Two months remain until the regular season comes to a close and the playoff matchups are set. Most organizations have a solid feel for where they are at in terms of roster talent, on-court chemistry and the overall direction of their team. The trade deadline looms next week and buyout candidates will likely have a significant impact on many contending teams.
One other thing that could shake things up is the return of key players who have been out of the lineup with significant injuries. Several teams will get a major boost in the coming weeks, including one team that has already started to benefit from a player’s return. It may take some time to get back into the rhythm of the game, but these players have plenty of time to find their footing for the stretch run.
These teams are all in different situations in terms of their respective futures. Still, the impact of these returning players cannot be overstated. Playoff seeding will be important this year not just for home-court advantage, but avoiding the play-in tournament by being one of the top-six teams in the conference as well. In a league suddenly ripe with parity, every game will count.
Caris LeVert, Indiana Pacers
The aforementioned team that had their player back this week was the Pacers. Caris LeVert made his debut with the team on Saturday in Phoenix as Indiana faced the red-hot Suns. After recovering from surgery on his left kidney to remove a small mass, the newest member of the Pacers was able to help guide them to an impressive victory.
The value of LeVert to this team is tremendous. Indiana desperately needed another creator on offense, having to run everything through Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers have been struggling on offense and especially in crunch time, where they rank 27th in the league.
Caris LeVert being back just adds another playmaker/threat to Indiana. Also someone who can really get downhill and get in the paint. Has it in transition, comes off the screen from Sabonis, turns the corner and draws a foul. Ayton has to be in better position to catch this drive pic.twitter.com/1eF6ksWBmZ
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 14, 2021
The former Michigan Wolverine certainly knows how to score and will help in late-game situations. Despite his 51-point outburst earlier this season with the Brooklyn Nets, LeVert found it difficult to get consistent opportunities as a starter. He could flourish in this new role with the Pacers. That, along with the eventual return of TJ Warren, could get Indiana back into the top six of the Eastern Conference.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
With apologies to Joel Embiid, this is the biggest return in terms of impact. While Embiid is expected to miss another week or so with his recent bone bruise, the Philadelphia 76ers have been able to win without him. That has not been the case for the Lakers, who are 4-6 in their last ten games and have struggled significantly in Davis’ extended absence.
The Lakers without Davis are just another playoff team. With him, however, they are a serious threat to win back-to-back championships. The half-court offense has sputtered since Davis went down, as Los Angeles has been unable to adequately incorporate many of their role players into the lineup. And they might have to try and stay afloat for a while longer, as the team may not have their dynamic big man for a few weeks or more, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.
Though his production has declined this season, Davis is still one of the best two-way players in the league. He is always a threat on both ends of the floor and the Lakers rely on his defense now more than ever. With their frontcourt struggling to defend, Los Angeles needs him to be healthy for the postseason. Their hopes of an 18th banner depend on it.
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
The three-headed monster in Brooklyn is more like the Loch Ness Monster. Durant has been sidelined since Valentine’s Day with a left hamstring strain, still with no timetable for his return. The 2013-14 MVP and two-time NBA Finals MVP had an excellent start to the season but has only appeared in 19 games for the Nets.
This is where Brooklyn has the luxury of having two other superstars to guide the ship while Durant gets healthy. Kyrie Irving and James Harden have done just that, to the tune of a 27-13 record, second in the Eastern Conference. Give credit to their role players too, as Bruce Brown, Joe Harris, Nicolas Claxton and Landry Shamet have all stepped up in recent weeks.
Just like the Lakers, Brooklyn understands that they just need to have their star player healthy and ready for the postseason. They will also be one of the top destinations for buyout candidates, with Blake Griffin already making his way to Barclays Center. There have been glimpses of how good this team is when they have all three of their superstars on the floor, which does not bode well for their competition.
CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
One of the worst moments of the early season was the injury to CJ McCollum. The star guard suffered a broken left foot on January 16 and has been one of the many extended absences for Portland this season. It has taken slightly longer for CJ to heal because this is the third time he has broken his left foot. The good news is that McCollum will make his return tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans, aiming to pick up right where he left off.
👀 @CJMcCollum. Is. Back. pic.twitter.com/RGOyMFLYO8
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) March 15, 2021
The talented scorer from Lehigh was putting up career numbers before his injury. His 27 points and five assists per game were just part of the story as he was shooting over 44 percent from three-point range and nearly 85 percent from the free-throw line. His 26.3 Player Efficiency Rating was also critical for Portland’s early success.
Portland has been able to keep their heads above water, in large part to the MVP-caliber play of Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers currently hold the fifth seed in the loaded Western Conference. They should also get Jusuf Nurkic back in the lineup in the coming weeks to shore up their interior defense and offensive game close to the basket. Having their healthy one-two punch of Lillard and McCollum is crucial to their hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament.
Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
Houston has a big, big problem. And, while the solution is more than just one player, Christian Wood’s value to this team is well represented in their record. Wood has missed the Rockets’ last 16 games and they have not won a single one. After putting the league on notice to start the year, the UNLV product was almost assured of winning the Most Improved Player Award.
The 25-year-old has demonstrated the ability to do it all. In his 17 games this season, Wood is averaging a double-double with 22 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He finds open teammates off of double teams and is shooting 42.1 percent from behind the arc and 55.8 percent from the floor overall. His defensive skills have been on display too, as he is averaging career-highs in blocks and rebounds.
The Rockets are clearly in “sell everything” mode as their season has crumbled even before it began with the departure of Harden and Russell Westbrook. Getting Wood back on the floor will not give them hope of reaching the playoffs but it will help them rebuild as the organization evaluates their roster and what their plans are going forward. Wood will be at the forefront of it all, though, as he clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
Jaren Jackson Jr, Memphis Grizzlies
One big man that has not been on the court at all this season is Jaren Jackson Jr. The former Michigan State Spartan has not been able to suit up as he continues to rehab from meniscus surgery. The Grizzlies are on the cusp of the postseason yet again, as they are in a position to be one of the teams competing in the play-in tournament. That is a testament to head coach Taylor Jenkins, who continues to do an impressive job with this young team.
The continued high-level play of Ja Morant has been important, but it has truly been a team effort for the Grizzlies this season. Several guys have stepped in to fill the void of Jackson, most notably Kyle Anderson, Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton and Dillon Brooks. Jonas Valanciunas has also been tremendous this season in terms of scoring and rebounding, as he’s averaged 16 points and a career-best 11.7 rebounds per game. Even without Jackson, Memphis is a top-ten rebounding team.
Last night marked the third time in franchise history that @memgrizz have recorded 60+ rebounds and 30+ assists in a single game.
All three instances have come in the team’s last 67 regular season games (other games: 1/12/20 vs Golden State; 3/2/20 at Atlanta).
— Grizzlies PR (@GrizzliesPR) March 11, 2021
Unfortunately, Jackson’s return is still a bit foggy at the moment. Chris Herrington and Drew Hill of the Daily Memphian recently reported that the team will update his status either later this month or early next month, but that they fully expect him to play this season. That is the hope for the Grizzlies, their fans and basketball fans everywhere, as the Morant and Jackson duo should be exciting to watch for many years to come.