Nothin' but Net: Maybe, just maybe, stars could return

In the next few weeks, maybe, we will see a huge influx of returning stars to NBA arenas all throughout this great republic.


Some studs will join NBA teams near the top of the standings, further enhancing those squads status as title contenders. For other teams, these additions could mean backing into the playoffs as dangerous lower seeds no one wants to face.

It seems the first to return will be Danny Granger for the Indiana Pacers. There were reports Granger would suit up against the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night, but they were shot down when Granger came down with the flu.

"He probably wouldn't be quite ready yet, even if he wasn't sick," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.

Granger has practiced and participated fully, showing no signs of any knee problems that has cost him the entire season until now.

The Pacers have lost two in a row at home for the first time in a year. This group isn't exactly taking in water just yet. Without Granger, who was thought to be the team's best player, the Pacers are 31-21 and a half-game ahead in the Central Division.

While it's not a miracle in a saintly or Jedi sort of way, Indiana has exceeded expectations. Paul George has emerged, not just as an All Star, but as the team's brightest star. David West has been sensational and added the toughness. Roy Hibbert is lost at times and regressed slightly, but point guard George Hill is a pro point guard.

Adding Granger to this mix won't be tricky. George will slide to the off guard spot and imagine how gigantic this team will be. George will be a 6-8 shooting guard.

Defense is how this team excels and Granger won't hurt that. As he gets acclimated, Vogel will probably still use Lance Stephenson, but Granger is a decent defender who has been around long enough to know how the Pacers win ball games.

The next returning star should be Derrick Rose. He granted an interview to USA Today where he said, "I'm not coming back until I'm 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready."

That didn't sound as promising as reports that he'd be back right after the All-Star break. Rose has sounded timid in the limited times he's spoken about his torn ACL that has kept him out all season.

Like the Pacers, the Chicago Bulls have played much better than anticipated without their franchise guy. They trail the Pacers by a half-game in the Central and Nate Robinson, who is filling in not just for Rose, but for an injured Kirk Hinrich as well, has done admirably.

Luol Deng leads the NBA in minutes played this season. Joakim Noah is ninth. Both have endured nagging injuries, as has a semi-rejuvinated Carlos Boozer.

It would be huge for the Bulls to get Rose back soon to lighten the load on those three players. With a healthy, and rested, Rose, coupled with some breaks for its other three key guys, Chicago could probably give the Miami Heat a run in the Eastern Conference.

Problem is, Rose does not sound like a man returning before spring.

"Far away. Far away," he told USA Today.

If eight weeks counts as far away, then we might not see the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol until late March. He tore the plantar fascia in his right foot and with medical training based on a few episodes of "ER," that seems to be an extremely painful setback.

Gasol had fallen out of favor in Mike D'Antoni's offense and rotation. But, when Dwight Howard was sidelined earlier this month with a bum shoulder, Gasol started and was back to his old self.

If the Lakers are still within sniffing distance of a playoff spot (they are 10th), Gasol's return could be gigantic. Kobe Bryant loves the guy and gets the best out of him. Gasol could be used to spell Howard off the bench again and, if D'Antoni lets him be, the Spaniard could be muy bueno in that role.

And that finally leaves us with Andrew Bynum.

As a long believer in the fact that Bynum would suit up for the Philadelphia 76ers at some point this season, I now believe you'll see a Yeti walking into your local grocery store before Bynum plays this season.

Bynum said on Monday he still experiences pain in his left knee, "a lot of pain" to be precise.

"I don't know if it's normal soreness, or if I'll have to play with it," Bynum said. "I don't know what it is. It's not anything that I haven't felt, so it's not new. And it continues to kind of go away over time, so it's all good stuff. No swelling."

Bynum's case is the most interesting of these four. The Sixers are ninth in the East standings and catching the Milwaukee Bucks for eighth isn't a monumental hurdle.

The 76ers roster was put together to maximize Bynum's ability. We don't know how it would work since we've only seen Bynum in some really large suits. And the Sixers have been a disappointment otherwise.

What looms large in this equation is the fact that Bynum is a free agent at the end of the season. Does he need to go out there and showcase himself for possible suitors? Probably not. I'm in the camp that says Bynum will get a max deal from some team no matter if he doesn't play a minute the rest of the way.

The Sixers can offer him the most and seem to still be interested in retaining him long term. Do they want to see anything to justify a trade that cost them versatile swingman Andre Iguodala, double-double machine Nikola Vucevic and promising talent Mo Harkless? Maybe they do, but Bynum doesn't seem terribly keen on playing through any pain.

Should he? Bynum could make a gigantic difference in the Sixers' playoff hopes and maybe he feels a sense of loyalty to provide something for a team that went and got him. Or, maybe not.

No matter what's going on in Bynum's mind, it seems unlikely he will be in uniform in February.

Four men can dramatically change the landscape of playoff races. When that will happen is still up for debate, but their impact isn't.