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NBA Daily: Chris Paul’s Last Hope

There have been so many rumblings surrounding who Chris Paul’s next team should be. Matt John provides one particular team that hasn’t been brought up much that could very much benefit from Paul’s services.

Matt John

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A point guard with the rap sheet that Chris Paul has does not deserve an anticlimactic ending. Now that he’s being paid almost $40 million in his mid-30’s to lead an average team in a Western Conference that won’t accept anything less than elite, it sure seems like his career is headed that way.

It’s true that in some respect, he did this to himself. He agreed to a contract extension so expensive that including it in a trade would be practically impossible. At the same time, can you blame the man for getting one last payday as his career approaches its end?

Whatever the case may be, now he’s with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since essentially the first day in OKC, Paul’s name has been brought up endlessly in trade rumors. Even though he’s embraced his role as the mentor — and even though the Thunder have had a stellar start to the season — the plan has remained the same: Blow this sucker up.

That all starts with Paul. Even if he’s not what he once was, Chris Paul is still an effective basketball player. In fact, a case can be made that he’s having a better season with the Thunder than Russell Westbrook is currently having with the Houston Rockets. Based on skillset alone, Paul can still make a major difference in someone’s chances.

Of course, his contract is the ultimate dealbreaker. Teams aren’t exactly lining up for one of the league’s highest-paid players who’s also in decline. The only way they would is if they were just that desperate. They do have to consider that even if he clogs up the cap sheet, a player as good as Paul can basically be had free of charge right now.

We know there are certain teams that are either looking for an upgrade or are frantically searching for any kind of boost. Is the 34-year-old Chris Paul the answer to their prayers?

Milwaukee has been brought up as an option because Malcolm Brogdon’s departure should have hurt them in the playmaking department. If it has, there are no signs of it on the court because the Bucks haven’t skipped a beat this season. Their 16-game winning streak should be enough evidence of that.

They have the contracts to make it work — Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova — but is Milwaukee willing to sacrifice so much of their depth for someone like Paul when the product they have is clearly working as well as they could have hoped? Unless Milwaukee takes a major turn for the worse, Paul’s name probably won’t be associated with them.

That wouldn’t be the same case with the team that has been associated the most with Paul since his trade to the Thunder — the Miami HEAT. They have the expendable assets to acquire a Paul without losing a wink of sleep — Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Meyers Leonard — but as the season progresses, there should be younger players on cheaper contracts that the HEAT would probably consider before they would inquire about the future Hall of Famer.

There would also be skepticism about how the offense would work with Paul given that their current version centered around multiple playmakers like Jimmy Butler, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic, among others, is succeeding. The HEAT could use Paul, but they may be better served looking at other players before him.

In short, the perfect team for Chris Paul at this point has to be one that has expendable contracts to get him without sacrificing much of their core that would also stand to benefit from his presence. There is one team that checks all those boxes. Believe it or not, it’s a team that hasn’t been mentioned as a potential CP3 destination as of late, the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz were supposed to have championship aspirations this season. On paper, they did everything right sans adding some scoring to their second unit — ahem, Jeremy Lin was right there, guys. Adding talent on paper doesn’t always translate to the court and for Utah, it really hasn’t.

The prognosis on the Jazz was that while their defense would remain elite, it was their offense that would vault them into title contention. Currently, they stand at 14-11. Their defense has fallen out of the top 10 — their defensive rating is 106.1, good for 11th overall — and their offense has gone from pedestrian to flat-out bad as their offensive rating is 106.7, good for 23rd overall.

There is a myriad of issues facing Utah right now. The bench isn’t providing much scoring support, Joe Ingles’ jump shot has largely failed him, Utah’s calling card – their grit and effort – doesn’t seem to be there anymore, but at the center of their issues is the sudden decline of newcomer Mike Conley Jr.

Conley was very much the talk of the town when Utah’s season first started. He was supposed to be the secondary playmaker/shotmaker that Donovan Mitchell desperately needed both to expand his game and make Utah’s offense more respectable.

Adjusting to Salt Lake’s high and dry altitude can be tough for just about anyone. Adjusting to being the second-in-command can be even tougher. If there was one player who wouldn’t let factors like that get to him, it surely would have been Conley. It sadly has been very much to the contrary.

Conley has not looked like the guy that was once the leader of Grit-and-Grind. At all. Utah wasn’t asking for that guy, but they were asking for someone who was better than what they are currently getting.

Conley is averaging almost 14 points a game, his worst scoring average since 2012 — and his shooting splits aren’t much better at 37/37/80. The 37 percent from the field as a whole is the worst he’s ever shot in his career. His assist-to-turnover ratio has taken a dip, going from 3.5, 11th in the league last season, to 2.2, or 77th this season. Less assists were to be expected with a lesser role, but the turnovers were supposed to go down too.

It gets worse.

Much, much worse…

It might be time to ask if Conley’s best days are firmly behind him. Utah is better when he’s on the court — they are plus-4.4 when he’s playing — but this was supposed to go better than how it’s gone. There’s still plenty of regular season left for Conley to figure things out, but we’re 20-plus games into this season and he hasn’t shown any modicum of consistency.

The Jazz wanted a clearcut no. 2 to fortify the offense. Conley was designated to be that guy and he hasn’t been up to the task. His disappointing play combined with the Jazz’s lost identity could lead to a call for action. If there’s one guy who could fill the role that Conley was supposed to play as well as get Utah back to their roots, it’s Chris Paul.

The red flags are there and have already been described in detail, but this is a rare opportunity at hand because Paul won’t come with a hefty price tag. Trading Paul for Conley works straight up salary-wise. Knowing the limited market for the legend, the Thunder could be happy to get Conley — who has one less year on his deal and gets paid around $6 million less per because that creates more flexibility.

Paul’s contract is monstrous and will only get bigger from here — but even at 34, he can be the leader the Jazz wanted Conley to be. He is putting up more efficient stats on a lesser team – averaging 15.7 points on 45/36/89 splits – he has a better assist-to-turnover ratio – 3.68, good for 15th in the league – and the Thunder have been infinitely better when he’s on the court.

He also has shown he can still bring it in the clutch as well as play up to the more competitive teams. The Jazz have seen this firsthand when he and the Thunder basically toyed with them on their home floor.

The Jazz wanted this to be the year in which they were more than just an underdog exceeding expectations. Trading for Conley and bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic cued that they had their eyes firmly on their first title. Trading for Paul would on paper create that window they believed Conley would. It’s a risk to invest in the older, more expensive point guard — but do the Jazz want to fizz out at this point?

Again, Utah has time to sort things. It hasn’t been pretty for them, but it usually never is early on. This isn’t something that they have to consider now, but something they should keep in the back of their heads — especially if Conley never finds his footing.

Chris Paul isn’t the same Point God he was in New Orleans or Los Angeles, but he can be what the Jazz have wanted for the last two-plus years: The final piece.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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