July 19, 2024

Ja Morant has the Grizzlies rolling; should the Lakers be worried?

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The New Year is just around the corner and the Western Conference isn’t any less competitive than it was when the NBA tipped-off its season in October.

This week, we asked FOX Sports’ panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — to do a temperature check of the Wild, Wild West (and one surging team in the Eastern Conference).

1. The Grizzlies are 4-0 since Ja Morant returned from suspension on Dec. 19 but are still nine games under .500 with the Suns, Warriors and Lakers ahead of them. Do you see a path to the playoffs for them?

Weitzman: The Lakers are always a LeBron rolled-ankle away from falling off a cliff and the Warriors are basically a one-man show right now. That’s not to say that the Grizzlies have an easy path to the play-in, but with how electric Morant looks, I’d be surprised if they don’t make some teams sweat.

Rohlin: There’s a lot of season left, so the Grizzlies have time to make up ground. Morant has come off of his suspension looking like he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s averaging career-highs in points (28.8), field goal percentage (50.6%) and assists (8.5) over four games. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but if he keeps that up, and another team falters, the Grizzlies could be in the play-in hunt, for sure.

Bucher: There’s a path, but it’s through the play-in, and it’s a lot more rutted than this brief run with Ja would suggest. They’ve had one of the easier schedules up to this point, Steven Adams is still out with season-ending surgery, Tyus Jones is still in Washington and Brandon Clarke is still going to be out until at least the All-Star break recovering from an Achilles injury. I need to see Ja Morant after the excitement of his return has worn off and the grind of the season dulls those fresh legs a bit. He is doing a much better job of scoring in a way that makes him less susceptible to injury, but he still doesn’t get easy buckets — everything is high energy and that is hard to sustain.

The biggest question I have is, does he understand why he missed the first 25 games of the season? His fans have twisted themselves into pretzels, excusing his recent pistol-mimicking celebration during a win over the Pelicans as a dance with New Orleans’ roots. Making them as clueless as Ja would appear to be. If Ja doesn’t get that doing anything that might have a connection to guns is daring commissioner Adam Silver to drop the hammer again on him, then there’s no guarantee he’s seen his last suspension.

Should Ja Morant have been the 2019 No. 1 pick over Zion Williamson? | Undisputed

Should Ja Morant have been the 2019 No. 1 pick over Zion Williamson? | Undisputed

2. The Lakers are 3-6 since winning the NBA In-Season Tournament. Is this the league’s first case of NBA In-Season Tournament hangover or does this Lakers team need to make a change at the trade deadline?

Weitzman: Do we mean another change, given that the Lakers have already changed their starting lineup twice this season? Either way, the answer is: Yes, the Lakers need more offensive juice. It doesn’t matter how good you are defensively; in today’s NBA, you have to hit a certain baseline as an offense and right now the Lakers’ primary lineup just isn’t good enough. In the meantime, the Lakers should stop overthinking things and give Austin Reaves more minutes. We spent all offseason hearing about how much they believed in him and yet right now he’s fifth on the team in minutes, despite still being their third-best player. This makes no sense.

Rohlin: The Lakers are 22nd in the league offensively, which isn’t going to cut it. But that being said, making a big, splashy trade can have undesirable consequences. Read: Russell Westbrook. Of all of the trades being floated, I find Dejounte Murray the most intriguing. But let’s not forget that this Lakers core reached the Western Conference Finals last season, so perhaps a little patience is warranted.

Bucher: The Lakers’ problem is that they have a logjam at the power positions and not enough playmaking or talent on the wings. (There’s a reason Darvin Ham is trying to figure out what he can get from Jarred Vanderbilt or Cam Reddish and why they sorely miss Gabe Vincent.) So unless they’re moving Rui Hachimura and Christian Wood or Jaxson Hayes — all of whom have to pick up whatever minutes LeBron and AD are not playing — for long, athletic wings, I don’t see how they’re more than a .500 team.

How concerning are Lakers with LeBron’s ankle injury and four-game losing streak? | Undisputed

How concerning are Lakers with LeBron's ankle injury and four-game losing streak? | Undisputed

3. Once considered sellers at the trade deadline, the Bulls are 4-2 in their last six games and currently occupy the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. Should this change their strategy at the trade deadline, or should they sell high on their assets?

