Of all that’s changed as a result of the NBA’s suspension of play for four months because of the pandemic, one thing seems uniformly positive: A number of players who’d been on the shelf at the time of the shutdown—whether due to injury or an inability to find a roster spot—are now healthy and on track to participate in the league’s planned restart.
Some of these players might wind up serving as X factors in teams’ title pursuits. Some might play smaller roles, but still be fun to watch as they get back on the court for the first time in a long time. Either way, their inclusions promise to add more intrigue to an already compelling situation in Orlando. Here are seven names to watch:
Ben Simmons, 76ers
When the NBA pushed pause, Simmons had missed all but four minutes and 44 seconds of Philadelphia’s 10 post-All-Star-break contests, thanks to a nagging nerve impingement in his lower back. (He probably should have missed that 4:44 against the Bucks, too—he’d missed the previous game with lower back tightness, and “was originally scheduled to go back to the locker room for treatment” before it tightened to the point that he finally hit the bench for good.) Because it was an injury to a member of the 76ers, and thus subject to the cruel and dark magics that have swirled around the appendages and auras of so many Sixers in recent years, the nature and severity of the impingement seemed so inscrutable that head coach Brett Brown could only answer a question about how long he expected his All-Star to be out by saying: “I don’t know. It’s really like, how long is a piece of string? Who knows?”
We might never get the answer to that particular Bostralian Zen koan, because the hiatus afforded Simmons the opportunity to heal (and bulk up) to the point that he says he feels even better than he did at the start of the season. That’s good news for a Philly team that went 6-7 in games that Simmons—fifth in the NBA in assists per game, and one of the NBA’s very best perimeter defenders—missed or had to leave early, and that lacks a certain kinetic weirdness in the absence of one of the league’s true Make Shit Happen All-Stars.
Philadelphia’s early practices in Orlando have produced some more potentially good news, too: Brown has begun slotting Simmons in at power forward, rather than the point guard spot he’s occupied since his NBA debut.
Putting Simmons next to Joel Embiid up front would necessitate returning Al Horford to the bench, a move Brown made just before the All-Star break to try to ease the offensive gridlock the Sixers suffered whenever the titanic troika shared the court—just 99.3 points-per-100 in more than 400 minutes, miles below what even the league’s most anemic offenses muster. It also makes space for new starter Shake Milton, who shined when Brown put him in the rotation in late January, and soared into the stratosphere when given an even larger role after Simmons’s injury. The second-year guard out of SMU averaged 17.8 points and 4.1 assists in 29.9 minutes per game from the Bucks game on, making multiple 3-pointers six times.
Even if Milton doesn’t shoot 60.4 percent from 3-point range in the new-look starting five (spoiler alert: he won’t), adding another credible shooter, ball handler, and facilitator to the lineup could open up more room for Embiid to go to work on the block, where he is averaging 1.12 points per post-up this season, tops in the league among players to use at least 100 such possessions, according to Synergy Sports. It could allow Brown to more frequently deploy Simmons as a screener, dive man, and short-roll playmaker—roles in which he has shined in limited duty. Putting spot-up shooting threats like Milton (44.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per Second Spectrum’s tracking), Tobias Harris (37.9 percent), and Josh Richardson (a subpar 34.6 percent this season, but better than 38 percent in Miami in the last two) around Simmons and Embiid could also create more opportunities for Philly to run snug pick-and-roll actions that can be awfully tough to stop.
That five-man unit hasn’t logged a single second of game action this season, and you know Brown is grinding his teeth a little about moving away from a starting five that, for all its warts, outscored opponents by 9.2 points-per-100 behind a pulverizing defense. But the idea behind splitting up Embiid and Horford remains sound, and if the shake-up taps into a new vein of Simmons’s mammoth potential, it could go a long way toward making Philly the sort of fearsome playoff combatant many projected it would be way back in October.
Jamal Crawford, Nets
I get the “why” of Crawford, who famously poured in 51 points in the final game of the 2018-19 season, at age 39, going the entire pre-hiatus campaign without working his way onto an NBA roster. For most of Crawford’s career—which began one week before “hanging chads”—his teams have posted a significantly worse point differential during his floor time, thanks in large part to Jamal bringing a real “Bill Murray in Space Jam” vibe onto the court with him. Combine those defensive failings with consistently subpar shooting efficiency—the last time Crawford turned in a league-average effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) was 2013—and you can understand why devoting rotation minutes to a 40-year-old Crawford, even with all those highlights and all that hardware on his résumé, might not appeal to an NBA team that’s trying to build something bigger.
