Moving right along in the division breakdowns here at Basketball Insiders, next up on the slate is the Southwest Division.
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+
NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.
NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.