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The omicron outbreak has been relentless in the real world and pervasive in the NBA realm.
With players perpetually moving in and out of the health and safety protocols, clubs have been forced to call upon a number of unexpected names—some familiar, some off the radar—to cover those gaps.
Because there are more high-level hoopers than normally available roster spots, a number of these replacement players have put convincing numbers in the box score. But should they be trusted in these most unique of circumstances?
We’re here to tackle that question by giving eight of the top replacement players the always trusty smell test to know whether fans should buy or sell their sustainability.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Verdict: Buying Marquese Chriss as an NBA rotation player
Some replacement players played their way out of the league, and others had failed to force their way in. Chriss didn’t land in either bucket, as the former lottery pick (No. 8 in 2016) was without an NBA job because of a broken leg suffered in Dec. 2020 and failing to crack the Portland Trail Blazers final roster in training camp.
He’s an NBA talent with NBA tools, and he has displayed that during a lengthy stay with the Dallas Mavericks. The bouncy big man earned their literal buy-in—after three 10-day pacts, he scored a two-year deal with the team—by providing a paint presence and adding some electricity to their pick-and-roll attack.
“He’s just done a really good job of playing above the rim,” Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison told reporters. “Setting screens, being physical, rolling to the rim and then rebounding, which every team could use that.”
In the past, Chriss sometimes got in trouble trying to do too much and tanked his efficiency (42.9/29.6/62.8 shooting slash through first three seasons). That won’t be an issue with the Mavericks, who have a clear offensive hierarchy and an expert table-setter in Luka Doncic.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Verdict: Buying Kyle Guy as a two-way player, selling him as a rotation regular
Guy spent the past two seasons on two-way contracts with the Sacramento Kings, and while he failed to make waves there, Sacramento has never been the most fruitful developmental ground. Relocating to South Beach—first on a pair of 10-day agreements, reportedly on a two-way deal next, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel—gave Guy a better chance at success.
He stormed out of the gate, scoring 17 points in his first game and another 14 in his third. He bagged four triples at a 50-plus percent clip in both contests. With 14 assists against five turnovers over six contests, he also showed what he can do as a complementary caretaker of the offense.
Three-point bombing and sound decision-making have been part of his scouting report since leaving Virginia, but so have the problems presented by his physical limitations. He’s 6’1″, 167 pounds and not a good athlete. A good team like the Heat can help cover those weaknesses to some degree, but it could easily decide the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. He doesn’t show enough as a scorer or facilitator to picture him getting cleared to consistently pilot a second unit.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
Verdict: Buying Stanley Johnson as an end-of-the-bench option
Johnson has intrigued NBA front offices for the better part of a decade now. His drool-worthy defensive tools nudged him near the top of the 2015 draft (No. 8 pick), and the hope was his offensive arsenal would eventually catch up.
Six-plus years later, it still hasn’t and probably never will. Through nearly 400 NBA games, he has a 37.6 field-goal percentage and a 29.8 percent clip from three. He has never averaged double figures, typically tallies a similar number of assists and turnovers and struggles to get to the free-throw line.
Teams must be desperate for defense to give Johnson a look, and the Lakers were when they gave him the first of what will now be three 10-day contracts. They have started him five times in nine games, and his defensive presence has helped. Still, his offensive limitations are too much to overcome, and if he sticks on an NBA roster, he’ll likely be an emergency defender who gets inconsistent run.
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Verdict: Selling Greg Monroe as a fit in the modern game
Monroe can put up numbers. That was true in his first tour of NBA duty, which spanned from 2010 to 2019, and it remains accurate to this day.
In his first NBA action since May 2019, the Moose gave a desperate Minnesota Timberwolves team 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 25 minutes. The Wolves only played him two more times and opted against a second 10-day deal when their frontcourt recovered. He promptly latched on with the Washington Wizards, nearly double-doubled in his debut (eight points and seven boards in 14 minutes), suited up just once more and couldn’t secure a second 10-day pact.
Monroe can play. That’s never been in question. He is active on the glass, skilled around the basket and comfortable controlling offense from the elbow. The issue is whether his throwback traits were enough to cover for his contemporary pitfalls, as in no shooting, no rim protection and struggles defending in space. The NBA moved on from Monroe a few years back and is doing it again.
