To say the events of the past three or so weeks were irregular would be the understatement of the year. And during an already tragic year for the NBA, the league made the tough choice to postpone the season, prior to government intervention, on Wednesday, Mar. 11.
In the two-plus weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns, players have continued to entertain the league’s fans in creative and interactive ways. But watching our favorites play Call of Duty is no substitute for NBA action. Considering the remainder of the 2019-20 season isn’t a given at this point, Basketball Insiders has instead shifted its focus on the next guaranteed league-wide event – free agency.
Ben Nadeau covered the best free agents from the Northwest Division on Tuesday, while Spencer Davies identified the best free agents available from the Central Division yesterday. Next, let’s shift our focus to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division’s class is lacking true star power. There is no Anthony Davis, Mike Conley or Paul Milsap, either – and most of the established talent in the Atlantic is locked up well beyond 2020. But what the division lacks in established free agents, it makes up for in promise. A number of the following players are younger guys who have yet to fulfill their full potential and there might even be a few future All-Stars listed below.
So, for the next five or so minutes, forget about everything going on outside and dive into a rundown of the best free agents the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Most Likely To Be Priced Out Of His Current Team
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $9,346,153
Without question, VanVleet will be the most sought-after free agent from the Atlantic Division this offseason, whenever that is.
VanVleet turned 26 years old last month and was originally signed by the Raptors after going undrafted in 2016. He’s accumulated approximately $20 million in career earnings. While that’s better than more than 99% of us, his next contract will probably feature two commas and eight zeroes – that’s the kind of money most of us can’t fathom. And while there should be at least one more big payday for VanVleet after this one, the uncertainty of recent events might convince himself to secure his family sooner rather than later.
All indications point to VanVleet’s satisfaction with Toronto, too. He had this to say about his impending free agency last October in an interview on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid: “But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place,” the fourth-year guard said. “This organization knows how I feel about this place. So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.”
But in light of the volatility in global financial markets, does Toronto still believe that it can successfully build a contender around VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, knowing that it might be impossible to add more top-tier talent?
VanVleet is arguably the best point guard prospect in the 2020 class. While some teams will feel like paying more than $25 million per season for VanVleet is overkill given his height and limited athletic ability – others will see his season-to-season development, scrappiness and clutch play as more than worth it.
Most Likely To Look Elsewhere Due To Coaching Change
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets – Unrestricted – $7,666,667
Harris’s situation is similar to VanVleet’s. Harris was the 33rd overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by way of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite being in the league for two more years than VanVleet, they’ve made approximately the same total amount in career earnings.
Harris’ star has also never been brighter, except for maybe last season. He posted career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.3) and minutes per game (30.9) in 2019-20. He also shot a more-than-respectable 41.2 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game this season, down from a ridiculous 47.4 percent in 2018-19. And he did all this inside the flow of the offense.
So why would the Nets let Harris leave, you ask? They won’t, if it is up to them. Harris is an unrestricted free agent, so where he plays next year and beyond is entirely up to him.
Why, then, might Harris explore leaving the Nets, a team with whom he would almost certainly compete for a championship next season? He probably wouldn’t have – until Mar. 7, when the Nets mutually parted ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was the Nets coach for Harris’ entire tenure with the team, while the latter was a huge supporter of the former.
Additionally, there are the inevitable disruptions that playing alongside megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will bring – like decreased role and increased media scrutiny. Still, Brooklyn gave him a home after he was unceremoniously dumped in the G League — so, for now, only time will tell.
Most Likely To Prefer A Fresh Start
Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks — Restricted — $3.551,100
Judging by Trier’s body language and decreased availability in the Knicks’ locker room in 2019-20, it’s safe to assume that he was less-than-pleased in New York this season.
He entered the NBA last season as an accomplished scorer whose draft stock took a hit after testing positive for Ostarine, a performance-enhancing drug. And despite inconsistent playing time, Trier’s rookie campaign reinforced the idea that he was more prepared to score at the professional level than scouts and executives thought. He averaged 10.9 points over 22.8 minutes per game during his rookie campaign and most people around the team felt he would develop into a dependable sixth man capable of providing off-the-bench punch.
But Trier’s role changed this year and he has played in 24 of the Knicks’ 66 games and posted just 6.5 points in 12.1 minutes per game.
Trier is already 24, older than most sophomores. But he’s also played for the Knicks, whose rotations have impeded the progress of a number of other younger players in the recent past (see: Frank Ntilikina). It would be shocking if new team president Leon Rose prioritizes a long-term deal for a player that’s been out of the rotation all season when the Knicks have so many other holes to fill.
But fear not, Iso-Zo fans, someone will take a chance on Trier. And he’ll look significantly better on a playoff roster, capitalizing on the spacing that talent affords.
Most Likely To Seek One Last Payday
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,604
The Raptors are a tough team to peg. In spite of many proposing a rebuild in the days post-Kawhi Leonard, Toronto played out 2019-20 with their roster as is. As of the most recent day of the season, the Raptors were 46-18 – good for the third-best record in the entire league.
But like most great minds, team president Masai Ujiri is probably motivated by succeeding at seemingly impossible challenges – like a full-on rebuild. And this might be his best shot. The Raptors have a number of players entering unrestricted free agency, including headliners like Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.
