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67RIEFNS No. 6: Return of injured players

NBA All-Star Practice

NBA All-Star Practice

NBAE/Getty Images

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.