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Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt

Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.

Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)

After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.

Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.

Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.

Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.

Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.

******

Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.

“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”

Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.

“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”

“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”

A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.

Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.

Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.

Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.

The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.

Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.

Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:

Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent

Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent

Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent

Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent

Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent

Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.

And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.

Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.

“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”

******

Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.

That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.

Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.

“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”

Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.

Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.

The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.

Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.

“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.

“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”

With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.

“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.

And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.

They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.

“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”

The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.

“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”

How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.

Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.

A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?

******

A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.

He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.

“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”

It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.

He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.

All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.

“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”

With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.

Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.

More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.

Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.

They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Will Jabari Parker Figure It Out?

After disappointing his second consecutive team, Jabari Parker has found himself on the block. Matt John explores what has gone wrong in Chicago and how he can turn it around.

Matt John

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Once upon a time, Jabari Parker was supposed to be the NBA’s next big thing.

Now, he’s potentially the NBA’s next salary dump.

The man who was once deemed a “can’t miss prospect” merely four years ago is now the latest installment in what’s been a rare pattern this season of teams cutting ties very early with their most recent offseason additions.

First, it was Houston when they decided to oust Carmelo Anthony after ten games. Then, Phoenix did the same with Trevor Ariza after 26 games. And now, it appears that Jabari is now done-zo in the Windy City after 29 games.

The difference between Carmelo/Ariza and Jabari is that the former two’s stints in their new homes coming to a quick end wasn’t all that unexpected. Carmelo’s move to Houston drew a lot of skepticism given what had happened in his previous year at OKC, while Ariza joined a team who had very little expectation to begin with.

Jabari is another story. It’s true that he didn’t come into Chicago with any major expectations. Signing a two-year, $40 million contract with a team option for next year meant virtually no downside for the Bulls. If Parker panned out, then they’d keep him, and if not, they could get him off the books easily.

While things haven’t worked out, the Bulls surprisingly have elected to pull the plug now rather than just wait it out until the end of the season. Coupling this along with the Bulls’ most recent turmoil makes you wonder how much Parker has to do with it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe he’s the direct source.

Either way, Jabari’s going to have a new home sometime in the near future. The question asked here isn’t going to be where that is. Instead, the question is, when he is traded to his next team, will he ever be the player we all thought he would be?

Remember that this is the same guy who back in 2012 was deemed “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.” The same guy that prompted several teams to throw away their season just for the chance to get their hands on him in the 2014 draft. The same guy who many thought was the perfect partner-in-crime to pair up with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

We’ve seen stretches of that player since Parker came into the NBA. They’ve just come so rarely and, even when they have, they haven’t always led to a positive impact. Unfortunately, the warning signs that came with Jabari coming out of college have definitely manifested themselves.

First, remember that whole, “they don’t pay players to play defense” schtick that Jabari said non-sarcastically at his introductory press conference? Well, the man deserves credit for keeping it real.

That little snippet is one of many examples of Parker’s ineptitude on the defensive end. Again, he wasn’t expected to be Kawhi Leonard out there, but no player who wants to make it in this league should have instances where they look completely helpless on that end of the floor.

Statistics don’t exactly help his case either. Outside of his tragically cut-short rookie season, Parker’s never had a defensive rating lower than 110 according to Basketball Reference, and the Bulls are minus-4.2 in defensive rating with Parker on the floor this season, per NBA.com.

Secondly, it’s Parker’s inability to help the offense despite his reputation as an offensively-savvy player.

It sounds odd because basic statistics will tell you that Jabari’s doing just fine. He’s putting 15.2 points on 45 percent shooting as well as corralling 6.9 rebounds a night. In fact, the Bulls are plus-3 in offensive rating when he’s on the floor. A closer look, though, will say otherwise.

Even if the Bulls are technically better offensively with Jabari on the floor, he only raises their offensive rating from 95 to 98 when he’s on the floor. The Bulls currently have the lowest rated offense at 100.7 according to Basketball Reference, so it’s not as if his contributions make things that much better.