While the VanVleet situation is probably out of the team’s control, Ibaka and Gasol are realistic returnees – so long as it’s desired by the Raptors.
Gasol fits the profile of someone that can be brought back on an inexpensive deal. He’s already 35 and would dictate far less on the open market than Ibaka. On the other hand, Ibaka is somehow only 30 and played incredibly well in 2019-20, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds over 27.5 minutes per game.
While his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was, he’s still more than serviceable and makes up for any regression with three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and versatility.
With tough financial decisions ahead, the Raptors will probably let Ibaka walk without making too strong of a recruiting pitch. But what team offers him the kind of money that lures him out of Canada is anyone’s guess.
Most Likely To Leave Early To Cash In On A Weak Class
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690
This one is probably a stretch. Elfrid Payton is more likely to be cut loose by New York, as is Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Further, Brad Wanamaker is more likely to leave Boston than Hayward. But it’s infinitely more fun to consider the possibility of Hayward fleeing Beantown, isn’t it?
This concept is complicated by two key points: Hayward won’t command anywhere near the $34 million he’ll walk away from next season, while he’s probably never been happier with a coaching staff considering coach Brad Stevens was also his college leader at Butler.
But there’s a key incentive driving this hypothetical, too – if Hayward opts out, he can guarantee himself a multi-year contract worth more in 2020 than he’ll be able to negotiate in the competitive class of 2021. And in the eternal words of DJ Quick, if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.
It may even be the right time for Hayward to seek a new contract, too. He’s scoring 17 or more points per game for the first time since 2016-17. Better, he’s proven to be healthy, score in bunches and make players for those around him. The long-time Jazz-standout is now averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.4 minutes per game – all as he shoots 39.2 percent on three-pointers and slightly above 50 percent from the field.
And if Boston is unwilling to spend because it understands future needs like Jayson Tatum must be met, the situation between Hayward and the Celtics can become contentious.
Most Likely To Split For A More Defined Role
Glen Robinson III, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted – $1,882,867
Dust-ups happen and teams and players do their best to publicly make nice afterward for the greater good. Basketball Insiders’ own Spencer Davies broke the news in February that Robinson III was confused with his role in Philadelphia.
The 76ers are well-stocked at the wing position and, as a 26-year-old journeyman, Robinson III certainly knows that he’ll only get so many opportunities to cash out in the NBA. The Athletic recently reported that Robinson III is not ruling out a return to the Warriors despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins, and he’ll obviously explore other situations, too. Already though, his time in Philadelphia looks like a thing of the past.
Robinson III finally broke double-figures in scoring this season at 11.8 per game. He also set career highs in assists (1.6 per game) and rebounds (4.3), while hitting a career-best 48.6 percent from the field. Wherever he signs, Robinson III will be a relatively-inexpensive and serviceable bench player who could develop into a regular part of a rotation.
Most Likely To Chase The Biggest Opportunity
Alec Burks, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted — $2,320,044
Burks is the most established of the remaining free agents on this list. He averaged 10.7 points per game this season — but he’s proven he can do more, like the year he put up 16.1 over 48 games with Golden State in 2019-20. Burks is an inconsistent defender, but he’s shown flashes of competency on that side as of late. Still, what he adds offensively typically outweighs his defensive limitations.
Burks has been set back by a series of injuries and he’s already 28 years old, so it’s unlikely he’ll expand past much more than he’s done thus far. But that’s more than enough for a number of contending teams in need of scoring off the bench.
He can always fall back on Philadelphia given their need for depth, but his scoring punch should enable a deal beyond the likes of that franchise can afford. If he’s stuck between offers, Burks will probably go with whichever team offers him the biggest role.
Maurice Harkless, New York Knicks — Unrestricted — $11,011,236
The eight-year NBA veteran has averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1 steal per game throughout his entire career. Beyond that, Harkless’ per-36 numbers are surprisingly consistent year-to-year, which, long story short, means that you know what you’re getting in the established wing.
But that’s not a bad thing as Harkless is an above-average defender. He’s long and versatile, possessing the ability to switch in most pick-and-roll scenarios. Further, Harkless doesn’t require touches, but he can score when needed.
The February trade that landed Harkless in New York probably threw a wrench in his already up-in-the-air plans. He didn’t spend enough time with the Knicks to gauge the rotations, while it’s assumed that the coaching and overall roster will undergo a major revamp this offseason regardless. In that case, Harkless will probably leave New York and he’ll have a number of suitors.
The Atlantic Division’s free agents might lack star power, but there are some big-time role players available. Some will walk with big money, whereas others will be forced to settle for less than they’d hoped — but that’s what free agency is all about right, isn’t it?
Regardless of who gets what, we can all agree that the world is a better place when basketball is being played. Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues our free agent series tomorrow.
The X-Factors: Dallas
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.
The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked the news.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.
But back to the NBA’s return…
The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.
We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.
The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup. But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).
But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset? Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.
First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.
While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.
But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.
Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.
“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”
And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.
“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”
Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.
Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.
And that’s all anyone can ask for.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.