The NBA doesn’t technically have a Comeback Player of the Year award anymore, but we’re not going to let that stop us from recognizing these dozen gamers who have returned from the void to produce solid seasons for their respective teams. In order to be considered for this list each player had to fulfill two criteria: 1) they had to have been a good, or at least useful, player at some point in the past and 2) they had to be coming off one or more bad seasons as the result of either a serious injury or a sub-par performance. This should not be confused with the Most Improved Player award. Additionally, while team success is something that was not completely ignored, this is an individual award. Good team performance was considered, but poor team performance did not eliminate players from contention — this also isn’t the MVP award.
So, with all the rules and regulations out of the way, here are a dozen of the NBA’s top Comeback Players of the Year, all presented with last season’s and this season’s key statistics and listed in alphabetical order:
Anthony Carter, G, Denver Nuggets
2006-07 Numbers: 2 games, 3.0 points, 5.5 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 0.0 steals, 37.5% FGs
2007-08 Numbers: 65 games, 7.9 points, 5.6 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 45.5% FGs
It wasn’t hard to improve on last season’s totals of 6 points and 11 assists, but Carter has actually rebounded from that forgotten season to have his best year as a pro. He broke into the league with Miami and had a few successful years there, but then he fell off the face of the earth (or Minnesota and San Antonio’s bench, to be accurate) for a few years. In 2007-08 Carter has returned to relevance though, posting career-highs across the board: 5.6 assists, 45.5% FGs, .7 threes, 76.5% FTs, 2.9 boards, 1.6 steals and 7.9 points. The offensively challenged point has embraced the role of distributor, averaging at least 4.1 assists per game in each month this season, and suddenly found his stroke. We should also note that Carter’s contributions have been key for a playoff caliber team and one of the best offenses in the NBA.
Grant Hill, F, Phoenix Suns
2006-07 Numbers: 65 games, 14.4 points, 2.1 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 76.5% FTs, 2.2 TOs
2007-08 Numbers: 66 games, 13.4 points, 3.0 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 86.5% FTs, 1.4 TOs
There have been rumblings from deep in the Arizona desert that the Suns training staff has secretly discovered the Lazarus pit and have been augmenting their conditioning regimen with regular dips in it. It’s one of the few theories that makes sense at this point because their ability to keep Steve Nash healthy, fix Shaq and miraculously revive the career of Grant Hill is nothing short of supernatural. In his heyday Hill was one of the best NBA players of the last 20 years, but it’s been no secret that he’s struggled with myriad injuries over the last eight seasons. With one more game he’ll have played in more contests this season than any since the 1999-00 campaign, back when he was a Detroit Piston. Grant’s line isn’t mind-boggling, but he’s been extremely efficient, he’s getting up and down the court again on a running Suns squad, he’s providing quiet leadership on and off the floor, and Hill is shooting as well as he has at any point in his career.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
2006-07 Numbers: 78 games, 11.9 points, 1.6 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks
2007-08 Numbers: 69 games, 14.0 points, 1.5 assists, 9.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks
Ilgauskas wasn’t exactly a slouch last season, but he certainly wasn’t the key cog in Cleveland’s offense as we’ve come to expect since his breakout 2002-03 campaign. In 2006-07 his scoring was the lowest it had been since 2001-02, his shot-blocking was down and his rebounding was down. All of that has returned this season in impressive fashion, and he appears to be getting up and down the floor as well as ever while nailing some big shots. Big Z has been surprisingly durable in his career after suffering from foot issues early in his career, and that’s continued this year. He’s also resumed being one of the better offensive rebounders in the league and is playing over 30 minutes per game again. All of this is key, as Cleveland’s playoff success will hinge on the team’s confidence in his offensive game and his ability to stick with the new, athletic big men in the East for long stretches.
