The message was simple for the Memphis Grizzlies this offseason: stay the course. This group has been right there in the Western Conference for several years now, just short of busting through to the game’s biggest stage on multiple occasions. And with much of the same core set to return, headlined by Marc Gasol on a brand new contract, there was no reason for management to do anything outlandish. They made a couple value moves in acquiring Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes as solid depth pieces who can contribute in multiple areas, and will bring back Mike Conley and Zach Randolph to form one of the league’s more unheralded three-man combinations with Gasol. The Grizz have depth up and down the lineup at this point, and could have more versatility from their wing rotation than ever before if Barnes is still effective and everyone can stay healthy. As always, they’ll bide their time and look to sneak up on the right unassuming opponent in the playoffs, where (as usual) no one will want to see them.
Basketball Insiders previews the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2015-16 season.
The Grizzlies are going to be tough as nails this year, with a defense that should ultimately be one of the best in the league. Not a lot has changed from a year ago other than the additions of Matt Barnes and Brandan, but that’s not a bad thing considering how good the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis is a team constructed of players in the midst of their peak years and don’t have to keep their fingers crossed that a certain player or two will break out. They’re 100 percent ready to be awesome right now, and that’s exactly what they should be this season.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
The Grizzlies quietly had an excellent offseason. They re-signed Marc Gasol, which was their top priority, but they also added two quality role players in Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright. Both players are on very reasonable contracts and they will fit in perfectly with the Grizzlies’ style of play. Outside of those two players, Memphis brings back much of the same core that they’ve had in recent years and that continuity means they’ll have great chemistry once again. The Grizzlies seem to be flying under the radar a bit since they didn’t make splashy offseason moves like some other teams in the West, but they’re definitely a contender and, as always, they’re a team that nobody wants to face in the postseason. Had they been completely healthy in last year’s playoffs, things could’ve been very different for them. Don’t sleep on the Grizzlies this year.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
Over the years, the Grizzlies have become one of the most entertaining teams to watch. They hustle. They grind. They aren’t afraid to get gritty. (Sounds like a perfect match for Matt Barnes, right?) The Grizzlies took care of business by locking in Marc Gasol. They are returning their core from last season, giving them an instant edge with chemistry. Health is always a key player in the Grizzlies’ success. If their top players can stay injury-free, this team has another shot at going deep in the playoffs.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
In a league full of teams transitioning to an offensive-heavy philosophy, the Memphis Grizzlies’ most notable free agent addition over the summer was defensive-minded veteran Matt Barnes. Why try to fix a successful output that isn’t broken? The Grizzlies haven’t won fewer than 61 percent of their regular season games since the 2010-11 campaign. With Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph still producing at a very high level, the Grizzlies will once again be in the Western Conference playoff mix at season’s end. Book it.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley
A good case could be made here for Marc Gasol as the offense’s fulcrum, but Conley is the one who keeps Memphis’ attack humming and mostly viable while playing lineups often short on spacing. The Grizzlies were the equivalent of a top-10 per-possession offense while he was on the floor last season, per NBA.com, but slid to a borderline bottom-five unit when he sat down.
Conley is a stud in the pick-and-roll, one of the strongest in the game at keeping the defense continually on the back foot with a great change of pace game and a useful in-between floater. The Grizzlies need this in their primary ball-handler – Gasol and Randolph can both grind out their share of possessions in from the high and low posts, but Memphis lacks anyone else who can create regularly, and the frequent dearth of spacing allows teams to often crowd Conley’s roll men in two-man action.
Conley can punish teams for going under the screen as well, shooting over 39 percent on threes off the dribble last season, according to SportVU figures. He was in the same range on catch-and-shoot threes, making him a threat to space things out for one of the big guys in the post. He’s likely the team’s most irreplaceable piece offensively.
Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol
The former Defensive Player of the Year may be leaving his physical peak as he reaches his 30s, but his defensive game has never been predicated on any sort of freak athleticism. He’s a savvy veteran at this point, never out of position and always in control of the interior for one of the league’s most consistent defenses.
Tony Allen has a legitimate case here, but two things: The big positions are inherently a bit more important defensively – they wall off the most common area NBA teams score in and are responsible for the majority of the rebounding. Maybe more importantly, while it’s not really a defensive deficiency, Allen’s play on the other end of the floor hurts him here. He’s too often a liability offensively, and the fact that Gasol was able to play seven more minutes nightly last season is important for a group that wants to maintain their defense-first culture.
