Posted Mar 9 2012 10:07AM
The last thing they need is a surgeon and a scalpel heading in their direction, and yet that might be the only way to get inside the Grizzlies and Hawks to see what's up.
How can these teams, missing key players with major injuries for long stretches, keep winning, defying logic and common sense?
Without Zach Randolph for all but the first four games, the Grizzlies are the hottest team in the West, winning 11 of their last 13 and sitting in third place in the conference.
Without Al Horford since January and Joe Johnson the last few weeks, the Hawks are the only team to beat the Thunder, Heat and Bulls (the top three in basketball) and remain snugly in the playoff hunt.
Not only are the Grizzlies and Hawks overcoming, at times they're even thriving despite their obvious handicaps. It's a mad science, indeed, and the only question now is how much better these teams will get once they're back at full strength. Randolph should return by next week, Johnson in a matter of days and Horford is expected back for the playoffs.
"We can't wait to find out," said Hawks coach Larry Drew.
In the case of the Hawks, that'll come soon enough. Josh Smith, the anchor of the Hawks over the last month, has asked to be traded before Thursday's deadline, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This puts the Hawks in an interesting position. Smith's contract is up after next season, and his value will never be higher, so the Hawks would be well-advised to ship him now. But for whom? And how much will trading Smith affect where the Hawks wind up?
Smith's trade demand comes at an awkward time. He's still on post-All-Star-snub fuel and putting up scary numbers lately (17 points, 10 rebounds, three assists for the season). It's the Josh Smith many thought would emerge if he ever reached his potential. And it's quite possible that Horford's injury and Johnson's absence, along with the snub, might be the best thing to happen to Smith.
The root of his unhappiness lies more with how he's treated by his hometown than with the organization. Smith became a target for disgruntled fans who moaned every time he launched a 3-pointer. He also was clearly annoyed at being bypassed for the All-Star Game (the coaches vote on the reserves) and believes a fresh start can only help his chances and cleanse his image. Smith is an Atlanta native and the Hawks are the only team beyond high school that he's ever played for, so it's really about a player wanting to break free from the nest, so to speak.
The budget-conscious Hawks are unlikely to take a big contract (Pau Gasol) in return for Smith, if he's dealt by Thursday. They might have better options if they wait until summer.
Johnson should return from a bum knee soon enough, but the Hawks have learned to look elsewhere for the big basket. Rather than toss it to Johnson and watch him dribble down the clock, the Hawks are moving the ball and putting it in the right hands. A number of subs, Jannero Pargo and Tracy McGrady in particular, are coming up big for Atlanta.
And with Horford out, the Hawks are finally getting consistency from Zaza Pachulia, who's realizing how reliable he can be when he's aggressive.
"Our front office did a good job getting guys who know their roles and are able to produce," said Drew.
Meanwhile, the issue with the Grizzlies isn't a potential subtraction of a key player, but an addition in Randolph. Will Z-Bo's return be a smooth transition, or will he force certain teammates to make changes? The same questions followed Rudy Gay into this season after he missed Memphis' big playoff run last spring.
One of the big discoveries this season is Marreese Speights. Dumped by the Sixers, he replaced Z-Bo and lately has found a groove in the limited minutes he gets (18 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes Wednesday against the Warriors).
"We don't have Zach right now and that's a big part of why we were in the playoffs last season," said Mike Conley. "Without him we've had to readjust and move people around and find a way to win. That's what I'm most impressed with is we're finding a way to win regardless of who's in or who's out."
Rudy Gay (19.1) has also assumed much of the scoring responsibilities after Randolph went down, and here's what's interesting: Stretching back to almost a calendar year, the two have played only six games together, because of injuries. Will that adjustment be necessary when Z-Bo returns, or is this a total non-issue?
The Grizzlies have an asset in making things work in Lionel Hollins, who must receive Coach of the Year consideration. He has convinced his players that sacrifice and teamwork will get them far, even in the rugged West. So far, that's proving to be true, and Randolph will likely buy into that.
Maybe the hardest part for the Grizzlies and Hawks isn't demonstrating their survival skills in the wake of key injuries. Maybe the hardest part comes when they get healthy and everyone assumes they'll instantly get better.
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