But the Nets aren’t that kind of team right now. Whatever Brooklyn might become rests squarely with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, neither of whom were going to participate in the 2020 postseason even before the pandemic; this meant that the 30-34 Nets, staring down a first-round matchup against either the Bucks or Raptors, were already drawing dead. Now, without Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, or Wilson Chandler, barely recognizable Brooklyn is basically just killing time until everybody gets to go home. If you’re playing out the string, you might as well have a little fun in the process. And if you’re looking to have a little fun in the process, you could do a hell of a lot worse than tossing the ball to a beaming and timeless 40-year-old so he can go right to left through his legs and then behind his back with an insouciant skip, again and again, before pulling up from somewhere in the vicinity of infinity.
Life shouldn’t be about the bloodless pursuit of maximum efficiency at the cost of all else, and neither should basketball. Here’s hoping the promised return of “mixtape-era Mal” can give us something to smile about.
Andre Roberson, Thunder
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t positive that Roberson was still on Oklahoma City’s roster. I knew he hadn’t seen game action since rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee while trying to catch an alley-oop during a January 2018 game against the Pistons, and I knew that every now and again you’d hear something about his continuing to rehab with an eye toward working his way back to the court. But as the Thunder pivoted away from its past and toward a future teeming with possibilities during a surprising and delightful season, I kind of lost track of the whereabouts of the former All-Defensive second-teamer.
But then, as OKC prepared to head to Orlando, rookie wing Luguentz Dort proclaimed Roberson “ready to go,” and when the Thunder kicked off practice at Disney, head coach Billy Donovan said the 28-year-old “looked really, really good in terms of the way he was moving” on the court. Suddenly, after two and a half years away, it’s starting to look like Roberson might finally get back onto the court to try to wreak some havoc on opposing offenses.
A strong start to five-on-five work is still a long way from suiting up in playoff action, and what exactly Roberson might look like after 30 months away from game speed is anybody’s guess. But the prospect of Oklahoma City—one of this season’s best stories, only a game behind Utah in the race for the West’s no. 4 seed—adding a 6-foot-7, 6-foot-11-wingspan menace who was on the short list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates before his injury, and who has been a postseason difference-maker in the past, to an energetic, athletic, but unproven young perimeter core is awfully enticing. Roberson’s three-year, $30 million contract ends this summer; you know he’ll be motivated to show prospective suitors something as he enters free agency. After such a long, painful road back to the court, it’d be great to see him stay healthy enough to offer the league a reminder of what he can do when he’s right.
Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers
I highlighted the returns of Nurkic and Zach Collins last week, but I think it’s worth underlining just how well the Bosnian center was playing before he broke his leg in the final weeks of the 2018-19 regular season. He was one of just six players in the league averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and one block per game, joining MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Stars Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Vucevic.
Nurkic reached a new level as a facilitator of Portland’s half-court offense, swinging from setting brick-wall screens to operating as a high-volume offensive hub from the elbows; only 13 players got more touches per game from that area of the floor. Nurkic notched an assist on 17.9 percent of his teammates’ baskets last season, a career best and the seventh-highest mark of any center in the league. His ability as a complementary playmaker and secondary scoring threat helped fuel Portland’s rise to fourth in the league in offensive efficiency in 2018-19.
Portland resumes play in ninth place, 3.5 games behind the eight-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. With a formidable schedule ahead of them—the third-toughest closing slate of any team in Orlando, according to my Ringer teammate Zach Kram—the Blazers face an uphill climb to force a play-in for the West’s final playoff spot. But as Damian Lillard, the league’s fifth-leading scorer and no. 6 assist man, recently told reporters, “We don’t want to show up for a month and go home and waste our time. We are coming here to make some noise.” Having the loud, brash, and bruising Nurkic at full strength could help them do just that.
Speaking of loud, brash, and colorful big men …
Joakim Noah, Clippers
If everything goes according to plan, Noah—now 35 years old, long removed from his prime as the hard-charging heart and soul of the Bulls—won’t see a whole lot of floor time for the Clips. He’ll be an emergency center behind young starter Ivica Zubac (the least starry name in L.A.’s lineup, but quietly an awfully important part of it) and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell, the hyperenergetic and high-impact small-ball 5 who’s the first big off Doc Rivers’s bench and likely one of his five closers in crunch time. Ideally, Noah will mop up a few spot minutes here and there, provide sage counsel on the dark art of interior defense to the 23-year-old Zubac, and lead cheers from the socially distanced bench.
Should the need arise, though, against an opponent with a dangerous big—like, perhaps, Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic?—Noah proved last season in Memphis that he’s still capable of contributing when called upon. In 42 appearances with the Grizzlies, Jo averaged better than 15 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per 36 minutes of floor time, and looked significantly quicker and healthier on the court than he did at any point during his disastrous two-season sojourn in New York; the young Grizzlies gave up 6.7 fewer points-per-100 with the former Defensive Player of the Year on the court.
