67RIEFNS No. 6: Return of injured players


The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the doldrums of the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

It’s always fun to see familiar faces back on the court. Usually, that means watching someone you haven’t seen since the end of last season.

But for a few players, it’s been much longer.

Here are some injured payers I’m especially looking forward to seeing back in action, sorted by the date of their last game:

Danilo Gallinari – April 4, 2013

Gallinari tore his ACL late  in the 2012-13 season, missed all of last year and might not be ready to start this season.

But, man, the Nuggets’ offense sure runs more smoothly when he plays.

Kenneth Faried’s contract extension has hinged on several questions, maybe chief among them: How large a role can he fill offensively? He’s not a traditional go-to payer, which is a fair criticism for someone who might command a max contract. But that matters a whole lot less when Gallinari plays.

Gallinari can drive to the basket and spot up from the perimeter, allowing him to contribute both on and off the ball. His skilled versatility allows Faried freedom to focus on hustle plays, what he does best.

In the last three seasons including the playoffs, Denver has gone 80-41 with Gallinari and 56-66 without him.

JaVale McGee – Nov. 8, 2013

Whenever someone makes the case Masai Ujiri is overrated as a general manager, McGee is Exhibit A. Ujiri dumped an overpaid Nene on the Wizards for McGee, but he also gave McGee a big contract extension.

McGee has started a grand total of 10 games for Denver. Some of that is due to injury, but the center has also underwhelmed when healthy.

The Nuggets are committed to making McGee look good so they look good, and I doubt they let up now. McGee has the physical talent to annually make an All-NBA team, but his focus often drifts.

Can he come closer to reaching his potential? That eternal struggle will resume soon.

Derrick Rose – Nov. 22, 2013

Rose has played just 50 games, including the playoffs, since becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history.

It’s been a rough few years.

Rose is back to playing. We saw that in the World Cup, though the results weren’t impressive.

Will Rose ever return to his previous levels? I’m not so sure. If he lost any athleticism, his game takes a major hit. Rose is definitely skilled, but his explosiveness made him special.

There’s no shame in being “just” a good point guard, but Rose was more than that. Even fully healed, he might no longer be on that track.

Kobe Bryant – Dec. 17, 2013

Kobe is 36, and he played six games last season.

I don’t care how strong willed he is. The odds are stacked highly against him ever finding major success again.

However, I can’t wait to watch him try.

Kobe can channel stubbornness and anger nobody can match. Either he’ll will himself back to stardom, or his downfall will be steep.

Al Horford – Dec. 26, 2013

When Horford got hurt, the Hawks were the third-best team in the East. Without him, they barely slipped into the playoffs with a losing record.

Of course, Atlanta was just 16-13 with Horford. Other teams in the conference grew throughout the season and/or upgraded this summer.

Horford and Paul Millsap are one the NBA’s most skilled big-man tandems, but they’ll have their work cut out to lead the Hawks back to the playoffs.

Having Horford helps, though. He’s a potential All-Star when healthy.

Brook Lopez – Dec. 20, 2013

Before going down, Lopez was having the best season of his career. He was averaging 20.7 points per game on 56.3 shooting, and his PER (25.4) would have ranked seventh in the NBA behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Chris Paul.

But the Nets played better without him, as Jason Kidd shifted to a small-ball scheme.

Lionel Hollins brings his own system, and it should welcome back Lopez. But there’s that lingering curiosity: Is Brooklyn better off without Lopez?

I don’t think so, but if he defends and rebounds a little better, it would be easier to prove his scoring provides more than an empty contribution.

Ryan Anderson – Jan. 3, 2014

Want to pressure a defense? Play Anderson and Anthony Davis together.

Davis can pull defenders all over the court, and Anderson can stretch them even further. In 324 minutes together last season, they posted a 115.4 offensive rating.

But they’re nearly as bad defensively, where neither is beefy enough to bang inside for too long. Omer Asik should help, and that will allow the Pelicans to more selectively deploy the Davis-Anderson tandem.

Everything in New Orleans revolves around Davis, and Anderson fits well offensively. Asik makes it so Anderson’s defensive fit is less of an issue, and as Davis grows into his frame, maybe he and Anderson can click on both ends. This season should reveal more.

Jrue Holiday – Jan. 8, 2014

If the loss of Anderson didn’t damage the Pelicans’ playoff hopes, Holiday’s injury really set them back.

New Orleans invested heavily to make Holiday its point guard of the future, and while his play still falls short of star level – yes, I know he made an All-Star Game with Philadelphia – he’s still just 24. There’s still plenty of time for Holiday to sand his rough edges.

Mainly, he needs to get on the court and get better. Last season interrupted his progress, but if the Pelicans want to make the playoffs quickly, they’ll need Holiday to surge forward.

Larry Sanders – Feb. 8, 2014

Technically, Sanders returned late last season to serve his marijuana suspension, but he didn’t actually play.

It was a regrettable year for Sanders, who got demoted, got injured in a bar fight, argued with teammates, got hurt again and then failed a drug test. In the first season of a large contract extension, there’s worry Sanders isn’t handling his payday well.

But he’ll be back Milwaukee, because the Bucks can’t won’t trade him.

Sanders came up from the bottom once before. He’ll have to do it again if he wants to avoid another embarrassing season.



The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.


The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.