We continue grading the first quarter of the season with today’s look at the Pacific Division. While the Warriors and Clippers are ahead of the pack, the Suns and Kings are each hovering right around the .500 mark while the Lakers continue what fans hope is the rebuilding process.
Here are their grades through 20 (or so) games:
1. Golden State Warriors (19-2)
While the debate of Steve Kerr vs. former coach Mark Jackson continues to make the rounds in the news, the truth of the matter is each man has been instrumental in the development of this team. Jackson took a young, talented, but somewhat lost group of players and helped instill a confidence and camaraderie that was vital throughout their early development. Now, Kerr’s philosophy and approach appear to be the perfect fit for a group that has yet to advance beyond the second round of the postseason.
Put simply, if even relatively healthy – especially at the key positions and in the frontcourt – the Warriors should absolutely be expected to compete for the Western Conference crown this season. They really don’t have any noticeable flaws as a team. Beyond being one of the deeper rotations in the league, Kerr’s Warriors rebound well, defend, share the ball and are easily one of the more high-powered offenses.
Stephen Curry (23 PPG, 7.7 APG, 5.1 RPG) is a legitimate MVP candidate and has clearly grown into one of the league’s best point guards. A real argument could be made about the ever-improving Klay Thompson and Curry being the most talented backcourt, rather than simply regarding them as the best shooting duo.
Harrison Barnes looks as though he’s rebounding from a rough 2013-14, and the versatility that Draymond Green has provided in Kerr’s system has truly been a difference-maker for the Warriors so far this season.
They’ve endured the early loss of David Lee, but it will be interesting to see how they react and adjust if they are without the services of starting center Andrew Bogut for any extended period of time. His statistics may not turn many heads (7.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG), but Bogut provides a low-post presence these Warriors simply haven’t been able to supplement when missing in past years.
Los Angeles Clippers (16-5)
After a bit of a slow start, the Clippers are finally looking like the Western Conference contenders many of us anticipated heading into the season. A nine-game winning streak will do that for you, but with a franchise transition now complete, these Clippers are now faced with the expectations that come along with being one of the league’s better teams.
Questions about the production (and consistency) they receive from the small forward position may still exist, but for now Matt Barnes has been as solid as can be expected. The jury is still out on Reggie Bullock, but the front office has at least another month (now that he’s healthy and available) to determine whether additional swingman firepower will be necessary before running up against the trade deadline (Feb. 19).
In the meantime, a steady diet of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick should be enough offense to win a bunch of regular season contests, but the question remains if enough players beyond Barnes and DeAndre Jordan (12.6 RPG, 2.6 BPG) consistently do enough of the dirty work on the defensive end and particularly beneath the basket to finally lead this team beyond the second round of the postseason?
We definitely look forward to seeing just how much these Clippers challenge the Warriors for Pacific Division supremacy over the next few months. They still have three games against each other remaining, including a Christmas Day showdown at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Phoenix Suns (12-11)
The Suns still boast one of the league’s fastest-paced offenses (105.5 PPG), but the trouble is they also surrender the fifth-most points per contest (103.9). The tempo of their play is to blame for a portion of that, but the fact that they still reside in an ever-challenging Western Conference and no longer have the benefit of the element of surprise last year’s team definitely enjoyed can also explain their slight regression.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe remain one of the league’s most exciting backcourt duos, and Isaiah Thomas has provided Jeff Hornacek with the type of steady bench production (15.5 PPG, 4.1 APG) most coaches dream of. The Morris twins have been fantastic (especially Markieff) and Gerald Green continues to impress, even in a slightly diminished role from last season.
The Suns actually have six players currently averaging double-figures in scoring, but – like others on this list – Phoenix may need to consider additional frontcourt depth in order to add some interior toughness and a rim-protector if they are to remain in the playoff discussion since former fifth-overall pick Alex Len and Miles Plumlee each still need time to develop.
Sacramento Kings (11-12)
Time will tell if this lasts, but the Sacramento Kings have been one of the biggest surprises and brightest spots of the early season. DeMarcus Cousins seems to have really benefited from his time with Team USA and has entered the year shocking some with MVP-level play and leadership for a franchise and fan base that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2005-06.
With Cousins out indefinitely due to viral meningitis, head coach Mike Malone is going to need guys to pick up the slack on both ends. Rudy Gay will have to lead the attack, but Darren Collison and Ben McLemore will need to provide increased and steady contributions too.
A combination of Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and veteran Reggie Evans may be able to offset some of the post production lost without their team leader, but it will be difficult for the Kings to maintain this pace without the 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks they are accustomed to counting on from Cousins. In the past, his outbursts were clearly a detriment to these Kings, but now the team actually feeds off his emotion… not to mention his impressive skills.
Los Angeles Lakers (6-16)
Unless you entered the year with unrealistic expectations for these Lakers, this start really isn’t all that surprising for Kobe Bryant and Co. While Bryant’s name is still on the marquee, head coach Byron Scott’s inaugural season at the helm was really to have been about the development of Julius Randle.
Once Randle went down with what will likely be a season-ending injury (broken tibia) on opening night, not only should expectations have been curbed, but the focus immediately and quite unavoidably shifted to the uncertainty surrounding next year’s top-five protected lottery pick owed to the Suns.
Randle should make a full recovery and purple and gold faithful will be ready to welcome him back in 2015-16, but if you’re the Lakers you absolutely cannot afford to hand a lottery pick to a team on the rise and within your own division.
We all know the immense amount of pride that resides within Bryant, the organization and admittedly-spoiled fan base, but whether it tugs at the chords of your ego or not, the reality is these Lakers could really benefit from continuing to bottom-out and head into what could be Bryant’s final year in the league with a returning Randle, another young asset and perhaps even a key free agent acquisition or two.
The team has been able to compete on many nights, but it still hasn’t resulted in very many wins. They may never acknowledge it, but if you give an unbiased look at the roster that could very well be by design.
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
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.
Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience
It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.
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.
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.
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.