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Grades At 20 Games: Northwest Division

Assessing the Northwest Division 20 games in.

EJ Ayala

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Coming into the season it looked like, on paper, that the Northwest Division would be one of the weaker divisions in a stacked Western Conference. With that being said, we still expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to take their seemingly traditional spot near the top of the division as a powerhouse team led by last season’s MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. The Trail Blazers were coming off a surprisingly effective campaign of their own where they showed significant leaps in their development under head coach Terry Stotts. The Nuggets looked poised to bounce back from an injury-marred season and appeared to be finally healthy. While the Jazz and Timberwolves, both undergoing a youth movements of sorts, were not expected to be high up in the win totals category.

What a difference a few significant injuries to key players can make. Heavy losses have mounted for the Thunder as Kevin Durant (Jones foot fracture) and Russell Westbrook (hand fracture) missed significant time and the Nuggets have been snake bitten by injuries out of the gate once again. This has completely altered the typical landscape of the division as the Trail Blazers have carried forward their momentum from last season with a firm grasp on the top spot in the Northwest .The remaining teams are now floundering to show they will have enough juice to make the playoffs with a long road ahead. With 20 games or so under their belt we’ll take a closer look at how each team has fared so far and look forward to what’s ahead.

1. Portland Trail Blazers (18-6)

The Trail Blazers have not only been the cream of the crop in the Northwest, but have proven to be arguably a top five team in the entire league thus far. Coach Stotts has this team showing everyone that last season’s improvement was no fluke. The All-Star pair of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are one of the league’s most effective one-two punches. The team is also full of complimentary players who know their roles well. They are currently the top rebounding team in the NBA. In addition, they are also the best team in the league at defending the three pointer, holding their opponents to a dismal 28.7 percent shooting percentage from downtown. The three point shot has become a staple to winning basketball in today’s NBA and their ability to shut down their opponents from long range has certainly helped give this team an edge. This is a team that’s getting it done at both ends of the floor.

As it stands this team has won seven out of their last ten games, making them one of the hottest teams the league. Their road record is an impressive 8-4 and they have an even better home record (10-2), showing that anybody coming into Portland’s Moda Center is going to have a tough night. With the Trail Blazers firing on all cylinders out of the gate and the rest of the competition in the division barely treading water, look for them to continue their progression as one of the best teams in the NBA and remain atop the Northwest.

Grade: A+

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-13)

Just how bad were the Thunder without their dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook? Try a record of 5-12 to start the season. It was almost painful to watch as they weren’t the only players struck with injuries, everyone from Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Mitch McGary among others all seemed to miss significant time. This left head coach Scott Brooks with a depleted team and a big hole to dig out of. The team was even granted a hardship exception that allowed the team to exceed the 15-man maximum roster allowed in order to sign free agent guard Ish Smith for some backcourt help.

The Thunder have plenty of ground to make up and boy are they going full throttle with Durant and Westbrook back in uniform. They’ve managed to double their win total since Durant’s return and are no longer cellar dwellers in the division. The team has managed to win seven of their last ten games and are clearly on a mission to show that they are not down for the count. Even the once exasperated coach Brooks can begin to see the light of the end of the tunnel. The scary part is that Westbrook has looked downright nasty upon his return to action, increasing his averages for points (25.6), three point shooting percentage (37.5), and field goal percentage (.50) so far through nine games. In the meantime, Durant still looks to be shaking off a little rust, but is starting to return back to his MVP form. This will be a team that could continue to go on a tear to claim their division crown once more.

Grade: C+

3. Denver Nuggets (10-13)

There was plenty of optimism in the mile-high city prior to start the season. Playing sub .500 ball is probably not what head coach Brian Shaw envisioned for this team and has led to rumors of his seat heating up. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were both expected to healthy enough to help the Nuggets start the season on the right foot. Unfortunately for the team, things didn’t pan out that way initially as Lawson dealt with nagging ankle and hamstring issues. In addition, Gallinari, who was thought to be able to come in and be a major contributor, has been a serious disappointed thus far and has been relegated to playing with the second unit. Lastly, there’s Kenneth Faried, who signed a four-year, $50 million+ contract coming off an impressive summer with Team USA, failing to live up to his contract as his numbers have plummeted this season all while murmurs of discord between himself, his teammates and the organization are abound.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Lawson seems to have finally shaken off the injury bug and has been able to handle heavy minutes once again, bringing the team some much needed stability in the playmaking department. The team started to gain some ground in the division to at least not be dead last. The Nuggets will have to really pick up the pace if they hope to compete as the surging Thunder nip at their heels looking to push past them. Coach Shaw is looking to shake up the roster to inject this team with some life. This a team to watch for possible player or coach movement in the near future.

Grade: C-

4. Utah Jazz (6-17)

As a team that nearly set a franchise record low win total last season, there wasn’t much expected from this young Jazz team heading into this season. Under rookie NBA head coach Quin Snyder the young Jazz have plenty to improve on. Snyder promised to bring a fast tempo, pass-heavy offense that would allow all the players an opportunity to contribute on the offensive end of the floor. While the team showed some glimpses at the beginning of the season, they have since looked their age and experience level. They are currently ranked near the bottom of the league in pace currently sitting (28th of 30) while their defense is also allowing  102 points per game, ranking near the bottom of the league (24th). Point guard Trey Burke has statistically regressed in nearly every offensive category this year as he still has yet to show that he is truly worthy of being a starter in this league.

All things considered the development of the core players of the team has been a major point of emphasis for one of the youngest teams in the league, and it’s part of the reason they brought in Snyder to coach this team. His prowess with the development of young players was keenly watched by those around the league during his time the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant as well as his time served in coaching in the D-league with the Austin Toros. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to many who’ve paid attention that Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and to a lesser degree Enes Kanter have all been producing at an improved clip this season. These are just a few of the things that should pay dividends later as the Jazz look to see which pieces to keep for the future. In the meantime, this team is still trying to figure out how to win and there’s a long season ahead.

Grade: C

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-17)

This is the year Ricky Rubio was supposed to show us that not only can he dazzle us with his passing wizardry on the court, but also lead this team without ex-franchise cornerstone Kevin Love. The Wolves sent the disgruntled All-Star big man packing out of town to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade that will inevitably alter both franchises for some time to come. Once Rubio went out with ankle injury on November 7 we knew this team was going to have a rough go of it. Expected to be out until mid-January, things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the package of young players received in exchange for Love is not typically one conducive to immediate winning as the team is in a full youth movement.

President/head coach Flip Saunders has his work cut out for him this season. Former No. 1 picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett have both shown potential at times and have a chance to be truly special at some point, but that’s not happening this year. Rookie lottery pick Zach LaVine is another player that is very intriguing, but has been wildly inconsistent. Right now this year is all about building a culture and forming a bond with one another to sow the seeds of team chemistry. If this team can pick up some wins along the way that’s a bonus. At 2-8 in their last ten games, don’t hold your breath, though.

Grade: C-

Overall there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played. They say basketball is a game of runs and that’s not only true during the course of a single game. All it takes is a few W’s under your belt for a team to get some confidence and start rolling on a winning streak. Let’s see how the rest of the season plays out.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next step in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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