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Verdict: Buying Alfonzo McKinnie as belonging in the NBA
This is McKinnie’s fifth consecutive season on a big-league roster. He can keep this run going for a while if his improved shooting sustains.
Length, athleticism and defensive activity had punched his previous NBA tickets. Those are surely the same things that drew the Bulls to the Chicago native. But what has helped him stick—first on a pair of 10-day pacts, now on a standard contract that features a non-guaranteed salary for 2022-23—are the strides made with his outside shot. A career 32.5 percent three-point shooter his first four seasons, he was at 43.3 in the G League and is 9-of-24 with the Bulls.
“He’s a great guy, a team guy,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said, per NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “… And then he has shot the ball well. He can put it on the floor. He’s unselfish. And he gives you a lot of length on the perimeter defensively.”
There are reasons teams keep giving McKinnie a look, and that interest will only increase if he remains a legitimate threat from three.
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Verdict: Buying Davon Reed as an NBA role player
Reed is a defensive energizer. There are other elements to his game—he’s had three games with three triples and two with 11-plus points—but it’s where he makes his biggest mark.
That role is perpetually undervalued, but in Reed’s case, he never even had the chance to be underappreciated. The 32nd pick in 2017, he logged 242 minutes in 2017-18, 47 the following season and didn’t get any more NBA minutes until the Nuggets came calling in December. He gave them 24 minutes out of the gate and has mostly been a rotation mainstay ever since.
“He looks like he belongs,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, per Mike Singer of the Denver Post. “Davon Reed is an NBA player.”
The Nuggets treated Reed as such and gave him a two-way deal to keep him around. A standard contract and the consistent minutes that come with it could certainly appear in his future. He can splash open threes, run basic actions off the dribble and make a ton of good things happen defensively. His per-100-possessions contributions include 9.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.3 threes at a 43.3 percent clip.
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Verdict: Buying Lance Stephenson is a serviceable spark plug
Born Ready stayed ready.
That’s been the nutshell assessment of Stephenson’s return from two-plus seasons out of the league, a journey that began with the Atlanta Hawks before, fittingly, circling him back to the Circle City. After a quiet stint in Atlanta, he made a deafening home debut in Indianapolis, netting 30 points (on 12-of-19 shooting, 4-of-8 from deep) and five assists in 32 minutes during his third outing with the Pacers.
For an encore, he served up 14 assists with only a single turnover against the Utah Jazz three nights later, rocking to the rhythm of his own guitar and making everyone dance around him.
“He has a swag that goes around that everybody wants to be part of,” Domantas Sabonis said, per Pacers.com’s Wheat Hotchkiss.
History says Stephenson will take some chances he shouldn’t, and his three-ball could disappear at any time. Saying that, his shot-creation is for real, and it can prop up a bench unit that needs more zip.
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Verdict: Selling Isaiah Thomas as an NBA contributor
This is a bummer.
Thomas’ 2016-17 campaign was among the most mesmerizing of the last decade, and he was high-level hooping before that. At full-strength, the 5’9″, 185-pounder is a slick-handling, fire-balling, fearless destroyer of defenses. That season, the masterpiece of his career, was a master class in offensive execution featuring 28.9 points per game, a 46.3/37.9/90.9 shooting slash and a fifth-place finish in MVP voting.
But he injured his right hip during that playoff run, and the ailment sapped him of his net-shredding superpowers. He has suited up just 92 times in the four-plus seasons since, appearing as a shell of his former self when he hits the hardwood. He can still get buckets (19.2 points per 36 minutes over this stretch), but his efficiency has evaporated (38.1/33.5/83.4 slash).
Frankly, it’s hard to watch knowing the player he could be with full health and how the league would be a better place with the real Isaiah Thomas in it.
But that player isn’t coming back, and without the trademark offense, his defensive limitations are too severe to stomach. The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks both moved on after a single 10-day contract. While another scoring-starved suitor could surface, it’s hard to see Thomas ever sticking at this level again.
Statistics are accurate through Sunday’s games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.