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First Quarter Grades: Pacific Division

Shane Rhodes breaks down each team in the Pacific Division at the season’s quarter mark.

Shane Rhodes

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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-

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NBA

Knicks Holdovers Proved Something to Carmelo Anthony and the NBA

The Knicks made a statement in beating Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder convincingly in his return to Madison Square Garden.

Moke Hamilton

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As he walked up the tunnel in his dapper outfit and slick looking fedora, Carmelo Anthony had spent the past few nights thinking about this moment.

Seeing friends and family he’s missed since relocating to Oklahoma City, the game was quite emotional for the 10-time All-Star.

Never did he imagine, though, that his former teammates would want to beat him more than he wanted to beat them.

Even without Kristaps Porzingis, though, that’s exactly what the Knicks went out and did.

******

When LeBron James spurned the Knicks and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach, word began to trickle out of Denver that another big fish had his eyes on New York.

It was there, in the aftermath of heartbreak that the infatuation with Anthony began. Forcing a trade to New York in 2011, Anthony will forever wear the fact that the Knicks were muscled into trading for him like a Scarlett letter. It was ironic then that even with Anthony, the Knicks would spend the majority of his career in New York lacking the talent required to compete for supremacy atop the Eastern Conference.

As the years progressed and the Knicks continued to flounder, fans in New York inevitably split. Some blamed Anthony for the franchise’s failure to achieve higher. By forcing the trade, they’d argued, Anthony stripped the team of valuable assets that could have been used to help acquire reinforcements for him. Those that defend Anthony would sooner point to the organization’s lack of continuity—both on the bench and in the front office—as the primary reason the team floundered.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, just like the scores of teammates Anthony has had in New York have.

Player movement in the NBA has become its own phenomenon. Tons of time is spent talking about things from the superstars’ perspective, and not much from the perspective of the role players. So when a player like Anthony is  deemed to need to relocate in order to have an opportunity to win at the highest levels, players like Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee and even Kristaps Porzingis begin to be thought of as players who aren’t good enough to succeed in a serious way in the league. It usually takes many years of futility for the superstar to be the one considered damaged goods.

So when Anthony and the Thunder came into Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the 10-time All-Star wasn’t the only one that had something to prove. Subliminally, the role players left behind—the team that many expected to find itself in the lottery once the season was over—was just as eager to prove that the team’s failure to win around Anthony wasn’t completely due to their shortcomings as professionals.

As the Knicks soundly defeated the Thunder by a final score of 111-96, there’s no doubt that the Thunder’s triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night before had an impact, but there’s also no doubt that there just so happened to be a little extra pep in the step of each Knick player. That the Knicks managed to outlast the Thunder without top gun Porzingis was especially impressive.

And when it was all said and done, the Knicks fans that curiously booed Anthony proved a central point: there is a large section of them that believe that Anthony somehow held the team back. Certainly, the Knicks could have and should have achieved higher during his years there, but to boo an athlete that chose New York—a franchise that has been marked by poor management and poorer decisions—seemed a bit out of touch.

Sure, Anthony may have failed the Knicks, but they absolutely failed him, too. And in the face of it, all Anthony ever did was show up, play hard and answer every question ever posed to him authentically and honestly. He proudly wore New York across his chest and showed up every day. In a world where LeBron leaves for Miami and Durant leaves for Oakland, Anthony’s commitment to New York should have meant something to Knicks fans. Flaws and all, Anthony chose New York and it wasn’t until he was told in certain terms that the organization wanted to move on that he honored their wish.

And in the end, Anthony decided to waive his no-trade clause to head to Oklahoma City. In return, the Knicks got Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the rights to the Chicago Bulls’ second round pick in 2018 NBA Draft.

Still, heading into the season, the Knicks were projected to be a lottery team. Without a player the caliber of Anthony, they were thought to be a long shot for the playoffs. Holdovers from last year’s team knew what people were saying about them, and although head coach Jeff Hornacek refused to admit it, there is genuine surprise around the team that, at 16-13, has matched its 29-game start to last year.

Perhaps those that booed Anthony on Saturday night did so because of some warped sense of reality. Perhaps they believed that it was Anthony that quit on the team and not vice versa. Maybe they thought that, without Anthony, they wouldn’t have a shot at doing anything impactful this season.

Through 29 games, it would appear that they were wrong.

And in Anthony’s return to Madison Square Garden, the Knicks proved that, and a lot more.

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Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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