With the 2019/2020 NBA season officially reaching its halfway mark, it’s time to reflect on some of the key storylines that have emerged this season. Luka Doncic has made perhaps the most significant jump for a sophomore that we’ve seen in yonks, LeBron and Anthony Davis really are as good a pair as we suspected they’d be, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have turned the Clippers into a genuine contender, and Giannis and the Bucks look like the East will be theirs for a long time. However, there’s one storyline that is only now coming into the fold for the general fan: the renaissance of former all-stars.
It may be sports science, perseverance, hard work or a wake-up call, but this season we have seen several players that many had written off make surging comebacks and prove that they’re nowhere near done in the league. Three players specifically have defied the odds and shown that they still have it: Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony.
Flashback to 2012 and Howard was comfortably the best big man in the league. A physical and athletic specimen, who could dunk on anyone and defend the paint as though his life depended on it, everything seemed to be in his favour when he got his wish and was traded to the Lakers that summer, joining forces with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. However, a recurring back injury and a mishmash of issues in that team led to a dour season, following which Howard chose to not sign on with LA as a free agent, choosing instead to join the Rockets. Howard formed a strong partnership early on with James Harden, but a series of chemistry issues and off-court mishaps caused Dwight to depart to Atlanta. Enjoying a solid season, but declining across the board, he was then shipped off to Charlotte. The same happened after only one season with the Hornets, where he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets who promptly waived him, leading him to be signed by the Washington Wizards. Howard missed all of training camp, preseason and the first handful of games for the Wizards with a sore backside, before managing a paltry 9 games for his new team. He then sat out the rest of the season following spinal surgery to relieve the pain in his glutes. The Wizards cut their losses, shipping him off to the Grizzlies at the end of the season, who, like the Nets, waived him.
Many had believed that Dwight Howard was no longer suited to the NBA. He was no longer the dominant presence that he once was, with injuries lingering all over him. This, coupled with the perceived personality and chemistry issues that were baggage with him, turned teams off – until the Lakers came calling. DeMarcus Cousins unfortunately picked up an ACL injury in the offseason, leading the Lakers to scramble for a centre. They chose to give Howard another chance at redemption, hoping he’d be the rim protector and inside force they needed off the bench. Impressing by showing out at Venice beach with a leaner, more cut physique – emblematic of the new dietary regime he’s been partaking in to preserve his body – hopes were high for Howard.
To say he’s exceeded expectations for the Lakers has been an understatement. Though his averages are down across the board, his minutes have only been at around 19.8MPG, owing to his contributions off the bench. In spite of his, he’s been averaging 7.5RPG and 1.4BPG, with his on-court play and presence showing shades of his former self. The centre has described his current feeling as “pure joy”, with him just happy to be playing basketball again. He’s even been in discussions for competing in this year’s dunk contest. All of his teammates have enjoyed his time with them, with LeBron James describing Howard’s redemption season as something “wonderful” to watch.
The Lakers have title ambitions and Howard’s play off the bench as a backup to Javale McGee will be a big factor in whether or not they end the season at the top.
Derrick Rose is one of those ultimate ‘what-ifs?’ in sports. After becoming the youngest MVP in history at just 22 in 2011, the sky was the limit for the athletic point guard. Sadly, a year later he tore his ACL, and it all unravelled from there. After a year off during the 2012-2013 season, Rose made his much-anticipated comeback, hoping to recapture the form that saw him crowned the MVP. It wasn’t to be, as after only 10 games he tore his meniscus, requiring another knee operation and sitting him out for the rest of the season. He managed to return the next season, but only played slightly over half the season for his hometown Chicago Bulls, as his knee troubles continued to bother him. His last season with the team was more of the same, as it looked like we were robbed of what would’ve been one of the great careers in the modern era. Shockingly, he was traded to the Knicks in 2016, but again he was never close to finding his old form for his new team, ending his season in New York by tearing his other meniscus, requiring his fourth knee surgery in his career. Rose was waived by the Knicks and joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, but a string of ankle problems and bone spurs ruined his short stint in Cleveland, leading him to be traded to the Utah Jazz just before the All-Star break. They waived him. His career looked finished.
