With the All-Star break over, teams in both conferences have a big couple months ahead. The fate of some of those clubs may come down to the performance of a single contributor. We’ll take a look at four of those players (or coaches!) in each conference. Next up, the Western Conference.
1. Ryan Anderson - Houston Rockets
Two summers ago, Anderson was a prized free agent addition for a Houston team looking to return to the top of the Western Conference. After a successful first season, Anderson finds himself being pushed to the fringes of their rotation.
During Houston’s last four games before the break, Anderson came off the bench -- something he’s done just once with the Rockets before that stretch. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a huge shift. During those four games, Anderson averaged 24.8 minutes. That mark isn’t really much lower than his season average of 27.8. This could be seen as just a reshuffle, a way for head coach Mike D’Antoni to get his more defensively stout lineups in at the end of games.
Look a little further down the line, however, and it stops looking less like a reshuffle and more like an exile. Starting forward Trevor Ariza, nursing an injured hamstring for Houston’s last 10 games, is set to return tomorrow. Before his injury, Ariza averaged 35.0 minutes a game. It’s a good bet upon his return that recently bench Anderson will see a greater reduction in his minutes.
Then there’s also the addition of veteran Joe Johnson, a player familiar to D’Antoni who is likely to slot in as his backup power forward. Though Johnson isn’t in a place due to his age and production to be a major contributor, it’s a good bet Houston didn’t sign him to warm the bench. Even if Johnson gets a dozen or so minutes a night, it’s going to come at the expense of a frontcourt player -- another bad outcome for Anderson.
So why is Anderson, if he’s about to be benched, making this list? Because his presence on the Rockets should be a litmus test for their steason.
It’s quite clear that Anderson’s schtick isn’t built for a team that now has serious title aspirations. Due to his deficiencies on defense and inability to create offensively outside of open catch-and-shoot opportunities, the Rockets are aware Anderson likely hurts more than helps their bid to beat Golden State. With what they have in tow now, Anderson is likely to see limited to no action -- if things go right.
The more Anderson plays down the stretch and in the playoffs means less is going right overall for Houston. Anderson’s presence likely means either injury or ineffectiveness (or both) has felled one of D’Antoni’s preferred options. So keeping an eye on Anderson has less to do with what he’s doing as much as if the simple fact you’re seeing him on the floor doing anything at all.
2. Ricky Rubio - Utah Jazz
In case you missed it, Rubio lost his damn mind for a brief stretch before the All-Star break. During an eight-game stretch from January 24th to February 9th (where a hip injury forced him out of the lineup), Rubio averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 assists while shooting a scorching 53.0 percent from the field and 54.2 percent from 3. That hot streak was a huge reason why the Jazz have ripped off 11 wins in a row.
The question now, obviously, is what Rubio does when he returns to the lineup. Though it’s unlikely that Rubio stays this hot, if he maintains anywhere near this level of efficiency for the final two months, it will transform this Jazz team.
Before Rubio’s hot streak, his net impact was dragging Utah down -- an odd result given that Rubio’s old teams have traditionally been better with him on the floor than off. But before that January 24th game where he took off, Rubio’s plus/minus split was -5.0 per 48 minutes. Utah’s equal-opportunity offense had muted his passing brilliance and the shooting woes that have plagued Rubio his entire career were more detrimental than usual.
During that hot streak, that number flipped from -5.0 per 48 to an incredible +22.9. Again, that impact is not likely to hold up. But it’s a complete guess as to what Rubio the Jazz will end up with. Even if he’s a net neutral, that’s likely going to be enough to propel Utah into the playoffs. If Rubio regresses back to his early season form, the Jazz are going to find it much harder to qualify for the postseason.
3. Rudy Gay - San Antonio Spurs
Things in San Antonio are looking pretty grim following the news about Kawhi Leonard’s injury. Given Gregg Popovich's comments this week on Leonard, it’s looking more and more like the Spurs will have to move forward this season without him. Thankfully, the return of another injured forward could help with that.
Before he missed time due to a heel injury, Gay was making a positive impact for San Antonio. Though it wasn’t a huge difference, the Spurs were just a shade over two points better when Gay played versus when he sat. Leonard’s injury has shifted the goal posts a bit for San Antonio now, but Gay will still be just as crucial.
At 35-24, the Spurs sit third in the Western Conference, something that was expected at the start of the season. What wasn’t expected is that San Antonio would be tied with Minnesota and have just a three game cushion over the eighth seed in the West. Biding time before making a push toward the top with Leonard now is a little more urgent.
Though it’s still an extreme long shot, there is a world in which this Spurs team -- should another injury befall them -- misses the playoffs. According to Playoffstatus.com, San Antonio plays by far the hardest remaining schedule of all Western Conference teams. With the Jazz surging, the Clippers returning players from injury and the Pelicans lurking despite the absence of DeMarcus Cousins, the Spurs can’t expect to just coast into the playoffs, much less consider home-court advantage in the first round a given.
That’s why Gay coming back healthy and having the same positive impact is going to be essential for this San Antonio squad. Since Gay was forced out of the lineup, the Spurs have gone just 10-13. What Gay does when he comes back should be a crucial factor in San Antonio’s playoff fate.
4. Paul Millsap - Denver Nuggets
Speaking of players returning from injury, the Nuggets have a key cog returning as well. But there’s a big difference in the return of Millsap to Denver and Gay’s return to San Antonio.
Before he went out with an injury, Gay played in 34 games for the Spurs. Millsap, on the other hand, played in just 16 for the Nuggets. So while San Antonio needs to simply reintegrate Gay, Denver never even had enough time to know exactly what Millsap was bringing to the table.
The early returns from the veteran forward were promising as the Nuggets outscored opponents by 4.0 per 48 minutes, per NBA.com. But at the start of the season, it was clear where Millsap fit into the team’s rotation. Given certain developments both in the past month and over the course of the season, slotting Millsap into the rotation is a lot more difficult.
For starters, Denver is 6-1 in February so far. In a related event, Wilson Chandler was moved into the starting lineup February 1st. With three of those six wins coming against the Thunder, the Warriors and the Spurs, the Nuggets might want to think long and hard before just simply moving Millsap right back into the starting lineup.
And if you leave Chandler in as the starting power forward, that will make for a very crowded Denver bench. Mason Plumlee is cleared to return following the break from a calf injury. Backup forward Trey Lyles has broken out in a big way during Millsap’s absence, posting career highs in every major category per 36 minutes while blowing away his shooting percentages from his first two seasons.
These developments will cause a bit of a headache for head coach Mike Malone once Millsap is officially cleared to return. Though there’s nothing to suggest Millsap’s absence was a blessing disguise, it’s hard to see where Denver is now and call for changes.
If Chandler’s run as a starter keeps producing wins and Lyles continues his fantastic play, there is going to be no clear cut path for Millsap to earn playing time. And to make things even more complicated, Denver is not in a position to endure a rocky adjustment period over a stretch of games given how tight the playoff race is out West.
It’s hard to imagine, especially just a couple months ago, the return of Millsap to the Nuggets being anything but good news. But given their developments in his absence, it’s not going to be a simple feat reinserting him back into the lineup. And how well it goes could ultimately dictate their playoff fate.