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NBA Daily: Welcomed Returns Loom Large in January

Injuries are a part of the game and this season has been no exception. Chad Smith looks at four teams who will get a nice boost with key players who are expected to return the floor this month.

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With the February 6 trade deadline less than a month away, teams around the league are gauging their rosters and their positioning to figure out which direction they need to go. Some teams are solidly in the playoffs. Some are right on the bubble and others are a sinking ship.

Kyrie Irving finally returned to action this week after missing the last 26 games for the Brooklyn Nets. They had been up and down without him, but his presence was felt during his magnificent return. Being able to solidify a position of strength is important, and the Nets can attest to that even after Spencer Dinwiddie elevated his game. There are four other guys with looming returns this month who could ultimately shape the landscape of the playoff race.

Two of these players have already played in games this season. One is set to make his season debut after suffering a brutal injury last year. One of them is a young phenom ready to take the floor for the first time in his NBA career.

Getting these players back on the court will obviously give their respective teams a boost heading into the second half of the season. Some will jump right in but others will need time to get acclimated to new teammates and/or simply getting back into game shape. Regardless, these four players will have a big impact on their team’s success in the coming weeks.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

The biggest mid-season addition to any team this year comes in Indiana with Victor Oladipo. The Pacers will finally have their All-Star guard back on the floor for their January 29 game against the Chicago Bulls. That will be just over one full calendar year from when he suffered a devastating quad injury.

Indiana has had an outstanding season to date, considering the overhaul of its roster in addition to the absence of its franchise player. They have a 25-15 record entering tonight’s matchup in Minnesota and are in position for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Getting their dynamic weapon back will be a great boost, but integrating him may take time.

Expect the Pacers to ease Oladipo back into things. The process of getting him back to elite form has many complications, but the end result is what really matters. The ideal scenario for Indiana would be for Oladipo to return to his old self after the All-Star break as playoff positioning heats up. The Pacers are incredibly deep, and their trio of Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis provides a promising future, should they stay healthy.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

The player generating the most buzz in this group resides in New Orleans. The fan base has been salivating at the opportunity to see their shiny new franchise player, Zion Williamson, and that moment is just days away. Everyone has been itching to see what Zion can do with the kind of talent that David Griffin has surrounded him with. Having guys like Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram and J.J. Redick shows that they intend to win games now.

Heading into tonight’s slate of action, the Pelicans are currently just 3.5 games out of the playoffs. Looking at how their season began and taking into consideration the fact that Zion hasn’t even played a game yet, it shows the type of makeup this team has. New Orleans could easily sell off parts and pieces as they build for the future, but that is not how they are approaching things.

There is still an unknown factor that plays into all of this, but should Zion stay healthy, this franchise is sitting in a great position. Adding a generational talent like Zion would lift the ceiling for any team. With Holiday’s sustained impact and Ingram’s breakout season, the Pelicans have an opportunity to really open some eyes in the second half of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

The playoffs may be out of the question right now, but if things continue going south and they are unable to recover, the Timberwolves might be feeling pressure to do something with their franchise superstar. Towns has missed 14 consecutive games and the team has been shaky (at best) without him. The good news is he will finally return to the floor tonight.

Andrew Wiggins started off the season on a tear but has truly plateaued over the last month. He did miss four games due to an illness, but the fact is he has suffered a major drop off as of late. Minnesota’s lineups are constantly changing and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of team chemistry at the moment. The Timberwolves are 15-24 (5th in the division) with a pair of games against the Pacers coming up.

Towns only missed a grand total of five games over the course of his first four seasons. His last game was December 18 as his left knee has been an issue. He will make his return tonight against Indiana, but he and the Wolves will be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the season as they fight to make a run for the playoffs.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

Perhaps the most intriguing player in this group is veteran guard Mike Conley. Conley was expected to put the Jazz over the top after they acquired him last summer. He was supposed to be the difference-maker that would provide the experience and playmaking on offense that Utah has so sorely lacked over the years. Unexpectedly, Jordan Clarkson has been more of a spark to Utah’s offense than Conley.

Utah underwhelmed until Conley went down with a hamstring injury. Joe Ingles was struggling until he joined the starting lineup. Since then he has flourished, shooting 51 percent from three-point range. He has been a big part of Utah’s red hot run. Utah has won 15 of its last 16 games and its only loss was a three-point contest in Miami.

The Jazz have had the top-ranked offense during this stretch, and having Donovan Mitchell running the point along with Ingles has been a big reason why. Utah’s defense continues to be spectacular with Rudy Gobert anchoring the paint and protecting the rim. The real key here is the pairing of Rudy and Conley.

Conley has spent essentially his entire career playing with pick-and-pop bigs like Marc Gasol and Jaren Jackson Jr. Obviously Gobert does not have that skillset in his game, which complicates that pick-and-roll pairing. Figuring out how to use Conley once he returns will be vital to Utah’s success. Fortunately for Utah, Quin Snyder is more than capable for figuring out how to solve that puzzle.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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