After putting together the modified Top-50 list of players from ’08-09, I had about 50 leftovers who just missed the cut. And from that, there could’ve been a whole sub-category titled “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”
KEVIN GARNETT — Besides ending Boston’s chances of a championship repeat in ’09, Garnett’s knee injury may have been the match that sparked an entire Eastern Conference power makeover. If KG isn’t sidelined for the playoffs, the Celtics probably would’ve beaten Orlando. So without that NBA Finals appearance on his resume, maybe Hedo Turkoglu doesn’t become unaffordable to the Magic, nixing the Vince Carter trade. And because the Cavs don’t get destroyed by Dwight Howard in the ECF, maybe they don’t feel the need to trade for Shaq.
Hypotheticals aside, this much is a fact about KG: If you thought he was an ornery bastard on the court last season, he’ll be even worse this time around. “When you get a taste of something, it’s even more frustrating when stuff doesn’t happen for you that you know you can get,” Kevin told me going into last season for his Dime #45 cover story. He knows Boston could’ve won the whole thing with him; part of him likely feels like he let everybody down. And since he spends a lot of his offseason in L.A., KG’s been witnessing the Lakers get the royal treatment all summer long. He’ll be on a mission to kill that noise.
LUIS SCOLA — If the Rockets stand a chance at getting back to the playoffs, Scola has to play big. The center situation is shaky at best, and Rick Adelman wants to run with this Yao-less group, meaning Scola (12.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) will see a lot of time at the five in a small lineup. After Yao went down in the Lakers/Rockets series, Scola averaged 11.2 rebounds the rest of the way, but he struggled with his shot, hitting just 44% from the field, almost 10 percentage points below his regular season clip. Putting it all together consistently will be the key, but Scola (who’s been killing it at the FIBA Americas tournament for a depleted Argentina team) can crank out a 17-and-10 kind of year and keep the Rockets dangerous.
AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE — Just when the Suns went back to the Fast and the Furious style and Ama’re was putting together a monster second half, an eye injury took him out. Back in the gym with goggles never leaving his face again, the new James Worthy is unquestionably Phoenix’s go-to guy now that Shaq is gone.
ELTON BRAND — As much as some ultra-cynical Philly fans think their team is better without Brand, they’re just wrong. If it didn’t become crystal clear in the first-round loss to Orlando, the Sixers still need a dependable low-post scorer and rebounder, and another quality post defender to play alongside Sam Dalembert. That’s Brand. If he stays healthy (and I think he will), he gives the offense more versatility and takes some pressure off point guards Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday when they can just dump it into the 20/10 guy.
ED DAVIS — He could’ve left North Carolina after his freshman year and become the 2009 Marvin Williams, getting drafted ahead of his Tar Heels teammates despite being a 6th/7th man in college. Instead, Davis decided to come back and take over the PF spot left by Tyler Hansbrough, where he can showcase the skills that will make him a Lottery pick whenever he goes pro. The 6-10 lefty didn’t put up big numbers last year (6.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 18 mpg) for UNC’s title team, but will grow into the star on a young freshman-heavy squad.
(Editor’s note: Because they made last year’s Top-10 list, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Troy Murphy, Tim Duncan, Tyler Hansbrough, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin ARE NOT eligible for this list.)