Nine more players who have come back in a big way this season after the jump…
Stephen Jackson, G/F, Golden State Warriors
2006-07 Numbers: 75 games, 15.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 1.3 three-pointers
2007-08 Numbers: 68 games, 20.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 2.5 three-pointers
After getting moved from the morass in Indiana last season Stephen Jackson stepped up his play, but he’s taken it to another level in Golden State this season. His scoring is back in line with the one season in Atlanta and the first season in Indiana, while the combination of rebounds, assists and steals are the highest of his career. Jackson was an unheralded member of the of the 2003 Spurs championship team, then lost himself in selfish play and off-court trouble for a few years, but now he’s back to playing solid individual basketball and winning team ball. He’s rededicated himself to perimeter defense, emerging as one of the best in the NBA there, and become a surprising source of leadership as a captain of the Warriors this season.
Andrei Kirilenko, F, Utah Jazz
2006-07 Numbers: 70 games, 8.3 points, 2.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 21.3% 3PTs
2007-08 Numbers: 67 games, 11.1 points, 4.1 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 38.3% 3PTs
Kirilenko’s 2006-07 season was defined by feuds with the Jazz coach and owner, poor play, nagging injuries and world-class pouting. After a productive meeting with Jerry Sloan in the offseason AK-47 has seemingly renewed his interest in playing quality team basketball, returning his stat line to something resembling what we’ve come to expect from one of the best all-around contributors in the NBA. The Ruskie’s misguided notion that he should be featured in the team’s offense and shoot more has taken a backseat again, and it’s actually resulted in more scoring and more offensive efficiency to go along with his usual dimes and hustle performance. What has always made Andrei so special is his high energy and ability to contribute in every way possible with modest scoring. His blocks are down, but the assists, scoring, outside shooting and team play are back up this season, and that’s one of the reasons the Utah Jazz should not be forgotten heading into the postseason.
Corey Maggette, G/F, Los Angeles Clippers
2006-07 Numbers: 75 games, 16.9 points, 45.4% FGs, 0.2 threes, 20.0% 3PTs
2007-08 Numbers: 67 games, 22.2 points, 46.3% FGs, 1.1 threes, 38.2% 3PTs
The Clippers have been a depressing franchise this year, but there have been some bright spots, namely the career season of center Chris Kaman, Al Thornton emerging as a scorer on the NBA level and the strong offensive play of Corey Maggette. After a down 2006-07 campaign Maggette has reasserted himself as one of the best in the league at taking the ball to the basket, averaging 9.7 free throw attempts per game, the third-most in the NBA and the second-most of his career. And as a career 82% shooter from the line, that’s his strength. Maggette is a physical specimen and an absolute freight train on his way to the basket, both in the half-court and on the break. Few players in the league can get in his way once Corey puts his head down, and when they do he almost always manages to get a shot off anyway. Elton Brand’s injury left a huge scoring void, and Maggette has stepped up, scoring nearly seven more points per game this season and hitting more of those shots, especially behind the arc after a terrible performance from long distance last year.
Kenyon Martin, F, Denver Nuggets
2006-07 Numbers: 2 games, 9.5 points, 0.5 assists, 0.0 steals, 0.0 blocks, 50.0% FGs
2007-08 Numbers: 66 games, 12.7 points, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.3% FGs
There are few players in NBA history who can make an athlete look good like Jason Kidd, and it would be foolish to ever expect Kenyon Martin to regain the All-Star form he showed in New Jersey. But Martin is the healthiest he’s been in years (which may not be saying much, given he’s only surpassed 70 games once in his career), already playing in more games this season than he had in the previous two combined. And he’s producing an efficient, useful line despite being an afterthought to Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby and recently J.R. Smith. Especially impressive is the career-best 54.3% FGs, which has allowed Martin to score nearly 13 PPG on just 10 field-goal attempts, and the career-low 1.3 TOs per game. On a run-and-gun team where defense is always an esprit d’escalier his 2.6 combined steals and blocks per contest have also been a welcome contribution.
Andre Miller, G, Philadelphia 76ers
2006-07 Numbers: 80 games, 13.4 points, 7.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 46.5% FGs
2007-08 Numbers: 77 games, 17.2 points, 6.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 49.5% FGs
Andre Miller was having a fine individual season for the Nuggets a year ago before being shipped to Philadelphia, where he rotted for the final 57 games of the season. It’s not that he didn’t keep working or that his stats were completely abysmal, but he simply wasn’t igniting fast breaks, wasn’t looking for his shot, wasn’t embracing the athletic youngsters around him and didn’t appear to have much of an interest in winning. This season the remarkably durable point guard has resumed his role of offensive leader, consistently pushing the ball and running with the highly mobile Sixers, while also taking responsibility for his own scoring in attempting nearly four more shots a game and knocking down an impressive 49.5% of them. He’s taking it to the basket again, attempting more free-throws and drawing more fouls. But most important, he’s embraced his role of veteran leader on a rebuilding team that has suddenly gone from moribund to playoff-bound.