Top Playmaker: Mike Conley
To be truthful, the Grizzlies don’t have a single high-volume setup man on the roster. Conley and Gasol do much of the creating initially, with Randolph as more of a score-first option on the block. It takes real effort for the Grizzlies to score a lot of the time, though, and without a single dynamic star to move the defense around the chances are tough to come by.
Conley does his best, using his combination of skills to open the floor wherever possible. Gasol and Randolph eat enough possessions on the block that he’s never been among the league’s more prolific assist men, but he’s a smart and diverse player in two-man action with enough moves in the bag to make things happen in isolation in a pinch and draw help.
Top Clutch Player: Zach Randolph
On the surface this may seem an odd choice – Randolph isn’t the Grizzlies’ first option down the stretch of close games and played slightly less in these circumstances than Conley and Gasol. Big Zach certainly isn’t the first guy anyone’s mind jumps to when they think of the league’s premier clutch players.
Here’s the thing, though: Memphis has an inordinate amount of success while he’s on the floor in these situations. Randolph was a team-best plus-24.4 per-100-possessions during the 153 minutes he played in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the score within five points last year. Even better, he was a jaw-dropping plus-37.6 per-100 in situations where the Grizzlies were either tied or behind by five or less – Memphis finished 17-9 in these games. Randolph seems to up his game when it comes down to it, raising his defensive intensity and imposing his full physical brutality on opponents when the game slows down.
The Unheralded Player: Courtney Lee
Any guess who played the most minutes last postseason for the Grizzlies behind Gasol and Randolph, with Conley struggling with injuries? It was Lee, who earned coach Dave Joerger’s trust as a reliable two-way guy who doesn’t get outside himself and has some sneaky versatility to his game.
Lee shot a round 40 percent on over 200 threes last year, the most attempts of his career. He’s one of the only reliable shooters on the team beyond Conley, and has the skills defensively to match up with a number of guys on the other side of the ball. These sort of basic plus attributes are useful on both ends of the ball for a team that keeps it simple for the most part.
Best New Addition: Brandan Wright
Matt Barnes is a candidate as well, but Wright should be a perfect fit as a third big with Memphis. He’s long been unheralded as something of a jack of all trades, a smart player on both ends who does what’s asked of him and rarely makes mistakes. He should be an upgrade in this system over Kosta Koufos, who ended up being significantly more expensive (heading to Sacramento). Wright comes in at a great number (under $6 million annually) for each of the next three seasons – pennies as the cap explodes.
– Ben Dowsett
Who We Like
Tony Allen: Long one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, Allen in part represents just how vital shooting has become in today’s game. There aren’t five guys in the world who lock down opposing wings as effectively, but the Warriors played him off the floor in the latter stages of the second round last year when they used Andrew Bogut as his de facto “defender,” allowing the big Aussie to abandon Allen entirely and force the Grizzlies to play four on five offensively. Allen couldn’t punish them for ignoring him, and the series turned in part on Steve Kerr’s ingenuity.
Will teams continue to extend that theme even further? It’s a blueprint a number of coaches should be able to replicate, and it could really limit Memphis offensively while Allen stays on the floor. That said, his value on the other end can more than overcome this at times, particularly against teams with a primary creator on the perimeter. He can suffocate up to three positions, maybe the best guy in the league at simply denying star wings the ball with relentless pressure and the ability to mirror their motions. He’s a joy to watch when he’s engaged, and an ace in the hole for Joerger in the right matchups.
Beno Udrih: Udrih is a nice change of pace backup for Conley, a bit of a jitterbug who has a number of tricks up his sleeve and can keep teams off balance with second units. He assisted nearly a quarter of Grizzlies baskets while on the floor last season. He isn’t quite talented enough to play huge minutes and is in the later stages of his career, but he’s useful for what the Grizzlies need out of him.
Matt Barnes: Barnes offers some more stability and a ton of playoff experience. There’s a good chance he becomes the preferred option on the wing to someone like Jeff Green come playoff time, with continued solid two-way play at 35. You know what you’re getting from Barnes: intensity, plus defense and enough other skills to stay on the floor. He’ll compete for regular minutes with the likes of Green and Vince Carter; Memphis’ newfound depth on the wing will allow them to pace each of them, and provide some more versatility come playoff time. He’s a nice offseason pickup for a cheap price.
Dave Joerger: Joerger should be mentioned within the elite circle of NBA coaches more often than he actually is. He’s proven both disciplined and adaptable in his two years at the helm in Memphis. The Grizzlies have been able to stick to their grit-and-grind guns in part due to an effective, no-fluff system that emphasizes their limited offensive strengths, and Joerger has resisted the urge to tinker too heavily and damage what can be a low-margin approach.
