At the seasons quarter mark, NBA teams have really begun to settle into their own identity. The teams, much like the players, now have a much better idea of who they are and what they can accomplish this season. While some teams have and continue to struggle this season, others have played well or even turned things around in the standings.
For Basketball Insiders’ third installment of First Quarter Grades, we’ll be taking a look Pacific Division. Let’s jump in.
Sacramento Kings 7-16
The Sacramento Kings are bad, there really is no other way to put it. As most expected, the Kings find themselves in the Western Conference cellar with one of the worst records in the NBA. There have been some surprises, such as the upset over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, while rookies De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason and Bogdan Bogdanovic have flashed at times. However, for the most part, the Kings haven’t had a season to remember at the quarter mark.
Bright Spot: Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and pretty much every veteran on the Kings roster not named George Hill have proved solid contributors this season. Garrett Temple, who is shooting 41.4 percent on four three-point attempts per game, could be a potential trade chip for the Kings at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Randolph has provided a steadying presence in the starting lineup while Carter continues to hold his own at the ripe age of 40-years-old.
Biggest Area to Improve: The Kings currently rank 29th in both Offensive and Defensive Rating, not exactly a winning combo. They need to improve all over the basketball court, and they should as the rookies continue to develop and adjust.
First Quarter Grade: D-
Phoenix Suns 9-17
It has been a messy season for the Phoenix Suns. Three games into the season, they fired head coach Earl Watson. Eleven games into the season, they traded disgruntled guard Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks. Marquiss Chriss, Dragan Bender and others haven’t exactly taken the next step in their sophomore seasons. Now, Devin Booker could miss time with a potentially serious left adductor injury he suffered against the Toronto Raptors.
Bright Spot: Booker is the easy answer here, but people have known that he would be a star for quite some time. Instead, T.J. Warren is the pick here. The fourth-year forward is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists. His three-point percentage is a terrible 17.5 percent, but that number should go up as the season continues. In a league that is moving closer and closer to positionless basketball, the Suns appear to be set for the future with both Booker and Warren on the wing.
Biggest Area to Improve: Everywhere. Like the Kings, the Suns rank near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. With Booker potentially missing time, the offensive rank could dip even further. Chriss, Bender and others will have to step up in order to fill the void left by Booker in the lineup.
First Quarter Grade: D
Los Angeles Lakers 8-15
The Los Angeles Lakers sit at 8-15, but the season has seen steady improvements across the roster from last season. The Lakers currently have the eighth-best defensive rating in the NBA thanks to the improved play of holdovers Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram coupled with the arrival of Brook Lopez, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. They have more talent and are all around a better squad than they were last season, now it’s up to Head Coach Luke Walton and the players putting it all together.
Bright Spot: The Lakers have plenty to be happy about at the season’s quarter mark. Making the jump from dead last in defensive rating into the top ten is no small feat, while Clarkson has played great all-around basketball and Ingram has started to figure things out as a scorer. But Kuzma is the obvious choice. Kuzma has looked like the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft, shattering all expectations and proving a cornerstone for the Lakers future. Currently averaging 16.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists, Kuzma is the only rookie to lead his team in scoring
Biggest Area to Improve: The Lakers need help offensively; they rank 28th in NBA in offensive rating and are dead last in both three-point and free throw percentage. While their defense is, for the most part, keeping them in games, the offense just doesn’t have enough firepower to close things out on a regular basis. If they want to improve on the offensive end, they are going to need to get more out of Ball, who has flashed at times but is shooting just 25 percent from three and only 31.3 percent from the field on over 10 attempts per game.
First Quarter Grade: C
Los Angeles Clippers 8-14
It was a promising four-game start for the Los Angeles Clippers, but it’s all been downhill ever since. Decimated by injuries, the Clippers have lost 14 of their last 18 games, including a nine-game losing streak. They have struggled without Blake Griffin, who will miss significant time with an MCL injury, while their offseason acquisitions have done little to fill the void left by the departure of Chris Paul. With a middle of the pack offense, a bad defense and deteriorating health, the Clippers could be starring down the road of a long rebuild.
Bright Spot: The Clippers don’t have much to be happy about right now. But at least DeAndre Jordan has continued to play well in the absence of both Paul, Griffin and most of the starting lineup. On the season, Jordan has averaged 10.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game while shooting 68.3 percent from the floor.
Biggest Area to Improve: Griffin, Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari, four starters, have all missed or are currently missing time due to injury. Their situation has forced the Clippers to rely on rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans more than any team would ever want to. If the injury situation ever improves, the team’s play should improve drastically.
First Quarter Grade: D
Golden State Warriors 19-6
The Pacific Division would likely be the worst division in the NBA if not for the Golden State Warriors. Aside from a few upsets, the regular season has been par for the course for the offensive juggernaut, who sit at the top of the Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference behind the Houston Rockets.
Bright Spot: On a team filled with superstars, rookie Jordan Bell has flashed some serious potential, albeit in a limited role. Bell is averaging just 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds across 10.2 minutes per game, but is seventh on the team in plus-minus at +3.9. In his lone start, Bell stuffed the stat sheet, going for seven points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and six blocks in just over 26 minutes. He’s looking like an absolute steal for the Warriors, who got him from the Bulls for a measly
Biggest Area to Improve: It almost seems nitpicky to say the Warriors need to improve anywhere. They are a well-rounded basketball machine, evidenced by their 12.9 net rating. But, if they had to improve somewhere, it would be on defense. The offense will keep them in and often outright win them games, but a team with as much talent as the Warriors have should be able to post a defensive rating under 100. Currently, their defensive rating sits at 101.7, “only” seventh best in the NBA. They can be better, which should be scary for the rest of the Association.
First Quarter Grade: A-
NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.