Rose’s comeback started earlier than this season, with him being acquire by the Minnesota Timberwolves, as a low risk option to carry the bench. He stayed on for the 2018-2019 season, which became the start of his comeback. Finding a role as a 6th man, Rose started in hit form for the Wolves, before erupting for 50 points against the Jazz on Halloween, bringing him to tears along with the rest of us. His form didn’t let up for the season, finishing with an average of 18.0PPG and a career-high 37% 3PFG. He was back.
At the start of this season, he signed with the Detroit Pistons, so far proving that his comeback season in Minnesota wasn’t a fluke, he’s truly had a renaissance. Again, finding his niche as a 6th man, Rose has continued his scoring average of 18PPG and has played nearly every game for the Pistons, the healthiest he’s been in a long time. It looks like Rose has finally pushed beyond his injuries and is reminding us of just how talented he is. It’s been a joy to watch for every NBA fan and we all wish to see him on a contender in the near future.
The narrative around Carmelo Anthony persisted for so long: he was a ball-hog. He played no defence. He was hard to get along with. From Denver to Houston, these were the terms we’d associate with Melo. Securing his position among the greatest scorers in the game for the Denver Nuggets and then New York Knicks, Melo was considered one of the toughest players to guard in the entire league. But as the Knicks began to enter turmoil, so did Melo’s career. Slowly but surely, his scoring began to take a dip, as the Knicks kept failing to make the playoffs. Even with the talented draftee that was Kristaps Porzingis, Melo was unable to get it done. The assumption was that Melo could no longer lead a team to the top, and with a style around the league that was insistent on ball movement and spacing, isolation players like Melo were beginning to be considered obsolete. New York cut their ties with Melo, sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017, with the Thunder hoping that he, Russell Westbrook and Paul George would be a big three that could challenge the dynastical Golden State Warriors. They weren’t. Carmelo never quite gelled with anyone on his team, as his scoring averages and percentages took a nosedive. He was fast becoming far from the player he was once revered as. He was then traded in 2018 to the Rockets, but doubts crept over his ability to play with James Harden and under Mike D’Antoni. Those doubts proved true, as after just 10 games the Rockets sent him over to the Bulls, who waived him.
Melo spent the rest of the 2018-2019 season looking for a team, with no one taking him. Those old assumptions remained in people’s heads, with no team willing to take a risk on him. He worked out over the 2019 offseason, with the hope of getting a contract, but still to no avail. Melo admitted in a tough interview on ESPN that he’d changed as a player and person, using the experience as a way to grow, explaining that he was indeed willing to take a smaller role if it meant being able to play again. Shortly into the 2019-2020 season, the Portland Trail Blazers took that gamble, signing him to a one year contract. He finally suited up in the NBA for the first time in over a year. Like the players before him, Melo has made his renaissance for the team that took a risk. Melo has jumped himself back up to a respectable 16.1PPG, with his shooting percentages being at their best since his peak in New York. He’s also shown that he was willing to be a part of a team, happily playing as the third option behind Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum and aiding the Blazers in their resurgence for a playoff push. It seems those assumptions about Melo are now just misconceptions, with him having proven himself that he does still belong in the NBA. Whether or not he stays with the Blazers is irrelevant, because we are still getting Melo for years to come.
What does it all mean?
It’s simple, it means that the old guard are not write-offs. We’ve seen plenty of players defy their age and continue to produce performance after performance, even when they’d been deemed as expendable. We saw Dwyane Wade do it in his last year with Miami, Vince Carter still wows fans at 42, and now the three examples above are proving that players do not just lose their all-star abilities.
Now, we can just sit back and enjoy the show.