apparently found some NBA
teams that have been naughty and some that have been nice. Santa has given
some early Christmas presents in terms of returning players who will make
a significant impact.
Mr. Claus is also waiting until the holiday itself, or shortly after, to grant
some teams' wishes. And, sadly, some teams are getting coal in their stocking.
They must've been naughty, because Lord knows when some high-profile stars are
returning this season, if at all.
On good authority from a source at the North Pole, here's the latest on
returning stars and their impact.
BACK ALREADY - RICKY RUBIO, Minnesota Timberwolves; PAU GASOL, Los Angeles
The Timberwolves already started to play good ball before Rubio returned from
massive knee surgery last season. They won three in a row when the Spanish
star came back on Dec. 15 against the Dallas Mavericks. Minnesota won that
game, but lost the next one to Orlando.
It might be a tad troubling that Rubio didn't play at Miami the day after the
Magic loss, but that's just good sense to sit him the second of a back-to-
back due to his repaired knee.
The Timberwolves got surprisingly good play from Luke Ridnour in Rubio's
absence. With Kevin Love back in the fold, albeit disgruntled, the
Timberwolves seemed poised for a playoff run.
Rubio's impact was felt already. In 34 total minutes, he recorded 13 assists
and four steals. Psychologically, Rubio was the final piece to return for the
T-Wolves and so they now know this is their true team. They could start to
really play well knowing that, barring any more injuries, the team is
Gasol returned after a two-week absence with tendinitis in both knees. His
time away probably helped as much for his knees as his mind. It would be
generous to say Gasol has had a hard time fitting in Mike D'Antoni's system.
Gasol is once again the star of trade talks, but everyone in Lakerland seems
content to let things be roster-wise until another figure on this list
Gasol is a unique talent with incredible passing skills for a big man.
D'Antoni has to figure a way to maximize his talents, but Gasol has to adapt
better. D'Antoni was brought in this season, so he and his system are as a big
a fixture on the Lakers' sideline as Jack Nicholson is.
BACK SOON - STEVE NASH, Los Angeles Lakers; AMARE STOUDEMIRE, New York Knicks;
DIRK NOWITZKI, Dallas Mavericks
The Nash return might have the most impact. He's only played roughly one game
as a Laker after a leg fracture and everyone seems to believe he will be the
savior to cure the Lakers' woes.
Yes, Nash won two MVPs running D'Antoni's high-octane system. And yes, he's a
future Hall of Famer and master facilitator.
But the Lakers rank seventh in points scored and 20th in opponents' scoring.
Nash would even chuckle if anyone said he was an adequate defensive player,
plus the Lakers look slow and unathletic. Those are two things Nash won't
D'Antoni already said the rotation will change when Nash returns. Metta World
Peace goes to the bench, Jodie Meeks heads to the No. 2 spot and Kobe Bryant
will start at the small forward.
"We have to be able to change our team," said D'Antoni. "For us to have a
different team, a different look, Metta has to play the four. If he starts at
the three, then once I get him to the four, it's too many minutes for him. I
think Metta will be very productive as a four, and our team will be very
Stoudemire's return from a knee injury is also imminent and the trickiest on
any coach. The New York Knicks are cooking with gas at the moment and wouldn't
be a candidate to tinker much.
Stoudemire has been practicing with the Erie Bayhawks of the D-League to work
on conditioning and just get him on the court.
"I've been pleased with the progress," Stoudemire said after practice on
Head coach Mike Woodson is in a pickle. Carmelo Anthony is playing at an MVP-
level and has been doing it at the power-forward spot. Anthony has been a
nightmare to cover at that position with his quickness.
That means trouble for Stoudemire. He's not taking any minutes from Anthony
and he's not taking minutes from reigning Defensive Player of the Year, center
So where does Stoudemire fit in? Is it coming off the bench? Is it in a
tremendously-reduced role for a guy making almost $20 million this season?
These are hard decisions for Woodson. It's almost indefensible to change too
much to a Knicks team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Stoudemire doesn't care what his role is, so long as he has one.
"Whatever it takes to win," Stoudemire said. "I've been all about winning and
a total team player, so whatever it takes to win, that's the goal."
Nowitzki, who is targeting just after Dec. 25 for his comeback from knee
surgery, and the Mavericks are the ultimate gravy situation. Dallas is 10th in
the Western Conference, so anything he provides will go a long way.
