The first week of NBA basketball is all about comparing our preseason expectations to what’s happening on the court. It’s an exciting time, especially after seeing some electric scoring performances, as we look at teams with fresh eyes and analyze their potential.

For certain teams, players returning from long-term injury make expectations a lot more interesting. All over the league, we see guys with something to prove after missing significant portions of the 2015-16 season. The question then becomes, which of these returning players have the biggest impact on their team’s success? Who are the injury-prone players that, if they were to miss action again, would seriously hamper the upside of their team?

These three players fall gamely into that category. They’re not the only stars on their respective teams, like an Anthony Davis or a Paul George, but their influence is relied on heavily; without them, a free fall isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Blake Griffin

What’s he coming back from?

Griffin missed 47 regular season games with a thigh tendon injury and a broken hand (he punched his equipment manager, which was sub-ideal). He also re-aggravated a quad injury after just four playoff games. That, coupled with a Chris Paul injury, resulted in them getting bounced in the first round by the Blazers.

How does he impact his team?

Though Chris Paul is the engine of the Clippers, there’s no question Blake Griffin is their MVP candidate. Unfortunately for LA, he’s experienced two injury-shortened seasons now.

The best reference for his potential is the 2013-14 season, when he finished third in the MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James, carrying his team with 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists at just 24. His physical gifts were on display that year, with the ability to dunk augmented with a great face-up game. He also deftly found the ability to maneuver with DeAndre Jordan, giving himself space in the offense.

His shot chart from that year shows his phenomenal finishing ability (64.2% at the rim), but also a limited range of effective areas.

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Griffin is now 27, supposedly entering the physical and mental prime of NBA players. Living up to that promise, he’s added a wicked element to his game: the three-point shot. He’s smoothed out his release beautifully. Look at a comparison between an attempt in 2013 and one from just last week.

While he’s just 1-for-4 through two games, the form suggests a confidence with the shot, and Griffin’s ability to knock down the three raises his potential, while also heightening the Clippers’ ceiling immensely. Projected by many to be the biggest threat to the Warriors super-team, Griffin’s long-range game covers up for the Clippers’ major weakness: shooting at the forward positions. Luc Mbah a Moute (33% on threes last year), Wesley Johnson (33%), Paul Pierce (31%, oof), and Austin Rivers (34%) ain’t cutting it.

By stepping out and playing a smaller man’s game, Griffin also becomes a Draymond Green-type, able to cover centre minutes when other teams go small (a.k.a. The Death Lineup). Griffin typically doesn’t play a lot of minutes without Jordan next to him, but it’s a workable solution if Blake expands his range.

With yet another shallow bench, Los Angeles essentially needs Griffin to unlock that world-beater potential. Anything less than a healthy campaign, and they could really struggle.

Marc Gasol

What’s he coming back from?

Gasol missed 29 games and the entire playoff schedule with a fracture in his right foot. A frightening injury for any big man, Gasol has looked spry at the start of this season, averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 boards in three games.

How does he impact his team?

While Gasol has multiple ways to score, my favourite asset he brings to the Grizzlies is an ability to pass from the high post. On a nightly basis, he’s able to find cutters in the way of old-school bigs, knowing exactly when his guards are moving and where to set them up.

Gasol averaged 3.8 assists last season, the best among NBA centres. This is massive for the Grizzlies, who aren’t outrunning anyone — they were the third-slowest team in the league last year (only Toronto and Utah had a lower pace). When you’re not getting transition points, you need the ball to move freely in the half-court offense. Gasol provides that, in nifty ways like the video above.

Without him, Memphis is relying solely on guard penetration by Mike Conley to set up open shots. With him, you get a high post triple threat, who can shoot, pass and rebound effectively to open up your offense.

Also, lest we forget, Marc Gasol was Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13, and his 102.9 defensive rating last season (the number of points allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor) was the best out of Grizzlies playing 30 minutes or more per game.

Memphis played 28 different guys last year, a remarkable stat for a team that made the playoffs. With Mike Conley and a wealth of switchy forwards, this team has the ability to win enough games to host a playoff series. Yet, an aging Zach Randolph signalling the end of the odd couple era means there’s even more pressure on Gasol to stay healthy and lead his team.


DeMarre Carroll

What’s he coming back from?

Carroll missed 56 regular season games last season with various ailments, most notably plantar fasciitis and a knee injury. He played through other ailments in 20 playoff games, but his performance fell precipitously.

How does he impact his team?

The Raptors depend on DeMarre Carroll to be a thankless warrior. The team’s offense goes through the backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two players who prefer going downhill to the rim. The best small forward to help those players? Someone who shoots threes, doesn’t demand usage, and can play defense against the opponent’s best wing.

Carroll, in theory, fits that description to a tee. It’s what made him successful in a 60-win campaign with Atlanta in 2014-15, and why the Raptors wasted no time signing him to a 4-year, $60 million contract.

Since then, though, Carroll has only been healthy for brief spurts, most of it coming in October and November of last season. This year, he’s come in close to 100% (though still not quite there), and has been more impactful as a result.

Carroll’s reputation begins on the defensive end. While he’s still too slight to guard a behemoth like LeBron James one-on-one (something we witnessed in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals), he’s long enough to challenge others. Even while recovering from injury, he was a major annoyance for Paul George in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

On offense, Carroll has looked to expand his driving game with Toronto, but serves the team best when he’s consistently making his three-point looks. His percentage dropped off from 40.3% to 32.9% from Atlanta to the Raptors, though, and with some health, they’ll need him to get that back up.

The reason Carroll is mentioned in the same breath as Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin, truthfully, is because the Raptors have very little behind him. As the team with the best chance of toppling Cleveland in the East, Toronto can’t be banking on inconsistent Terrence Ross and undersized Norman Powell to be anchoring their perimeter defense come playoff time. They want someone with Carroll’s experience — to bring what he has the potential to, and to take pressure off of Lowry and DeRozan.