Give And Go: Scoping out the comeback trails of Rajon Rondo, Greg Oden and more
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: A look at five teams that have gotten, or will soon get, key players back in the fold after injuries. How will the returning players shape the balance of their teams’ seasons? (All stats and records are through Jan. 15.)
1. Rajon Rondo will return to the Celtics on Friday, marking almost a full year since the All-Star point guard last played in an NBA game. Where does his comeback leave Boston?
Ben Golliver: Rondo will surely receive a hero’s welcome, what with Boston mired in a 2-12 skid, but I’m expecting something less than a hero’s impact. As with any player coming back from an ACL injury, short-term expectations should be kept in line. If he is able to get his numbers back to his pre-injury output by early next season, that should be considered a win. It would be thrilling if the “take over the game, put up a triple-double, play like an MVP candidate” Rondo we saw during the 2012 playoffs appears between now and April, but more likely he’ll be shaking off cobwebs and getting his timing back, much like Bulls guard Derrick Rose earlier this season.
Perhaps the bigger issue is that Rondo’s return comes shortly after two cost-cutting moves that sent out Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford. Boston is therefore left juggling a new-look backcourt rotation that now includes Rondo and newcomer Jerryd Bayless, and it’s certainly possible that Celtics president Danny Ainge will continue to spin roster pieces between now and the trade deadline. Rondo was at his best when surrounded by the steadiest of players — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen — and he approaches this comeback with fresh faces on all sides and the possibility that some of those guys will be dealt at a moment’s notice.
This was going to be a rebuilding season one way or another for the Celtics. Rondo’s return offers, more than anything else, the chance to see how well he pairs with Avery Bradley in a potential backcourt of the future. Bradley, known best for his ball-hawking defense, has made progress as both a scorer and an outside shooter this season, especially from the corners (41 percent from the left corner, 40 percent from the right corner) and in spot-up situations (49 percent overall, 45 percent from deep). He figures to be the prime beneficiary of Rondo’s excellent set-up skills among Boston’s wings.
Another two-man interplay to watch is that between Rondo and 2012 first-round pick Jared Sullinger, who has struggled to finish around the basket this season and has taken to firing jumpers from mid-range and beyond. Rondo’s pick-and-roll experience and understanding of spacing should make life easier for Sullinger, whose numbers have suffered without a natural distributor on Boston’s roster this season.
Past that, it’s hard to know what to expect. Boston hasn’t posted elite offensive numbers since 2009, even with Hall of Famers occupying seemingly every position, and I’m not sure Rondo’s return will lead Boston to jump up the offensive efficiency charts from its current No. 24 ranking. There’s only so much anyone can do with the talent that’s on hand.
Similarly, I don’t see the 14-26 Celtics, who are three games out of the playoffs in the East, cracking the conference’s top eight by season’s end. Rondo’s return doesn’t address their undersized front line, struggles on the defensive glass or 33.5 percent three-point shooting (27th in the league). Nevertheless, the four-time All-Star does inject some badly needed excitement, which counts for a lot considering the current state of the Celtics.
Rob Mahoney: That last point Ben made — that Boston hasn’t been an elite offensive team since 2009 — provides the most interesting backdrop for Rondo’s return. His skills as a playmaker and ability to get by his defender are obvious. Rondo has scorched even high-level defenses with his shot creation, particularly when he remembers that attacking the basket with the intent to score is even a possibility. But he remains one of the most well-respected point guards in the league despite rarely bringing his team to respectable offensive marks, even when flanked by capable role players and a few Hall of Famers.
More than anything, though, this season and beyond offer a chance to see Rondo in a different context. His reluctance to assert himself as a scorer and the degree to which he can influence games as a passer and defender make him a rare talent, one so odd that it begs to be tested in a variety of different circumstances. We know how Rondo plays off Garnett, Pierce, Allen and other Celtics mainstays. But now we’ll get an opportunity to see how the dynamic shifts when he’s clearly in charge of all Boston does on the court, and in a position where he’s very much needed as a scorer. The help will be more marginal, the playbook has changed completely and opposing defenses will focus on him above all else. What can Rondo — once he works his way into better, healthier form — accomplish under those circumstances?
The answer to that question won’t act as the be-all, end-all of Boston’s season, but it widens the experimental set for a player whose talents are still a bit difficult to place.
2. Greg Oden played in his first regular-season game in more than 1,500 days on Wednesday, finishing with six points and two rebounds in eight minutes. Was this the first step toward a difference-making presence during the playoffs?
Ben Golliver: I harbor no ill will toward Oden, but I honestly never thought he would make it this far, even when “this far” equals a few minutes in a mid-January game when his team is surprisingly trailing by 20 points in the first half. Before we even begin to think about the upcoming playoffs, we must first salute Oden for the work he’s put in over the last four years. There were peaks and valleys, things looked touch-and-go on multiple occasions, and he even admitted that he would consider life as a gym teacher if he couldn’t continue his NBA career. I’m sure I speak for the entire world when I say I’d much rather see Oden dunking against the Wizards than officiating dodgeball at recess.
The depleted nature of the Eastern Conference favors the Heat generally, of course, but it also favors Oden in particular. A worst-case scenario entering the season would have involved Miami facing, say, the Bulls or Nets (Joakim Noah or Brook Lopez), the Pacers (Roy Hibbert) and the Spurs (Tim Duncan) to claim its third consecutive title. Instead, the Heat can yawn their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and Oden really only needs to hold up for bench minutes in a maximum of 14 games over the course of a month. The possibility of an Andrew Bynum signing could make Oden’s life even easier. Maximum skepticism has been the most prudent approach throughout Oden’s career, but the former No. 1 pick really couldn’t ask for a better start to the season when it comes to his own play and the external factors surrounding Miami’s title chase.
Rob Mahoney: It’s impossible to know what April might hold for Oden, if only because we don’t yet know what tomorrow brings. Everything we’ve seen to date suggests that the Heat will take things as slow with Oden as is necessary, making it challenging to know how Miami will manage its rehabilitative project from here. Wednesday’s appearance could have been the formal casting off of the bubble wrap — a signifier that, while cautious, the Heat intend to work Oden back into the rotation as the situation allows. It could also very well have been a mere trial — a chance for Oden to give the game a go to see how his knees respond.
Either way, there’s no question that Miami’s depth and standing work to Oden’s benefit, as at this point he’s much better suited to be an accessory than a load-bearing column. If there is any path toward him making a difference in the postseason, it had to begin as Wednesday did — with Oden logging controlled, regular season minutes against an unspectacular opponent in a game with a wide margin. I don’t think many expected that collision of factors to come with the Wizards running up a 30-point lead in the first half on Wednesday, but the state of the game made viable the opportunity Oden has worked so hard to create. It was awesome to see, but any expectation should follow the “one game at a time” mantra Oden established for himself heading into the season (via Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report):
“Marking success for me is walking onto a court and just walking off healthy,” Oden said at the time. “No matter if it is one minute or two minutes. My dream is to be able to play basketball, and if I can go out there and do it, run up and down, and come off the court again healthy, that’s goal one. Goal two is going into my second game and walking on and walking off.”
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?