In-Season Upgrades for the Playoff Push
With the annual trade deadline drifting further and further away in the rear-view mirror, we’re now entering the dog days of the NBA season. Lottery-bound teams are essentially resigned to their respective fates, while squads in the middle of the pack are jockeying for position.
For some teams, the biggest additions to their rosters from here on out won’t be because of flashy moves made at the deadline, but rather being strengthened by the return of valuable members to the nightly rotation.
There are four guys to keep an eye on as we head down the stretch. Their return to form will go a long way in aiding their franchise’s late season playoff pushes.
DeMarre Carroll, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors made waves last summer by prying Carroll away from the Atlanta Hawks where he had developed into one of the league’s better wingmen. But Carroll has played just 23 games in his first season with the Raptors due to a troublesome right knee. The veteran forward still doesn’t have a timetable set for a return to action, but the franchise remains confident he will be back in uniform before the end of the season.
The Raptors were quiet during the trade deadline festivities, but general manager Masai Ujiri has implied that Carroll’s eventual return will qualify as a de facto in-season upgrade.
Carroll was averaging 11.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals before undergoing surgery. The Raptors currently hold the second spot in the Eastern Conference and are just three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot. The eventual return of Carroll will be a huge defensive boost to a unit that will potentially have to go through LeBron James and the Cavaliers deep in the playoffs.
Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets
Jefferson made the All-NBA Third Team during the 2013-14 campaign and led the upstart Hornets to the playoffs. Last season, the veteran missed 17 games and posted near career-lows in points (16.6) and rebounds (8.4) as the franchise watched the playoff happenings from the couch.
This season, Jefferson has appeared in only 22 games while also seeing his point (12.5) and rebound (6.1) production continue to decline, but the Hornets have remained relevant in the playoff chase behind the play of guard Kemba Walker.
If the playoffs started today, the Hornets (29-27) would occupy the eighth and final spot in the East. Jefferson recently returned to the lineup after missing 23 games due to injury. In the three games since his return, the veteran is averaging 12 points and six rebounds in roughly 23 minutes of action off the bench.
Jefferson, 31, may no longer be a consistent nightly 20-10 threat, but the big man will play a huge role for Charlotte down the stretch as they look to return to the postseason.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Out of sight, out of mind. The Clippers (37-20) sit fourth in the Western Conference despite not having the services of former All-Star Blake Griffin for the past 27 contests. Los Angeles has put together a remarkable run without their leading scorer and should only get better once Griffin makes his eventual return.
At the time of injury, Griffin was averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and five assists per night on 51 percent shooting. While Los Angeles was active at the trade deadline, the return of Griffin back into the fold tops their small roster tweaks by a mile.
Eric Gordon, New Orleans Pelicans
Gordon will make his return to the starting lineup this Saturday after missing the previous 16 games after undergoing surgery to repair a broken ring finger on his right hand. The return of Gordon is positive news for the Pelicans with recent starter Bryce Dejean-Jones slated to have wrist surgery.
Gordon, averaging 14.9 points, is New Orleans’ fifth leading scorer on the year. The team previously lost their third leading scorer, Tyreke Evans (15.2), for the remainder of the season. Reports are that Gordon will return to action with a cumbersome mini-brace on the damaged hand, but his ability to space the floor will be pivotal if the Pelicans can make a run for a Western Conference playoff spot.
As it stands today, the Pelicans (23-34) are 11th in the conference standings and sit 5.5 games behind the Houston Rockets for the final spot – with 25 games left to play.
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