It’s not often that a team can get an All-Star level talent out of nowhere, but a few teams this month might be doing just that.
In the midst of another season in which COVID-19 has impacted rosters on a daily basis, teams need as much talent as possible. Here are four returning former All-Stars who their respective teams hope will solidify playoff positioning and improve NBA odds.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
Irving somewhat unwittingly became the face of the anti-vaccine movement when he publicly shared his position that he would not get vaccinated.
His personal beliefs were further complicated because of the city he plays in. New York City has a vaccine mandate for all people entering crowded events in arenas, so Irving not getting the vaccine would mean he wouldn’t be eligible to play in home games in the city.
Rather than have a part-time player, the Nets decided to just have Irving remain separate from the team for all games. That was before the Nets had nine players, including stars Kevin Durant and James Harden, enter the COVID-19 health and safety protocols this week.
The team announced Irving would rejoin the team and play in road games. Then Irving himself promptly was placed in the league’s protocols, delaying his season debut by 10 days or more. Still, the Nets felt having Irving’s talents even part of the time would fill a need for their depleted roster.
“I’m excited to have Kyrie back, he’s an incredible player,” coach Steve Nash told reporters. “No matter what capacity we’ll incorporate him in, it’s a positive for our group.”
Beyond the COVID-19 issues, the Nets have also had other problems Irving can help solve. Joe Harris is out until later in the season after injuring his ankle. Harden has spent much of the season in a shooting slump and his production has fallen off. Durant has played at an MVP-level, but Nash has expressed growing concern about the number of minutes he’s had to play because of his injury history.
Irving, even on a part-time basis, should give the team an infusion of offense and take some pressure off of Durant and Harden down the stretch and into the playoffs. There’s also a chance that, should the Omicron wave subside by the spring, that some of the league’s restrictions could loosen, allowing Irving to play more later in the season.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Perhaps no recent NBA return has been more anticipated than Thompson’s.
Thompson has missed two full seasons after tearing his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals and then tearing his Achilles tendon in training camp last season.
Without Thompson, the Warriors have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons. This season, though, the team looks like its old dominant self. Golden State has the best record in the NBA, Steph Curry is an MVP candidate, Draymond Green is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the team has done a fantastic job of building out a strong rotation that includes Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II, and Otto Porter Jr all playing important roles. Rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga have also received some minutes and second-year big man James Wiseman is also expected to return to the lineup and contribute soon.
Golden State will add Thompson, a former All-Star, one of the greatest shooters of all-time, and an exceptional defensive player before his injury, to that already high-performing lineup soon. Thompson completed a rehab assignment with the team’s G League affiliate and the team is working on a return-date announcement that is expected any time.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
After back-to-back All-Star appearances for the Boston Celtics in 2016 and 2017, Thomas’ career was derailed by severe injuries. Thomas has played in just 120 games for five different teams in the last five seasons.
Thomas appeared in three games for New Orleans last season, but averaged just 8 points per game and shot below 40 percent, so the end of his solid career appeared to be near.
Instead, though, Thomas continued to stay in shape and, after scoring 42 points in a G League game in December, the Lakers quickly added him to the roster. In his debut this season, he scored 19 points in 22 minutes for a Lakers team in immense need of additional scoring and playmaking at the moment.
Thomas doesn’t address the team’s biggest need, which is perimeter defense, but if he can continue to excel at scoring and creating shots for himself and others, he’ll carve out an important role on the team for the rest of the season.
DeMarcus Cousins, Milwaukee Bucks
Like Thomas, Cousins has had his career severely impacted by a string of catastrophic injuries. He’s also on his fifth team in his last five seasons and looked to be near the end of the line as a member of the Clippers last season.
Cousins was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that has been hard-hit by teams in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, in late November. The Bucks have also been dealing with an injury to center Brook Lopez all season, so Cousins was brought in to add another big body to the roster.
In his first eight games with team, he played 18 or fewer minutes in each game. But thrust into a bigger role with most of the team’s rotation out in the health and safety protocols on December 18, Cousins had 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 steals in a loss to Cleveland.
Cousins has lost a lot of his quickness, which hurts him defensively, but if he can provide a bit of scoring and rebounding, he could find a role with the Bucks for the rest of the season.