BACK...WHO KNOWS - ANDREW BYNUM, Philadelphia 76ers; DERRICK ROSE, Chicago
Bulls; JOHN WALL, Washington Wizards
Remember the great line in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," when Steve Carell's
character asks when he should call a girl, and Seth Rogen's character replies,
"when are the next Olympics?"
That's sort of how I feel about these three guys and their return dates.
In Bynum's case, high-noon is Thursday. He is scheduled to meet with his
doctor in New York and could begin "ramping up" activity. ("Ramping up" is the
new cool way of describing doing anything physical.)
Bynum has said recently that the original knee injury that cost him time at
the start of the preseason feels good. The one he injured bowling does not.
The Bynum injury hurts the Sixers more than any other injury in the league.
This team was built with shooters in place to compliment Bynum in the
interior. Without the big man, the Sixers may not even make the postseason as
evidenced by five straight losses.
Bynum's injury could cause ripples into the offseason. If he doesn't play this
season, do the Sixers re-sign him? They traded Andre Iguodala to secure the
talented big man. If they let him limp (get it?), they will have a lot of
money to play with. The problem is, Dwight Howard isn't going to come to
Philadelphia. Are the Sixers better-served to just re-sign Bynum, maybe for a
lower price as a show of good faith that they think he'll return and be the
player he was?
Rose hasn't really provided any timetable or updates on his knee injury. He
hinted that he never really knew how long he'd be out and even raised the
possibility of missing the season.
The Bulls have played surprisingly well with him away and did so last season.
They lead the Central Division and own the fourth-best record in the East.
Obviously, they could use him and coach Tom Thibodeau said on "Mike & Mike In
the Morning" Thursday on ESPN Radio, "He's right on schedule. He's not ahead
of schedule. He's not behind."
If the Bulls can get a 100 percent healthy Rose back in the second half, hold
on to your hat. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are Nos. 1 and 2 in the NBA in
minutes played and anything that can lighten the load on those two will give
them some rest heading into the playoffs. A well-rested Bulls team should
terrify the Eastern Conference to its core.
If Rose can't go, then the Bulls probably lose in the first or second round
with a reasonable explanation.
Wall can also "ramp up" activity, but with a caveat. He has to wait until
swelling goes down in his knee after another injection. Wall suffered a non-
traumatic stress injury. Had the kneecap broken, we'd be seeing Wall in
September at the start of next season's training camp. But with this injury,
there's more mystery.
What Wall did acknowledge is that he developed cartilage damage underneath his
left patella. Basically, Wall can do more physical things, except practice or
make contact with anyone.
"Hopefully the time I've taken off and the shots I got and the treatment I've
been getting is helping me get healthy so I can play basketball this season,"
Wall said on Monday. "You don't want to miss a whole season. If it comes to
it, you have to, but I'm trying not to think that far ahead."
The Wizards are going nowhere with, or without Wall. If he can play, great,
come on back. But if he can't, it won't make a dent in the Wizards' season.
They are 3-20 and destined for the lottery. They aren't destined, they're
probably close to being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs already.
- Bynum said on Sunday that Kobe Bryant stunted his career growth. Bryant also
won him two titles, helped him get to the All-Star game and become wealthy
enough to open a bowling alley in his bathroom. Bynum should probably be a
little lower-profiled while being out of action due to a bowling injury. It
just looks bad to be running your mouth when you can't even lace up your
- The Brooklyn Nets do not look good. There is something missing and several
times in their Wednesday loss to the Knicks, that something missing actually
appeared to be effort. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson clearly have not meshed.
Williams and head coach Avery Johnson don't appear to be meshing either.
Williams basically stated that Johnson's offense doesn't really suit him. That
team will stay intact. There's too much money invested. That means, guess who
takes the blame if things don't go well? Avery.
- Did you ever think you'd live long enough to see the Golden State Warriors
go 6-1 on an east trip with wins over the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks? Steph
Curry and David Lee are both possible All-Stars and Mark Jackson is the
favorite for Coach of the Year. They play hard each and every night.
- Jeremy Lin's return to Madison Square Garden was huge, but it stunk for
those of us not in attendance and watching on NBA TV. We didn't get his
introduction broadcast live. Technical difficulties.
- MOVIE MOMENT - Enjoy this piece of dialogue in the Christmas spirit:
"Hey, kids, I heard on the news that an airline pilot spotted Santa's sleigh
on its way in from New York City."
"You serious, Clark?"
- TV MOMENT - I can not believe "Grey's Anatomy" is still on the air. Can not
The Sports Network