While the Grizzlies have been re-finding their grove since regaining Marc Gasol from injury, there's been one important player sidelined by an injury with no return timetable: Defensive mastermind and Lord of Basketball Chaos Tony Allen.
When Allen first went down, the word was that he suffered a "ligament injury" in his hand—one in which the ligament pulled away from the bone and pulled a bone fragment away with it. The timetable given then was "two to three weeks." That was January 7, and three weeks from the 7th is... today.
One thing is for certain: when Allen comes back, he comes back to a team that has flourished with Courtney Lee starting in his spot. Since coming to the Grizzlies from the Celtics in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, Lee has proven himself to be an excellent shooter and a solid defender, and while he's not the world class stopper that Allen is, the truth is that Allen hasn't really played up to his normal standard for much of this year, presumably because he's been fighting through so many injuries (you may remember that he missed several games in an earlier stretch due to a thigh contusion suffered in a December win over the Phoenix Suns).
The Grizzlies have an awful lot of wing players now, and they all seem to have overlapping skill sets: Lee, Allen, Jamaal Franklin, Quincy Pondexter, James Johnson, and Tayshaun Prince. They don't all do the same things, but each of them has something in common with the others. It's a bit of a logjam at the 2 and 3 spots when everyone is healthy.
When Allen returns, will he slot right back into his starting role alongside Tayshaun Prince, even though the Conley/Allen/Prince/Z-Bo/Gasol starting lineup was dreadful offensively in the first part of the year? If Dave Joerger decides that Lee plays better with the starters, will Allen accept a bench role even if his minutes are the same? Is right now the time to sell high on Tony Allen and flip him to a contender for a young asset, before he ages and his freaky defensive prowess and unbelievable athleticism begin to taper off more quickly? When he comes back, will he be more like last year's Tony Allen or more like this year's, playing more offense and failing to cover spot-up shooters on defense?
All of those questions have been floating around on the blogs (like here and here) for the last couple of weeks, but one has to assume they're floating around in the minds of the front office, too. For what it's worth, I don't see Allen accepting a bench role—I just don't. I think if he's not going to be the starter here, he's going to have to be dealt, and I think that would be bad for the locker room in the short term and, if Courtney Lee can keep up his current level of play, probably good for the win/loss record in the long run (that is, if Allen isn't going to be the starter).
Steve Danziger of 3 Shades of Blue had a great breakdown of two-man wing lineups last week, if you want to see the data on how these 2/3 combinations are working. If you think I'm crazy for suggesting Lee could remain the starter when Allen returns, look at those numbers and get back to me.
No matter what happens with Allen, it's going to be interesting to watch, especially as the trade deadline approaches like a freight train.
Tonight the Grizzlies are in Portland to take on one of the (surprise) best teams in the league: the 33-12 Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies and Blazers haven't played each other yet this year, and Portland is always a tough place to play, but the Griz have one major thing on their side: the momentum and confidence earned by sweeping the home-and-home with the Rockets over the weekend. The Griz have played better on the road all year, and one hopes that a quick journey up to Z-Bo's old stomping grounds while riding high on Friday and Saturday's wins will mean that the Grizzlies can steal one on the road.
It may not be that easy, though. The Grizzlies' defense has greatly improved as of late, but the Blazers are leading the league in both points per game (109.0) and offensive efficiency, or points per 100 possessions (113.6). They play at the 10th-fastest pace in the league, as well.
Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Portland's defense isn't great. They average giving up 103.5 points per game. But if the Grizzlies' defense can't clamp down on LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, and the rest of Portland's offensive threats, it's going to be a long night. (It's going to be a long night anyway, as the game doesn't tip until 9PM Memphis time.)
Winning tonight's game would be a great tone-setter for the rest of the week, which sees the Grizzlies playing four games in five nights (a FOGAFINI, remember?) against mostly sub-par opponents (Sacramento, Minnesota, and Milwaukee). If they lose tonight, one would like to see them win the next three in a row. If they can steal this one, though, they're essentially playing with house money the next three nights—the pressure is off to win them all so as not to lose any ground in the playoff race. (Obviously they should still win them all, but... you see what I'm saying.)