Weitzman: Sell, sell, sell! This is the team’s chance to finally build right. DeMar DeRozan will be a free agent after this season — it’d be malpractice to not flip him for something before the trade deadline. Alex Caruso has been fantastic, but he’s the sort of wing who every contender will be calling about, meaning he can probably be flipped for a nice haul. Again, for a team going nowhere, it’d be malpractice not to do this! The Bulls should be open to dealing anything and anyone other than Coby White. If they handle these next few months properly, they might actually be able to put themselves in a decent position.

Rohlin: I agree with Yaron. This team needs first round picks, it needs to get rid of so many expensive salaries, it’s clear their core hasn’t worked for a while. Can they find a suitor for Zach LaVine’s contract? How much can they get for Alex Caruso? Can they get something valuable for DeMar DeRozan before he could potentially walk in free agency. It’s time for them to make some moves.

Bucher: No one should be untouchable, but let’s face it, they’re in a pickle. Zach LaVine didn’t have a great market to start and the Bulls’ surge without him hasn’t helped. Yet moving him makes the most sense. I’m not convinced he’s going to be a Laker at all, even though he is a Klutch client — GM Rob Pelinka appears to have established a certain degree of autonomy from Rich Paul and LeBron and their dictates. If it means taking pennies on the dollar, they should. And if they can’t ascertain that DeMar DeRozan is willing to re-up on something shorter than two years’ guaranteed, they need to move him as well for whatever they can get.

4. The Warriors have also enjoyed a resurgence in the absence of Draymond Green, winning five of their last six games. Are things turning around in San Francisco or is this false hope for an aging core?

Weitzman: If by “turning around” we mean “don’t stink,” then, sure, maybe the Warriors have found something, especially with Steve Kerr giving Brandin Podziemski and Jonathan Kuminga more minutes. But this team’s title window has closed. Which is a shame, because this wouldn’t be the case if they didn’t pursue that whole silly “two timelines” thing and instead prioritized putting a championship-level roster around Steph Curry.

Rohlin: Everyone thought their title window closed before they won the championship in 2022. If there’s anything I learned about the Warriors, it’s to not count out a team with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, a trio that has won four championships together. Sure, they’re older and there are a lot of questions about this team’s future. But if any team knows how to turn on the magic when necessary, it’s this one. The question is, when Green returns, is he going to have the requisite fire or will he be a subdued version of himself, unable to navigate how to motivate his team while avoiding getting in trouble.

Bucher: I just watched them in person against the Miami Heat, who were without Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Thomas Bryant and Josh Richardson. Jamal Cain, playing in the 28th game of his two-year career, outscored both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who were a combined 7 for 26 from the field. The Heat dog-walked them on their home floor. Draymond’s return will help, but they are going to struggle to make the playoffs. No team in history has ever built a dynasty, fell off a cliff and then won another title with the exact same core — yet that’s exactly what the Warriors did in 2022. It was a back-from-the-dead miracle. It should be appreciated as such and not as proof that they’ve got another championship run in them.

Is the Draymond Green-Warriors dynasty slowly coming to an end? | The Herd

Is the Draymond Green-Warriors dynasty slowly coming to an end? | The Herd

5. Many consider NBA Christmas Day to be the real start to the regular season. With that in mind, is there a preseason take you had that you’d like a do-over on or one that you’d like to double-down on 30 games into the season?

Weitzman: I was one of those dopes who thought the Timberwolves were headed for disaster and that the Rudy Gobert trade was one of the worst of all time. Now they’re 23-7, good for first in the West. Shows what I know.

Rohlin: I thought the Suns would be much better. They’re currently languishing in 10th place in the Western Conference with a record of 15-15. That’s not how you keep Kevin Durant on your squad. They’ve struggled with injuries, defense and finding their identity. Something needs to improve before this highly talented roster falls apart.

Bucher: I wasn’t sold that the Suns could make it out of the West, but I expected them to be in the conference finals; I’d certainly like to take back whatever enthusiasm I had for them doing anything meaningful. I said the Thunder would be a lock to make the playoffs, and I’d certainly double down on that.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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