Give And Go: Scoping out the comeback trails of Rajon Rondo, Greg Oden and more
3. Despite a rough start and consistent injury troubles, the Grizzlies are just three games behind the eighth seed in the West with Marc Gasol back in tow. Where might Memphis end up by season’s end?
Ben Golliver: We shouldn’t expect the Grizzlies (19-19) to be thrilled about their lot in life, not after free-falling from a franchise-best season in 2012-13, but things could be significantly worse. Losing an All-Star like Gasol for nearly two months had the potential to be a death blow for Memphis’ playoff hopes in the loaded Western Conference, but the Grizzlies did well to tread water and keep themselves in the mix. A gold star is in order for Mike Conley, who is averaging a career-high 18.1 points and 6.5 assists. Among players currently on lottery-bound teams in the West, Conley is up there with Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, Kings center DeMarcus Cousins and Nuggets guard Ty Lawson for consideration for an All-Star reserve spot, especially if Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are unavailable because of injuries.
As it stands, Memphis looks like one of five teams — along with Dallas, Phoenix, Denver and Minnesota — competing for the final two playoff spots. As much as I want to believe the Suns can keep the magic going, their ride has gotten bumpier of late (5-5 over their last 10, including a recent three-game losing streak) and I expect that to continue until Eric Bledsoe returns. It goes without saying that Gasol — who posted an exceptional plus-7.5 net rating last season — is crucial to Memphis’ success on both ends. This season, the Grizzlies’ starting lineup is nearly six points per 100 possessions better with Gasol in the middle than with his replacement, Kosta Koufos. The starters were even more effective last year, particularly on the defensive end, where their rating was a spectacular 93.2. The same five players possessed a 100 defensive rating this season before Gasol’s injury.
While they might not achieve last year’s exceptional level of play, there are just too many talented pieces in that group — once Tony Allen is back — and too much experience and cohesion for that quintet to continue to post below-average defensive numbers. There’s real upward potential here. I think Memphis, with Gasol back, will ride an improved defense to at least ninth place, with Dallas and Minnesota presenting the stiffest challenges to securing one of the last two playoff seeds. Given their rough start to the season, I don’t think it’s going too far to call the Grizzlies the top sleeper in the West, and I would actually be a little surprised if they fall short of the playoffs (barring a major injury).
Rob Mahoney: I’m not exactly prepared to lock it in with conviction, but at this point I’m well on board with the Grizzlies as a playoff team. That they’re within arm’s reach of the postseason bubble is a remarkable achievement under the circumstances, and one attributable to Conley’s extended brilliance and a few savvy personnel moves, among other factors. From here Memphis still needs Gasol to regain his previous form, but the Grizz are close enough to the postseason cusp that it’s easy to see them — as winners of four straight and seven of their last 10 — rallying into playoff position.
Some credit for that opportunity goes to Dallas and Minnesota, both of which failed to create much of a buffer for themselves despite generally good health. I’m sure Memphis is plenty thankful, especially now that its fight for playoff ground has begun in earnest. That’s where Gasol comes in, though in truth the Grizzlies have been steadily improving for a spell. Over the last 10 games, only five teams have held opponents to fewer points per possession. Over the last five games, Memphis finally snuck under the one-point-allowed-per-possession threshold, inching closer to last season’s standard. If that kind of improved performance holds, the Grizzlies could be very well positioned to lunge into the playoff picture, potentially as high as the seventh seed.
Anything more than that would require a massive run and a corresponding dip from one of the West’s top six, which at the moment seems to be a bridge too far. But with better overall play, better active players and an equalizing schedule (the Grizzlies have played the second-toughest slate in the league), Memphis looks to be a promising pick among those teams on the playoff bubble.
4. Since nearing a .500 record toward the end of December, the Bobcats have gone into a tailspin by dropping nine of their last 11 games with a depleted wing rotation. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s return this week should help, but can MKG and the Bobcats solidify an up-for-grabs playoff spot in the horrid Eastern Conference?
Ben Golliver: Kidd-Gilchrist’s raw numbers underwhelm — 9.1 points, 5.4 rebounds — but his defensive impact is big time. His on-court defensive rating is an excellent 96.1 (compared to 102.6 when he’s off the court), which is just a teeny weeny bit better than that of his replacement, midseason signing Chris Douglas-Roberts, whose defensive rating is 104.8. That gap extends to Charlotte’s defense as a whole: The Bobcats enjoyed a 97.9 defensive rating before Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury in early December and posted a 104.1 defensive rating during his 19-game absence. I don’t expect that Kidd-Gilchrist’s return will magically vault Charlotte back among the league’s elite defenses, as Jeff Taylor was also lost to a season-ending injury in December, but there’s little doubt he will be very helpful.