Other metrics prove that Parker’s a negative offensively to the Bulls. His offensive win shares are currently at -0.9, and his offensive box plus/minus is -3.3. Perhaps the worst indicator of his negative impact on offense is his mid-range shooting.

Parker currently shoots 18.3 percent of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc. That wouldn’t be so bad if he could regularly hit those shots, but he only hits 35.2 percent of them. Compare to that to say, Kevin Durant, who shoots a higher percentage of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc at 19.2 percent, and hits 49.1 percent of them.

Here’s the worst one of them all – of the 451 players listed on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Parker currently ranks 439 with a Real Plus-Minus of -4.17.

It really doesn’t look good for him, and his disappointing start so far both this year and his career so far is eerily similar to another player who went down as one of the bigger busts in recent memory: Michael Beasley.

Beasley came into the NBA with major expectations. His scoring prowess seemed so advanced that he drew comparisons to Kevin Durant. Of course, Beasley didn’t pan out and even found himself out of the league for a bit because of two reasons.

1. His porous defense.
2. His insistence on taking long two’s instead of threes
3. His poor mental state

Since coming back into the league, he has since found his niche, which is good to see for him. That still doesn’t rid him of the bust label. Parker does not have the same mental struggles that Beasley had, but their two other struggles are very much alike.

Cut Jabari some slack though. A fair amount of his problems are not his fault. Tearing the same ACL twice in a 2.5-year span is a huge hurdle to get over. That had to play a role in his lack of progression, which is a given. There might, however, be two other specific reasons as to what’s stopped him from putting it together.

First is that Jabari has never exactly played under a well-regarded coach. So far, Parker has played for four head coaches: Jason Kidd, Joe Prunty, Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen. None of these four coaches have made any serious noise in the NBA, with the closest one to doing so being Kidd. Kidd’s best run as coach didn’t happen in Milwaukee, and he was rumored to be at odds with Parker.

Parker was part of arguably the most underachieving team in the league under Kidd/Prunty, and then went to play for a team whose coaching situation isn’t very stable at the moment in Chicago. One could argue that because he’s never played under a good coach in the NBA, Jabari’s never been given a real chance to prove himself.

Playing under the right coach could help with the second reason he hasn’t figured it out, which is him playing in the right role. Parker came into the league with an undefined position. Teams weren’t sure which position he would thrive in since he had the height to play both small and power forward. According to Basketball Reference, Parker has played the majority of his minutes – 81 percent – at power forward, which made him an awkward fit on the Bucks and the Bulls.

Both Milwaukee and Chicago have excellent young talent at power forwards with the Greek Freak and Lauri Markkanen, which probably limited Parker’s effectiveness. If he’s on a team that doesn’t have a power forward that could get in his way, that could lead to a breakthrough for the guy. That is also banking on the idea that he would be playing under the right coach.

This is all speculative though. Even if he hasn’t played under the most competent head coaches, or for the most stable organizations, a guy with as much talent as Jabari Parker shouldn’t have his production be delayed for as long as it has.

If Parker doesn’t turn it around on his next team, then his excuses may run out, as well as his time in the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Suns Change Course With Trade

The Phoenix Suns have changed course with their trade for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Austin Rivers, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The beginning to this season has been a whirlwind and the Western Conference is as competitive as ever. At 13-16, even the 14th place Minnesota Timberwolves are still not that far outside of the playoff picture. Every Western Conference team is competitive, except for the Phoenix Suns. Now, the Suns have won their last two games, including a win over the Timberwolves. Regardless, they are still well outside the playoff picture and should be primarily focused on the big picture beyond this season.

Adrian Wojnarowksi of ESPN took league and its fans on a rollercoaster this past Friday when he broke the news that the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns were on the cusp of completing a three-way trade. For the Suns, this three-way trade centered around moving forward Trevor Ariza. As quickly as the news had erupted, it appeared to go sideways with revelations of miscommunications between the teams and which players were going to be involved. Soon after the miscommunication came to light, news leaked that the deal was off.

