Monday, December 16, 2013

Injury Bug Biting Western Conference Contenders

The Grizzlies have missed Marc Gasol's presence on the defensive end, but do they have other issues?
By Bennett Corcoran

Despite the horrendous performance so far this season by the Eastern Conference, the West is doing just fine, sporting ten teams above .500 and two more teams (Lakers and Timberwolves) almost there.

It will be interesting to see which teams emerge as bona fide playoff contenders and which teams plummet as the season continues. With plenty of games remaining on the schedule, anything can happen but, at least for now, it appears that injuries are playing a significant role in the Western Conference playoff race.

One surprise this season has been the inconsistent Memphis Grizzlies, who last season used their toughness and grit to get all the way to the Western Conference Finals, but now sit at just 10-12. New coach David Joerger initially attempted to implement too many new plays and concepts, straying away from the true identity of the team; playing sound defense while running the offense through Marc Gasol on the high post and Zach Randolph on the block. With Gasol sidelined four to six weeks with a knee injury, the defense has declined rapidly.

Their defensive efficiency ranking of 104.2 ranks 27th in the league, just a year after their pristine 97.4 rating was second only to the Indiana Pacers. Memphis continues to struggle offensively as they have in the past, but have not had their reliable defense to lean on. Individually, Zach Randolph is still an interior force, and Mike Conley is a terrific two-way player despite his decline in three-point percentage this season (down to 32.9%). Ed Davis has looked promising in limited minutes, and the Grizzlies will likely look to get him involved more in the offense as they attempt to gauge his value heading into restricted free agency.

Tayshaun Prince has been horrid, shooting 39.5% from the field, and the small forward position remains a serious issue, especially with Quincy Pondexter out for the year. Kosta Koufos has been a viable replacement for Gasol, playing decent defense, snatching rebounds, and scoring when necessary. But Koufos is clearly not a Defensive Player of the Year caliber player, and the Grizzlies have floundered without Gasol’s presence. Memphis must find a way to get by without Gasol for the next few weeks, or they are in serious danger of missing the playoffs.

Without Andre Iguodala, the Golden State Warriors have struggled against a difficult schedule. Their defensive efficiency is no longer the top-five unit it once was, as the Dubs lack an elite wing defender without Iggy. Golden State is just 5-7 since Iguodala went down with a hamstring injury, and are now sitting outside the playoff picture at 13-11. They have faced the West’s elite during that stretch, playing the Thunder, Trail Blazers, and Rockets (twice). Also during that stretch, the Warriors were forced to play plenty of fringe playoff teams in the West, facing the Mavericks (twice), Pelicans, Grizzlies (twice) and Lakers.

In addition to his defensive impact, Iguodala has also been a vital part of Golden State’s offense, shooting a remarkable 54.5% from the field and 47.9% from beyond the arc, while also dishing out 6.3 assists per game. Harrison Barnes has been productive in Iggy’s absence, but he is obviously not the defender that Iguodala is and does not yet possess the playmaking ability to find open shooters on the perimeter. Although plenty of Warriors are enjoying great seasons, the team as a whole misses Iguodala’s versatility and ability to affect both sides of the game.

I’ve written a little this season about the impact of Anthony Davis, and his injury likely crushes any chance of a Pelicans playoff run in their inaugural season. The Pellies are 11-10, good for tenth in the West right now, and with so many teams vying for a playoff spot, they will probably be left on the outside looking in. Before going down with a fractured hand, The Brow was a legitimate MVP candidate, second in the league in PER with 28.38 and averaging a double-double with 18.8 PPG and 10.2 RPG. Davis was also a monstrous presence in the paint, averaging 3.6 blocks per game and carrying his team’s defense.

Their slashing offense continues to shine without Davis as Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday carry the offensive burden. However, their defensive efficiency has plummeted to 25th in the league without Davis, as the combination of Anderson and Jason Smith has not fared well so far. New Orleans is forced to play small without Davis, and too many guard-heavy lineups have certainly taken a toll on the defense. While I didn’t quite expect this team to be ready to make a leap to the playoffs this season, the absence of Davis will make it much more difficult for them to succeed.

With so many teams undergoing serious injuries to star players, and defenses crumbling without their primary stoppers, other teams out west have taken advantage. The Dallas Mavericks have surprised many NBA pundits by turning Monta Ellis into an All Star caliber shooting guard. Dirk Nowitzki is still Dirk, posting yet another strong season, leading the Mavs to a 14-10 record as they cling to the eighth seed of the Western Conference.

Their defense isn’t great, though their backcourt has been better than I anticipated on that front. Center remains a hole for Dallas, as Samuel Dalembert has failed to live up to expectations. If the Mavs can get a little more out of their rotational players like Brandan Wright, Vince Carter, and Jae Crowder, they could be poised to sneak into the playoffs.

Although some believe they’re supposed to be tanking, the Phoenix Suns are also in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt early. The Morris twins have developed a good chemistry together, and they are getting good production out of their younger players like Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker.

Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are playing well together, and Bledsoe in particular looks like a star in the making. I don’t think they’ll be sticking around for long, as some of the more experienced teams will probably pass them once they get healthy, but Phoenix’s future looks promising regardless, especially given their abundance of first round picks this summer.

With so many teams in the mix, and so many injuries to critical players, the Western Conference is anybody’s for the taking. The question now becomes if teams like Dallas and Phoenix can continue to take advantage, and if teams like Memphis, New Orleans, and Golden State can stick around.

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