NBA Observations: Grizzlies Set to Challenge for Playoff Spot
NBA Observations: Grizzlies Set to Challenge for Playoff Spot

It's been a few weeks since we've checked in on news and notes around the NBA. As we power through Week 13, every team – if it hasn't already – will cross the halfway point of the season. Mid-January can be a monotonous portion of the NBA calendar, but the All-Star break, as well as the trade deadline, loom in the not-so-distant future.

Let's take a look at some of the top fantasy storylines around the league in Week 13:

The Brooklyn Nets got Kyrie Irving back from injury Sunday against Atlanta, marking the star guard's first appearance in nearly two full months. Irving's shoulder injury dragged on and on without much of an update, but he looked crisp in his return, scoring 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting in just 20 minutes of action as the Nets cruised to a 22-point victory. 

Obviously, Irving's return is huge for a team that gradually slid down to the No. 8 spot in the East, but the Nets still have a nice, 5.5-game cushion between themselves and the Hornets at No. 9. For fantasy owners, Irving's return couldn't come soon enough. On a per-game basis, Irving has been a top-five value in some formats this season. The problem, of course, is that he's only played in 12 games.

While one star is back in action, the Timberwolves are still waiting on the return of Karl-Anthony Towns, who's now missed more than a month with a rather mysterious knee issue. Minnesota has been listing Towns as questionable on a game-to-game basis for the last few weeks, but there's been almost no indication that he's been close to taking the floor. Most recently, an illness and the knee injury combined to keep Towns out of Monday's loss to the Thunder. Fantasy owners who've taken an optimistic approach with Towns were likely wary of locking him into weekly lineups this time around. As of Tuesday, Minnesota sits 12th in the West but only 2.5 games back of eighth-seed Memphis.

Speaking of the Grizzlies, they entered Week 13 riding a five-game winning streak – easily their longest of the season. While some of those wins come with injury caveats, Memphis has very quietly played itself into the thick of the playoff race a year or two earlier than most expected.

Most importantly, Memphis' two keystone assets have led the charge. Over the five-game streak, Ja Morant is averaging 18.6 points, 9.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds, while hitting 56 percent of his field goals. Meanwhile, Jaren Jackson has four 20-plus-point games in his last five, and he's avoided foul trouble enough to average 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in just short of 30 minutes per night. In that same span, Jackson is shooting 58.5 percent from the floor, including 51.4 percent from three (3.6 3PM/G). For the season, Jackson is up to 41.8 percent shooting from three on 6.4 attempts per game.

Memphis' path for the rest of the season will be one to monitor. With teams like San Antonio, Portland and New Orleans off to slow starts, the bottom of the Western Conference is considerably weaker than expected. Last season, 48 wins got you the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with Golden State. This time around, 40 wins might be enough.

We're far enough along that if the Grizzlies choose to gun for that No. 8 spot, they have to be taken seriously. San Antonio is coming around, and Portland will get Jusuf Nurkic back at some point, but it's tough to feel wholly confident in either of those teams. The question is whether Memphis should even want to make the playoffs. Right now, I think the answer is yes, but as a team with its eye on the future more than anything, there's a case to be made that falling back and gaining ping pong balls makes more long-term sense.

Again, I don't see Memphis intentionally losing games, but it'll be interesting to monitor how the Grizzlies' current standing informs their decisions with players like Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala at the trade deadline. Another factor to consider: If Memphis' 2020 first-round pick falls out of the top-six, it goes to Boston – although, in this draft, the team is probably fine with handing over a pick in the 8-to-15 range, especially since it becomes completely unprotected in 2021 if it doesn't convey this year.

Anthony Davis is considered questionable to play Wednesday versus Orlando after missing the last three games with a bruised glute muscle. Given the opponent – and the fact that the Lakers have reeled off three wins by at least 15 points without him – it wouldn't be a surprise if Davis misses one more game as a precaution. Dwight Howard has two double-doubles in three games without Davis, and over Howard's last five games, he's putting up 12.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 1.0 assists, while shooting 70.6 percent from the field. He's also 2-of-2 from beyond the arc.

The Phoenix Suns are 2-0 since moving Deandre Ayton to the bench, beginning with Friday's game against the Magic. The decision came on the heels of two straight losses to Memphis and Sacramento last week. Thus far, the benching has only shaved a few minutes off of Ayton's workload – he's played 30 and 26 minutes, respectively, over the last two games – and he's still managed to average 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.

Monty Williams indicated that he'll continue to roll with Aron Baynes as his starter during the team's three-game road trip, which includes stops in Atlanta, New York and Boston. Even in a timeshare, Ayton can be a valuable fantasy commodity. But from an optics perspective, this isn't a great look for Phoenix, which had already taken enough heat for passing on Luka Doncic before benching last year's No. 1 pick in favor of a 33-year-old.

Robert Covington is slowly climbing up the season-long ranks, thanks in part to a hot stretch that's coincided with the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns. For the season, Covington is now inside the top-40, and he's been a top-five value in some formats since Christmas Day. Over his last 10 games, Covington is averaging 15.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 1.7 assists and 1.3 blocks, while hitting 46.2 percent of his field goals and 38.9 percent of his threes (2.8 3PM/G). In theory, the eventual return of Towns shouldn't drastically impact Covington's role. In fact, the bigger concern may be Covington's team-friendly contract, which projects to make him among the more appealing trade deadline targets for contending teams.

Quick Hits

Kelly Oubre Jr. is a top-40 player on the season, and he's been running particularly hot of late. Over his last eight games, Oubre is averaging 23.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 1.9 assists and 3.3 made threes in more than 38 minutes per game. In that span, he holds a 54/74/48(!!) shooting line.

Davis Bertans made his return over the weekend and picked up where he left off back in December. In 21 minutes against Atlanta on Friday, Bertans went for 14 points, seven rebounds and three three-pointers before following up with 18 points and four threes Sunday versus Utah. Dating back to mid-November, Bertans has multiple threes in 18 of his last 20 games.

After a concerningly slow start, Darius Garland is beginning to look like a top-five pick. Over the last nine games, Garland is averaging 16.2 points, 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.2 made threes per game. He still struggles to get to the line, but Garland has been more aggressive overall, and he's maintained a more-than-respectable 48/84/36 shooting line in that span.

Waiver Wire Watch

Norman Powell, TOR: An 11-game injury absence meant Powell was dropped in many leagues, but he made his return on Sunday and immediately saw 31 minutes, finishing with 20 points, four threes, four assists, three rebounds and a steal. As of Tuesday, Powell is available in more than half of Yahoo leagues.

Jae Crowder, MEM: I realize at the end of the day, Jae Crowder is Jae Crowder, but he's been a startling-caliber fantasy option over the last two weeks. In a six-game span, Crowder is averaging 12.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals, in addition to hitting 2.2 threes (39.5% 3PT) per game. He'll always be prone to down games – like a five-point effort Friday against San Antonio – but for the time being, Crowder (32% owned) is worth a roster spot.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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