The Suns and Wizards didn’t take long to re-engage in trade talks. On Saturday, the Suns and Wizards were able to complete a trade. The Suns received guard Austin Rivers and forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. In exchange, the Suns sent Ariza (again) to the Wizards. The Wizards are hoping that Ariza’s return helps to solve the chemistry issues that have thrown a wrench into this season so far.

“One of the best veteran teammates I’ve had,” John Wall said regarding Ariza.

In addition, the trade helps the Wizards avoid having to re-sign Oubre, Jr. at a time when their salary cap remains bloated for the foreseeable future.

For the Suns, they get a young, talented player in Oubre, Jr., who may be a huge part of the team’s plan going forward if he can take a significant step forward in his development. However, getting another wing isn’t the exact elixir that this team needs. Quality point guard play has been elusive for the Suns. A few weeks ago the team gave Elie Okobo a chance to step into the role. Okobo spoke to Basketball Insiders around this time about his effort and what he could work on going forward.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive and help my team to win games. I work hard and try to help them and get the confidence, trust from them and the coaching staff,” Okobo told Basketball Insiders. “I would say the playmaking, avoid the little turnovers, the little mistakes and make my open shots and just try to play really aggressive and defend.”

Amidst an extended losing streak, Okobo’s playing time decreased after starting three games in that period. Recently, the Suns allowed De’Anthony Melton to play and show that he could step up. Melton has started the last five games and has shown himself to be capable as well. The Suns have even won the last two games to break their losing streak.

A few good games don’t necessarily mean the point guard situation is settled long-term. In addition to Oubre, Jr, the Suns also received Rivers. With the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers showed himself capable of stepping in as an off-guard who could handle the point in spot minutes, when needed. Over the years, Rivers has also proven himself to be a capable off-the-bench scorer who could exert above average effort, especially on defense.

With Washington, Rivers was expected to be a reliable bench scorer and someone who could fill in for one of the team’s lead guards, if necessary. However, the Wizards season didn’t start off as they had intended. Rivers never found a comfortable fit on offense and often sat on the bench for key stretches. To his credit, Rivers did prove himself to be a capable and focused defender.

Whether Rivers will get a chance to prove himself worthy of major minutes is up in the air. What the Suns need is a lead reliable point guard capable of relieving Devin Booker (when he returns from injury) from his responsibilities as the team’s lead playmaker. Suns Head Coach Igor Kokoškov expressed his interest in doing so to Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“I think Devin Booker’s main thing, his job description is to score for us. He is a scoring guard and he is doing a lot of handling, a lot of playmaking, we never put him on a point guard to guard. So, whoever you guard, that is your position. He is not a point guard. He’s a playmaker, he’s going to handle a lot. James Harden is a playmaker, a scoring guard. Same type, same type of player,” Kokoškov said.

Now with Rivers in Phoenix, he might have a chance to play as an off-guard who can help bring the ball up the court, handle in spots, defer to Booker and play defense.

“If we have a traditional point guard or not, Booker’s going to have the ball in his hands,” Kokoškov said.

Kelly Oubre, Jr. is the major addition for the Suns in this trade, showing Phoenix is now mostly concerned with the future. However, a player like Rivers could prove valuable this season and could have an impact on roster decisions the team makes moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southwest Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is the day! Dec. 15. is finally here.

There are still a few weeks until Christmas, but this particular date marks another major holiday in NBA circles. As of 12:01 EST, players that signed new contracts in the offseason are eligible to be traded at long last. Although we won’t see a flurry of moves by any means, the old rumor mill should be up and running in no time. To commemorate the yearly occasion, Basketball Insiders dusted off the timeless Buyers or Sellers series and this entry will bring the ride to the ever-reliable Southwest Division.