Does he have the ingenuity to help get this team through an imposing Western gauntlet? It’s not exactly a condemnation of his style if not, but this might be one of the last chances he has with the current core as Gasol and Randolph age. One of the game’s best at making the most of what he has may have to do even more for the Grizzlies to challenge the West’s true elite, though true to form he’ll keep them one of the postseason’s toughest outs at the very least.
– Ben Dowsett
This Grizzlies team continues to be defined by their defense. They’ve been no worse than seventh on a per-possession basis each of the last four years, and they should be right in that range again with most of the band back. They play a mostly conservative style that suits Gasol in the middle, with strong perimeter guys in Allen, Conley and Lee anchoring a strong front line.
They also have a great deal of continuity on their side, vital for a team with a low margin for error. Every member of the team’s core has been in town for multiple seasons; Wright and Barnes are the only real newcomers, and both are veterans who will have little trouble fitting into a great culture. Everyone is on the same page in Memphis, with a limited amount of ego clouding things in the locker room.
The Grizz also have some legitimate depth this year. In Lee, Green, Allen, Carter, Barnes and even sophomore Jordan Adams, Memphis can throw a number of different looks at teams on the perimeter, and can even try larger periods of small ball with someone like Green or Barnes at the four. Wright gives them three bigs who can play serious minutes when needed. This team should run at least 10 deep most of the year and could be among the league’s freshest come playoff time if they can stay mostly healthy.
– Ben Dowsett
The Grizzlies continue to have issues with shot creation, and it looks to be a primary concern yet again. Conley is the only ball-handler with even token separation skills individually, and even he is much more effective in the two-man game. Randolph and Gasol can both get theirs down low, and Gasol is excellent in the pick-and-roll as well, but with so few other threats anywhere else on the roster and a lack of distance shooting it’s easy for teams to sit on these actions and clog things up.
The Grizzlies are hoping a guy like Barnes, along with continued strong shooting from Lee and Conley, can push them over the top spacing-wise. It’s tough to say if he’ll be enough unless they get some improvements elsewhere, though – the Grizz were 23rd in the league in three-point percentage last season.
In a bigger-picture sense, the past few seasons have seemed to indicate that perhaps the Grizz don’t have an extra gear in playoff time. They’re always one of the league’s toughest outs, and no one ever wants to play them… but they also don’t really seem capable of raising their game quite high enough against the league’s true elite. Part of it is scheme – Memphis plays such a labor-intensive style in the first place that kicking things up yet another notch can be difficult. They also lack a superstar-level offensive player to put them on his back when things get rough, and while some of this is cliché at times, it’s been noticeable in the playoffs.
– Ben Dowsett
The Burning Question
Can the Grizzlies finally get over the hump against the West’s elite?
It seems to be a yearly question at this point. No one would ever dispute Memphis as a legitimate contender by now – they’re one of the league’s most consistent franchises. They just can’t seem to ever take that permanent leap from great to elite, though.
It may never be in the cards, as painful as that might be for the franchise’s faithful. Gasol, Conley and Randolph are a wonderful core, but they’re undoubtedly behind the times of the modern league to some degree with their style and approach. They’ve lacked versatility in a couple instances, particularly against the Warriors last season when they couldn’t rebound after Golden State’s move to Bogut on Allen.
To management’s credit, though, they aren’t going quietly. Barnes and Wright aren’t superstar additions, but they fill real needs and add depth on a tight budget. This is the kind of team ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness; it would only take one playoff injury or stroke of misfortune for an opportunity to arise. If they can keep their key pieces healthy, they’ll be lurking as always come May.
– Ben Dowsett
NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA
How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.
Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.
To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.
Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.
“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”
Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.
On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.
The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.
Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.
Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.
Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.
One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.
The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.
The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.
The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.
The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.
Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.
With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.
Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.
NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern
The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?
The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.
The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.
The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.
Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.
Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.
Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.
It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.
All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?
Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.
Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.
In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.
The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.
Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.
Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.
The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.
Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.
The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.
But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?
It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division
This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.
A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.
It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.
It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.
This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.
The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.
It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?
In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.
Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.
In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.
Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.
Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.
The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.
CJ McCollum’s Regression
The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.
To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.
Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.
McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.
The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.
CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4
CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9
CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1
Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.
Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.
Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy
Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.
Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.
This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.
BOJAN BOGDANOVIC AT THE BUZZER! WOW! pic.twitter.com/EjRZrQwmN7
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) November 9, 2019
Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.
A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.
In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.
What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.
Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.
Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.
And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.
There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.