As much as I would like to see the Bobcats make the playoffs — thereby giving Al Jefferson a shot at rewriting his reputation – both New York teams are (finally) making pushes and Cleveland has bolstered its chances with the addition of Luol Deng. Of particular concern is Charlotte’s lack of quality wins. Its best victory came against a Warriors team that was playing without Andre Iguodala, and only three of its 16 wins have come against teams that are currently in the playoffs. With eight games against current playoff teams between now and the All-Star break, the Bobcats will be hard-pressed to hold on to their standing (ninth in the East, a half game behind eighth-place Brooklyn) in the short term. If they can find a way to hang around, though, 10 of Charlotte’s final 11 games are against Eastern Conference teams with losing records now.
Rob Mahoney: As impressive as Kidd-Gilchrist’s tremendous abilities are as a defender and cutter, I’m skeptical of the Bobcats’ playoff chances because of the same bubble crowd that Ben described. It’s not that any of New York, Brooklyn or Cleveland is especially impressive, but that in total one of the three should stand a better chance than Charlotte. The Bobcats just haven’t met the burden of proof on offense — a supposed offseason improvement with Jefferson’s signing. Without a dramatic change in its offensive efficiency (or a rise in defensive execution to Bulls-like levels to compensate), Charlotte just doesn’t seem all that capable of sealing a potential playoff berth against desperate competition.
That’s true in part because the Bobcats have been sliding steadily since their competent start, buckling under the weight of a more competitive schedule. Ben’s point about that decisive final stretch is well-taken, though there are also plenty of playoff teams on Charlotte’s schedule just before that home stretch. In total, two-thirds of Bobcats opponents from here on out are currently slotted as postseason teams. That’s not exactly good news for a team that has played league-average defense and bottom-10 offense over its last 20 games, no matter how Kidd-Gilchrist might help. Their prospects change if Jefferson’s recent surge can translate to sustained team-wide offense, but for now MKG’s return doesn’t do enough to separate the Bobcats from the other teams clawing for the playoffs as a means of redeeming poor seasons.
5. Lakers point guard Steve Nash seems to be a few weeks away from making his comeback, with Kobe Bryant’s return a bit more distant. Somewhere along the way, Xavier Henry, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar are also due back. But even if healthy, what exactly do the Lakers have to play for this season?
Ben Golliver: Nothing besides Ping-Pong balls. Even if a genie (as opposed to a Jeanie) were able to magically give the Lakers their entire roster, fully healthy, effective immediately, I don’t see that group climbing out of a 7½-game hole in three months to make the playoffs. The defense is simply too terrible, the offensive chemistry between Bryant and the rotating cast of characters would be starting from scratch, there’s not enough athleticism at the point guard position, and Pau Gasol is still a shell of his former self. Many of these players — especially Bryant, Blake and Farmar — would help, but not enough to matter when it comes to the postseason.
The only other meaningful stories at work over the next few months are whether Bryant passes Michael Jordan for third on the NBA’s scoring list and whether Gasol will finally be traded.
Rob Mahoney: L.A. will have time to kill over the last few months of the season with precious little to accomplish — one can only imagine what the idle months might bring. Bryant’s gradual return to action is obviously near the top of the Lakers’ priorities, though balancing healthy caution with his desire to play as the team struggles could prove difficult. Taking stock of Nash’s game would be nice as well because the $9.7 million he’s owed next season demands that he be in the team’s plans. It’s reached the point where Nash can’t be counted on much to be either active or particularly effective, but knowing what to expect going into next season can only help.
It also seems increasingly odd that Gasol remains a Laker, so I suppose there’s that left to work out. Gasol does some, inconsistent good for a bad team while throwing the Lakers’ payroll over the luxury-tax line. Even a move for cap savings and meager assets might be worth L.A.’s while, if largely as a means of staving off the repeater tax. That’s especially true if Gasol’s Bird rights aren’t considered an asset on their own for the Lakers. This is a franchise that structured Bryant’s contract extension around a window to sign a max player this summer. When establishing those kinds of stakes — and eyeing a roster reboot — is keeping Gasol’s rights on the books really all that useful a contingency?