The Clips signed Noah to a 10-day deal just before the league suspended play; the hiatus gave him four more months to get healthy following a September Achilles injury, which should mean he’ll be ready to contribute when play resumes. The layoff does not appear to have blunted his famed exuberance, either. Asked in June how he felt about reports of the NBA’s impending return, Noah told reporters, “I mean, let’s fucking go.” Then he evidently paused, raised his voice, and repeated, “Let’s fucking go!” Yes, Joakim: let’s.
Marvin Bagley III, Kings
A broken thumb followed by a left foot sprain and subsequent soreness have limited Bagley to just 13 appearances in his sophomore season. The no. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA draft hasn’t taken the court since January 20, further complicating the already difficult matter of figuring out how Bagley fits into an offensive ecosystem built around lightning-quick point guard De’Aaron Fox, and how Sacramento can best deploy Bagley on defense, where the team has hemorrhaged points with him on the court.
The issue, to this point, is that Bagley has looked like a “neither fish nor fowl” sort of tweener in the frontcourt. When he plays power forward, he doesn’t shoot the ball well enough—just 34 percent outside the paint in his career—to force defenses to respect him as a stretch 4. And when he slides up to the 5, he’s neither an imposing presence nor a possession-ending rim protector; opponents shot 67 percent at the basket in Bagley-at-center minutes last season, and 68.4 percent this season—ghastly, bottom-of-the-league-caliber marks.
Despite Bagley’s strong counting stats—14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game on 49.7 percent shooting through two seasons—the Kings have largely performed better with either Nemanja Bjelica or Harrison Barnes at the 4, and with surprise linchpin Richaun Holmes at the 5, than with Bagley manning either spot. But considering Kings vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac picked Bagley second overall in a draft that saw Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Trae Young go with the next three choices, it’s not like head coach Luke Walton was going to just mothball a healthy Bagley as the team looks to build a perennial playoff contender in the years ahead.
But with Sacramento’s frontcourt suddenly in tatters—Barnes, Jabari Parker, and Alex Len have all tested positive for COVID-19, and Holmes was famously forced to reenter quarantine after breaking containment to pick up food—Bagley and Harry Giles are reportedly “getting a ton of reps” in practice as the Kings’ only available bigs. While Walton has thus far sounded noncommittal about where in Sacramento’s rotation he sees Bagley fitting, force-feeding the sophomore more minutes as a center—likely his best position moving forward—could wind up benefiting the Kings down the line. Whether or not it’ll help their pursuit of the eighth seed in the West, though, remains to be seen.
Justise Winslow, Grizzlies
I loved the Grizzlies’ move to pick up Winslow at the trade deadline. Now that he’s finally healed up from the lower-back bone bruise that kept him on the injured list since early November, I’m really eager to see how he’ll look in a Memphis uniform, and how first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins will use a 6-foot-6, 225-pound skeleton key who has, at different points in his five-year career, served as a perimeter stopper, a pretty good point guard, and a small-ball center who started a Game 7.
“His versatility is really going to come out in our style of play,” Jenkins recently told reporters. “That’s why I talk about him being just a great fit and a perfect fit for our system because he can play multiple positions on offense.”
In theory, Winslow could be just what the doctor ordered for a starting lineup that fell off dramatically after losing Jae Crowder. With nonshooter Kyle Anderson stepping into Crowder’s spot alongside Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, and Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies’ new-look starting five absolutely cratered, scoring a putrid 76.5 points-per-100 in a disastrous five-game sample before Jackson suffered a knee sprain. Winslow isn’t exactly Ray Allen, but he’s worked on his shot over the years, hitting 37.7 percent of his long balls over his last two full seasons in Miami, and—perhaps just as importantly—attempting nearly five per 36 minutes of floor time in 2018-19, much more than Slo-Mo, who scarcely ever looks at the rim from beyond the arc.
In practice, though, who knows? Maybe Winslow can’t find the touch on his jumper, and struggles to find ways to contribute. If Winslow can’t hit from outside and contribute in a lower-usage role, Jenkins might be better served once again leaning on reclamation project Josh Jackson, who averaged 13.3 points in 21.2 minutes per game after the All-Star break, shooting 37 percent from 3, for a spark on the wing.
But maybe, after a long layoff to get healthy, he fits in as a do-it-all wing. Maybe he slots in in the second unit alongside former Duke teammate Tyus Jones, joining chaos agent De’Anthony Melton and dynamic rookie big Brandon Clarke to give Memphis one of the most athletic, versatile, and formidable defensive second units in the league. Maybe playing alongside the electric Morant in a bombs-away system where he can run free and match up wherever he’s needed unlocks Winslow in a way he never quite found in Miami. Right now, all we’ve got are questions; soon enough, though, the answers will follow.