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First Quarter Grades: Southwest Division

Dennis Chambers breaks down the Southwest Division team-by-team.

Dennis Chambers

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Moving right along in the division breakdowns here at Basketball Insiders, next up on the slate is the Southwest Division.

Check out our installments for the Central, Pacific, and Atlantic divisions as well.

Dallas Mavericks 7-18

Long gone are the days when Dirk Nowitzki could put the Dallas Mavericks on his back and carry them through the gauntlet of the Western Conference. Now, the Mavs are a team more focused on lottery position than playoff position.

Bright Spot: While it’s mostly been a struggle for Dallas so far this season, there are some positives to the product they’ve put out on the floor this season, as well as some positives for their futures. First, at quick glance, their defense is fairly decent. The Mavericks allow 103.5 points per game, good for ninth in the league, and their defensive rating ranks at 14th with a 107.3 clip.

Along with their defense, young guys Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. are showing that they can be serious contributors to the next phase of competitive basketball in Dallas. Barnes is showing that when he’s not on a team with the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, he’s more than capable of shouldering the load offensively. Smith Jr., just 19 years old, is showing flashes that warrant his top 10 draft selection.

Areas to Improve: Moving forward, however, the Mavericks have a lot to improve on. Most importantly, efficiency. Dallas doesn’t rank in the top half of the league in any category that pertains to shooting percentage. Players in Dallas have no trouble chucking up shots, as the Mavs are top 10 in attempts from the field and from beyond the arc. However, they have more than their fair share of trouble getting those shots to fall.

Some of that could be personnel; the Mavs aren’t exactly flooded with talent, but Dallas needs to work on getting the ball actually in the hoop for the rest of the season if they even want to be somewhat competitive.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Memphis Grizzlies 8-16

After seven straight seasons of postseason play, it finally looks like the Memphis Grizzlies are going to miss the cut.

Over the offseason, the Grizzlies lost some Tennessee household names in Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Mike Conley is injured at the moment, and there isn’t any eye-popping talent on the roster outside of Marc Gasol.

Bright Spot: While the team has a whole started off the season with what could be considered a below-average performance, Memphis is currently the recipient of a Tyreke Evans resurgence, and that is definitely something to be excited about. Evans is enjoying the best season of his career since his rookie campaign. Averaging 17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and four assists per game, Evans is also producing a career-high effective field percentage with a 54.6 clip.

Areas to Improve: After Evans, the good news stops about there for the Grizzlies. Their poor effort across the board, culminating with one of the league’s worst offenses and the slowest pace, led to David Fizdale losing his job after just 19 games this season.

Moving forward, the Grizzlies’ biggest problem may be reshaping their identity completely. The rock fight style of play may not fly in this league anymore, especially if a team doesn’t have the pieces in place to pull off that kind of play.

Barring a magical turnaround upon Conley’s return, it’s going to be the first long season in quite some time for the Memphis Grizzlies.

First Quarter Grade: D

New Orleans Pelicans 13-12

Down in the Big Easy, the New Orleans Pelicans are doing their best to make a modern-day twin towers system work. Through the first quarter of play this season, it’s got them in the playoff picture.

Bright Spot: DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are tearing it up for the Pelicans. Each averaging a hefty double-double, Cousins (25.9 points, 12.6 rebounds) and Davis (25.2 points and 11 rebounds) have been absolute terrors for opposing frontcourts.

Along with the big men duo, Jrue Holiday is churning out a decent season as well for New Orleans. Cousins, Anthony, Holiday, and a few solid role players look like they could be enough to hang around all season in the playoff race. New Orleans currently has the league’s sixth highest scoring offense. The West is no joke, but through the first leg of the year (and their first full season together), the big man experiment looks to be doing its job at first glance.

Areas to Improve: What the Pelicans do need to focus on, and this will be fairly difficult given their current personnel, is spacing the floor with shooters to surround their paint-clogging behemoths down low. New Orleans ranks 18th in the league at 36.2 percent from downtown. It’s not a terrible clip, but when an offense runs through post players their best complement is shooting.

As the trade deadline nears, if the Pelicans are in serious playoff contention, maybe adding another shooter is in the realm of possibility. But in order to unlock the team’s full potential, they’ll need to start knocking down some more shots on the outside. Cousins’ and Davis’ attention in the paint will surely provide their teammates on the perimeter with more than a few open looks.

Whatever the case may be, New Orleans is winning games, and they have star power. Usually, that’s a recipe for playoff success. Time will tell if the Pelicans can put it together for an entire season.

First Quarter Grade: B

San Antonio Spurs 17-8

Leave it to Gregg Popovich to have the San Antonio Spurs as one of the elite teams in the West… without Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard hasn’t played a minute yet this season and still, the Spurs are their same old selves. Who’s surprised?

Bright Spot: The resurgence of LaMarcus Aldridge has allowed San Antonio to not miss a beat without their star player, making the concept of Leonard’s return that much more frightening for Western Conference opponents. Even more frightening? The Spurs are allowing the second fewest points and have the fourth best defensive rating in all of basketball, all without a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in their lineup.

San Antonio’s defense has been absolutely stifling this season, and once Leonard returns it’s only going to get better.

Areas to Improve: While the defense is more than impressive, the offense is feeling the loss of Leonard more than anything. Outside of Aldridge, just Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay are averaging double-figures in scoring. And they’re both barely breaking the threshold.

Although the lack of diversified scoring hasn’t killed the Spurs so far this season, it would be reasonable to suspect that eventually not having someone else besides Aldridge to go to would be problematic, especially come playoff time given the teams San Antonio could potentially be playing.

No worries for the Spurs, though. Leonard is on his way back, making this already elite team that much better.

Just another day at the office for Popovich.

First Quarter Grade: A

Houston Rockets 18-4

Maybe the most impressive all-around team effort this season outside of the Boston Celtics is the Houston Rockets.

While keeping their same incredibly impressive offensive prowess from a year ago, the Rockets have improved their defensive rating by nearly six points from last season during the first leg of this campaign.

Bright Spot: A team that already boasts MVP candidate James Harden and arguably the best point guard over the last decade in Chris Paul focused on their one weakness — and completely turned it around, on a Mike D’Antoni-coached team nonetheless.

Harden and Paul’s efforts are expected. The two alpha-dog players are responsible for nearly 20 assists per night between themselves. Harden continues his ascent as one of, if not the best, scorers in the NBA, and Paul is doing just fine adjusting to playing alongside another ball-dominant guard.

With a retooled defense, the Rockets could be legitimate threats to Golden State’s throne.

Areas to Improve: But with all of the chucking that goes on inside a Rockets offense, chances for rebounds — and capitalizing on those chances — are incredibly crucial. Outside of Clint Capela, no other Houston Rocket averages more than six rebounds per game. As a team, they rank 25th in total boards.

Getting into a shootout with the Warriors seems like the most likely outcome for the Rockets, should both teams advance to the conference finals this season. And if that’s the case, seeing as how no player shoots 100 percent from the field, grabbing those missed shots could be a deciding factor.

If the Rockets want to become more than just a threat, they need to tighten up their effort on the boards.

First Quarter Grade: A+

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2018@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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