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 Lakers
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 together.
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 returns.
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 help.
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 productive."
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 Tuesday.
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 Tyson Chandler.
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 sneakers.
- 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 believe it.