On the eve of the NBA playoffs, Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Twitter that Nick Calathes will be suspended 20 games for failing a drug test. Although Calathes is a bit-part player, his minutes will still need to be reallocated, and somebody will have to step in and fill his role as backup point guard.
The Grizzlies are not without options when it comes to replacing Calathes in the lineup, in no small part because of midseason moves made by the front office.
Option 1: Beno Udrih
Udrih has only played 53 minutes in a Grizzlies jersey this season, and it is logical to say that giving a guy that’s played so few minutes a lot more minutes in the playoffs is a recipe for disaster. That would of course be overdramatizing things. Udrih played 588 minutes for the New York Knicks this season before being released, and he was able to do some decent things for them.
Udrih gets criticized for his defense, particularly on the pick & roll, which is essential to defensive success for an NBA point guard. However, that’s not a completely fair assessment. Although opposing ball handlers were 34/75 from the field (45.3%) on the pick & roll against Udrih while he was with the Knicks, the result isn’t always what matters. He was able to pick up screeners early, allowing him to fight through and recover to his man with frequent success and force tough shots that just so happened to fall. A solid contest is really all you can hope for though.
As for offensive contributions, Udrih isn’t that dissimilar to Calathes. He, like Calathes, is crafty with the ball in his hands, and he might even turn the corner after using screens on the pick & roll and get north and south better than Calathes. It’s also worth noting that Udrih shot 10/24 (41.7%) from the three-point line in spot-up opportunities with the Knicks this season. So, Udrih could be useful to the Grizzlies by spelling Conley for 8-10 minutes/game in the playoffs. That won't be enough time for his weaknesses to really show and hurt the Grizzlies.
Option 2: Courtney Lee
Lee has served as the primary ball handler for the Grizzlies already at times this season, so the role wouldn't be new to him. This option makes sense because head coach Dave Joerger would not have to play someone that he is not comfortable with i.e. the other two options listed in this post. Additionally, this way Lee could still add value if he continues to shoot horribly in the playoffs. He doesn't turn the ball over much as a whole, and he rarely plays out of control.
The downside to this scenario is that Lee turns the ball over too much as the pick & roll ball handler. Yikes. That tidbit is scary for a Grizzlies offense that relies so heavily on the pick & roll. However, Lee wouldn't be in the point guard role long enough to really matter given that it's the playoffs, and Conley will rarely sit. Lee's weaknesses can be hidden long enough for him to give the Grizzlies a solid 6-8 minutes as the backup point guard.
Option 3: James Johnson
This last option, at first glance, is a head scratcher and by far the most "out there." Given Johnson's frequent, shaky decisions, it seems crazy to put the ball in his hands and hope that he can create and orchestrate the offense. But just think about it this way. Imagine Johnson turning the corner on pick & rolls with a full head of steam barreling towards the basket. No NBA defender is going to want any part of that, which is precisely why Johnson should at least be in play to receive some minutes in the backup point guard role in the playoffs. Oh, and he might actually be both athletic and strong enough to check Russell Westbrook at times on defense when the Thunder go to the pick & roll.
All in all, the loss of Calathes is not a huge deal. He was never going to swing the series against the Thunder one way or the other, and the Grizzlies have guys on the current roster that can replace his minutes without experiencing a significant drop off in production. The playoffs haven't even begun, and Joerger is already facing his first test. He better pace himself though, as this is certainly just the first of many tests he will have to ace if the Grizzlies are to continue playing for a little while longer.