For more trade chatter: Steve Kyler on the league-wide landscape, Spencer Davis covered the Central Division, David Yapkowitz broke down the Northwest, Drew Maresca tallied the Atlantic and Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southeast. With plenty of basketball behind us already, it’s time to take stock within the NBA’s most exciting division.

Spoiler alert: They’re all in it to win it, as always.

Dallas Mavericks

Through nearly 30 games, the Mavericks are right where they hoped to be — right in the thick of things. Before the season began, many wrote off Dallas — not because of their overall roster skill, but simply because the stingy Western Conference is no easy beast to conquer. Of course, they’re far from safe and a losing streak can spell trouble for any franchise, but the Mavericks have the correct balance of young assets and veteran leadership to make these good times last. Dirk Nowitzki made his long-awaited season debut on Thursday night against Phoenix, veterans like DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews have kept the ship steady and then there’s Luka Dončić, the rookie that’s set the league on fire.

Flanked by an experience-heavy bench, the Mavericks have exceeded expectations thus far and clearly won’t be sellers headed into trade season. Although, beyond that, it’s hard to envision Dallas finding a true way to considerably upgrade. Matthews’ expiring contract worth $18 million is intriguing, but his 39 percent mark from three-point range has been invaluable. Same, basically, with Jordan’s looming, consistent presence in the paint. And it’s hard to believe that many teams would bite on paying Barnes and his deal worth $25 million in 2019-20. Dončić and Nowitzki aren’t going anywhere either — duh — so that leaves Dennis Smith Jr. as perhaps the Mavericks’ most expendable piece right now.

Smith Jr. is averaging 13 points and 4 assists, a slight decline on his rookie season numbers, but the Mavericks would be wise to stick with the 21-year-old that went No. 9 overall so recently. If Dallas is serious about making a postseason push — and they should be — look for them to make a minor, bench-fortifying move between now and February.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ryan Broekhoff, Devin Harris, DeAndre Jordan, Salah Mejri, Dirk Nowitzki

Houston Rockets

It’s begun to feel like beating a dead horse, but the Rockets are certainly in trouble.

In the crowded conference, Houston has done just enough not to be completely buried and forgotten about. Still, it’s also difficult to find an easy path back into this season as the legitimate contenders they once were. It’s well-documented by now, but the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute loom large and their replacements — including the already-departed Carmelo Anthony — have failed to replicate their contributions. The Rockets balked at making a panic splash for Jimmy Butler and now they’re just hoping to slowly figure things out. Salary cap complications may have caused the offseason exodus, but the Rockets have lost their bite and defensive identity from a massively successful 2017-18 campaign.

As expected, James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela have been remarkably robust again, but their depth takes a hard nose-dive from there. With so much money already committed to the core, Houston has no choice but to be buyers moving forward. Recent rumors have linked the franchise to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a useful defender and scorer who is, most importantly, obtainable. Badly in a need for a wing, Caldwell-Pope and his expiring contract worth $12 million would be a solid fit both rotationally and financially for the Rockets. Outside of that, Houston could shift around the likes of P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Marquese Chriss and Michael Carter-Williams, but would likely need to attach some picks in order to actually upgrade in a considerable way.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Gerald Green; Jan. 15: Clint Capela, Chris Paul

Memphis Grizzlies

Sixth place! Memphis basketball is back, baby!

Just when we all thought the Grizzlies might be finally, officially dead, they go and rope us right back in. Helmed by head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the 16-12 surprise squad is squarely involved in the postseason race. In fact, as of posting, the Grizzlies simultaneously lead the Southwest Division and only merely outpace the aforementioned disappointing, 13th-place Rockets by two games in the loss column. On the other hand, Memphis is just three behind Denver and Golden State for that elusive top spot, so, yes, the Grizzlies should be buyers in no uncertain terms.

(In fact, they nearly acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. earlier this morning…)

The early returns on recent additions like Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi are promising, but there’s still a discernable gap between Memphis and the perennial powers that oppose them. Furthermore, they probably lack the type of big offer it’ll take to acquire somebody like Bradley Beal, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally limited here either.

