No two injuries threatened to rearrange the NBA playoff landscape more than those suffered by Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph and Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford. Both players were cornerstones of teams that made noise in the Conference Semifinals last year. Yet the Grizzlies embark on a four game west coast road trip on Monday night on a six game winning streak. Meanwhile the Hawks launch a five game trip into the middle of the country, er continent (the itinerary stretches from New Orleans to Toronto) having won five of their last six. Their streaks owe to different fixes to their roster gap.
Memphis floundered for a few games after Randolph’s injury then they traded from their wing depth, moving Xavier Henry and draft picks in a three team deal with Philadelphia and New Orleans to obtain Sixers power forward Maresse Speights. Speights, a first round pick in 2008, had fallen out of Doug Collins rotation (it’s his minutes that surprising rookie Nikola Vucevic is taking) and was unlikely to have his contract renewed, so he was expendable. Since arriving in Memphis, Speights game is undergoing a revival. Although his Player Efficiency Rating is lower, parse the numbers and you’ll see that his PER decline is due to flukishly poor shooting; all other aspects of his game, rebounding, turnovers, and assists are all improved over his Sixer days. He’s filling a gap and will provide important depth when Randolph returns since Zach’s backup last season, Darrell Arthur, was lost for the year due to an Achilles tendon injury in training camp. If Randolph returns on schedule, then the Griz figure to be a very tough playoff out again.
The Hawks have taken to solving Horford’s absence with in house solutions, most notably Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins taking starts in Horford’s place. Collins is better defensively and Pachulia is the better offensive player. Both are significant dropoffs from Horford who was playing at an all star level, but the team has made up the scoring punch with more small ball lineups which fit well into their pressing schemes. I still don’t “get” the Hawks but 12-5 record with a point differential that suggest they could be even better is hard to dismiss.
I injuries figure to be a much bigger part of the picture during this 66 game/124 day season, but resourceful teams like Atlanta and Memphis have found ways not to be crippled by them.