Brad Miller, C, Sacramento Kings
2006-07 Numbers: 63 games, 9.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 77.2% FTs
2007-08 Numbers: 72 games, 13.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 84.8% FTs
Brad Miller is out with a knee injury for the last week and a half of the season now, but that shouldn’t detract from the huge bounceback season he’s had. Prior to last year Miller had earned a reputation as one of the best, if not the best, passing and shooting centers in the NBA. He’s not a 20-point scorer, but he has the ability to contribute an effective overall line with strong assists and shooting percentages with no noticeable deficiencies (in terms of stats at least). Last season was a train wreck though, with Miller struggling through the big man’s dreaded plantar fasciitis and simply not performing well. As a result, his production fell off across the board, notably in the scoring, rebounding and hustle-stat categories. It’s all come back this season though, even the impressive three-point shooting.
Joel Przybilla, C, Portland Trailblazers
2006-07 Numbers: 43 games, 2.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 47.4% FGs, 37.0% FTs
2007-08 Numbers: 77 games, 4.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 57.8% FGs, 68.0% FTs
The Vanilla Gorilla is never going to be mistaken for one of the elite centers in the NBA, and his offensive game will never be much more than picking up his teammate’s scraps, but he can still be an impact player when he’s on his game. Przybilla always has his ups and downs each season, but he completely fell off the map for Portland last season, playing in just 43 games and averaging the pathetic line above. This season he’s managed to stay healthy until recently, and he’s been complementing the offensive, jump-shooting games of LaMarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye nicely. The Blazers simply don’t have another big, physical body on the roster who pounds the glass like he does. The key with Joel is simply finding a way to stay on the floor with his defense, rebounding and put-backs on offensive while staying out of foul trouble, and he’s gone back to doing all of those things. Unfortunately, a broken hand will sideline him for the final five games of this season, but he will be a factor for the playoff-bound Blazers in the 2008-09 season.
Jason Richardson, G, Charlotte Bobcats
2006-07 Numbers: 51 games, 16.0 points, 2.2 threes, 41.7% FGs, 65.7% FTs, 36.5% 3PTs
2007-08 Numbers: 77 games, 21.3 points, 2.9 threes, 44.1% FGs, 74.0% FTs, 40.2% 3PTs
Richardson was reasonably effective for a surprisingly good Warriors team last season, but the performance was well short of what we had come to expect out of the explosive shooting guard. Not only did he deal with major injury problems in 2006-07, he also looked out of place on offense for much the the year — and scoring is where J-Rich makes his money. Last season’s 16.0 PPG was the lowest since his sophomore campaign, but this season he’s back with a vengeance. This is likely his finest statistical season, even if it’s coming for a Bobcats squad already eliminated in the East. Richardson’s 229 three-pointers are the most in the NBA (the NBA record is 269), and he’s never had such an efficient season despite being the primary target of opposing defenses.
Peja Stojakovic, G/F, New Orleans Hornets
2006-07 Numbers: 13 games, 17.8 points, 2.6 threes, 42.4% FGs, 81.6% FTs, 40.5% 3PTs
2007-08 Numbers: 71 games, 16.3 points, 3.0 threes, 44.0% FGs, 93.0% FTs, 45.2% 3PTs
Peja isn’t having an All-Star caliber season like he used to back in Sac Town, but he’s finally staying healthy and producing on a consistent basis. He’s playing meaningful minutes for a playoff-bound team fighting for the top seed in the West, and he’s regained the offensive efficiency that made him such a stud both on the court and on fantasy teams. Stojakovic is the third or fourth option on offense every night after Chris Paul, David West and sometimes Tyson Chandler, but he’s doing what he does best: hovering around the perimeter, finding open spacing, and consistently punishing teams for collapsing on Paul & Co.