J.R. Smith and Courtney Lee could be intriguing options for a roster that badly needs more shooting from deep. If Memphis wants to roll the dice, the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore — who is owed $19.2 million in 2019-20 — would be a culturally strong fit for the on-court brand as well. Ultimately, there are targets here for the taking if they’re willing to move on from JaMychel Green following the fast emergence of rookie phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. Green, 28, will be an unrestricted free agent in July and might be an enticing prospect for any franchise looking to clear up a chunk of cap space.

Assuming that Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. are both invested for the long haul, the Grizzlies will remain firmly in the win-now column. Now, if only they could find a taker for that Chandler Parsons contract…

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi, Shelvin Mack

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have Anthony Davis, so their designation should be awfully clear: Buyers.

It’s all about Davis, obviously, and the future Hall of Famer is eligible for a supermax contract in the 2019 offseason. If the Pelicans want to keep their once-in-a-generation star, there’s no time like the present to prove your undying commitment. Naturally, that’s why the Pelicans are one of the trade market’s most active teams right now, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN. Similarly to Memphis, New Orleans lacks the high-ceiling prospect or hefty expiring contract that a significant upgrade in this scenario would entail. However, given that Pelicans must do whatever it takes to appease Davis, their trove of untouched draft picks should be available this winter.

Julius Randle has proven to be a quality signing, while Elfrid Payton was contributing nicely prior to fracturing his finger in November. Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Davis have all missed a sampling of games as well, leading the Pelicans to some unpredictable performances. Attempting to tread water out west is a dangerous game, so New Orleans may feel compelled to jump in the deep end sooner rather than later. Whether it’s small trade or a blockbuster effort, keeping Davis happy is one of the NBA’s most intriguing narratives as the superstar quickly hurdles toward potential free agency in 2020.

Although they’ve been marred by lingering injuries, this Pelicans team is clearly talented — but can they afford to wait much longer without adding reinforcements?

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Kenrich Williams

San Antonio Spurs

This is a Gregg Popovich-led franchise still — so the Spurs, who haven’t missed the postseason since 1996-97, aren’t about to sell their assets and tank out anytime soon.

Sure, it’s been slow-going at times for an injury-riddled roster that’s now deep into their first full season with Kawhi Leonard at the helm. Granted, the breakup was indeed messy — but adjusting an entire scheme to a different superstar is not always an easy task. To his credit, DeMar DeRozan is soaring in San Antonio, averaging a career-high in both rebounds and assists through the first 29 games. Beyond that, Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker signed in Charlotte and Kyle Anderson left in free agency — all of sudden, everything had changed.

Toss in the brutal injuries to Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray and Pau Gasol, it’s easy to see why the Spurs have struggled out of the gate.

Since long-time wing Danny Green was part of the DeRozan-Leonard swap in July, the Spurs have sorely missed a defensive contributor at that spot. The just-moved Ariza would have been a flawless fit for Popovich and the Spurs, but there are plenty of veterans on the market for them snap to up if they’re willing. There’s a question of whether or not a healthy San Antonio team is a contender anyway — but as long as that legendary head coach is still in charge, they’ll be competing until the very end.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Marco Belinelli, Dante Cunningham, Rudy Gay, Quincy Pondexter; Jan. 15: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes

It’s business as usual in the Southwest Division and that won’t be changing in the near future. Between the hungry superstars and talented head coaches, selling at the trade deadline seems like a near impossibility. Although it’s still early, all five teams are entrenched in both the division and postseason battle, so get used to seeing them slug it out until April. The volatile Western Conference means that four of them could easily miss out — but the smart money says that it’ll be a close race until the very end.

Davis, Popovich, Dončić, Conley and the reigning conference runner-ups — how could you bet against any of them? For now, the best we can do is keep an eye on this space and watch the stars shine.

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