Last year, it was about proving the skeptics wrong for Houston. This year, it’s about proving that they can keep it up.
A few months ago, the Houston Rockets were a half-decent three-point shooting performance from one of the biggest upsets in NBA history and their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995. Getting the number one seed while almost toppling one of the most talented teams ever assembled would usually make their season a wild success. For the Rockets,. though, that wasn’t enough.
That brings us to this season. Bringing up what the Rockets lost this summer is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, so let’s summarize it like this: While Houston kept its star power, it lost players who brought intangibles to the table. Who they replaced said players with has brought much doubt as to whether Houston can repeat last season’s performance, much less win a championship.
No matter what setback(s) they may have faced this off-season, the Rockets’ goal remains unchanged. They want their next title. Though the roster has gone through a little shakeup, the Rockets should still be one of the league’s best teams.
But is it enough to get them over that colossal hump that is the Golden State Warriors? Well, let’s take a look at what their team looks like.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Houston Rockets were the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors at the beginning of the offseason. However, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. Last season, with a stable of versatile defenders, the Rockets were able to implement a very aggressive, switch-everything scheme against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Rockets’ defense gave the Warriors problems in the Western Conference Finals, but Houston couldn’t overcome the loss of Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. This summer, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers and added several new players, like Carmelo Anthony. I think the Rockets have the talent to push the Warriors in a seven-game series, but they won’t be able to use the same defensive schemes that made life miserable for Golden State. The Rockets had an okay offseason all things considered, but I don’t think they closed the gap on the Warriors in a meaningful way.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s hard to shake the feeling that last season might have been the Rockets’ best shot at beating the current iteration of the Warriors. The losses of guys like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute really hurt their wing depth, an area that was already somewhat thin – and also vital to any hopes of making it past the behemoths in Golden State and out of the Western Conference. Carmelo Anthony looks like a big name to help replace them, but is he really effective at this point? The Rockets will always be among the league’s elite with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela on the roster, but Paul isn’t getting any younger and Mike D’Antoni’s rotations were already dangerously short. It feels bad to be so negative about a group that’s unquestionably one of the league’s best, but the goal has always been a title for this team in Houston, and they look further away from it than this time last year.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The big news of the summer for the Rockets was the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. They needed to fill the void left by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, so it’s on the 10-time All-Star and James Ennis to replace them. The upside of this is Houston’s main core is still intact. Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela know each other’s tendencies and how to play off one another so well. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are perfect for the secondary roles that they are assigned. Guys like Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss are solid additions to bolster this squad’s depth as well. Mike D’Antoni will have to experiment with rotations, but the talent is most definitely still there. We’ll see how it stacks up with the other giants in the Western Conference.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
For a moment there, Houston was in the driver’s seat to the NBA championship, but only so briefly. After all that transpired this summer, there are severe doubts surrounding the Rockets’ ability to repeat last season’s success. Their perimeter defense on paper took a hit, and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. Still, as long as James Harden is running things and Paul is his running mate, the Rockets will be one of the league’s best teams. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts, but Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Knight can add some firepower that could make up for what the Rockets lost. If they don’t, then Houston will need to make some more moves. Because whether they like it or not, the clock is ticking.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Matt John
It is easy to look at the Rockets through a negative prism… they lost Trevor Ariza, they added Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Bzdelik is retiring. There are plenty of negatives, but when you look at the end of the day roster coming to camp, the Rockets may have traded off a little defense in exchange for a whole lot more firepower. The Rockets were tremendous last season and there is no reason to believe they won’t be tremendous again this season – the question is, will they be tremendous in the post-season? That’s a huge unknown. The Rockets are a better basketball team; it’s unclear if they’ll be good enough to derail the Warriors, but they sure are equipped to try.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: James Harden
It speaks volumes about you when you’re teammates with one of the best point guards of all time – who’s still reasonably in his prime – and you’re the obvious pick. James Harden has been in the MVP conversation in three of the last four years. This past season, he finally made it all the way to the top, getting named the league’s Most Valuable Player without much question.
His numbers continue to be outright ridiculous: 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds a game are legendary-type numbers. What makes Harden so incredible to watch is his lack of predictability. He’s an expert at getting the right shot, finding the right pass, or overall making the right decision. His style isn’t necessarily the most fun to watch – Harden is a flopper and knows how to draw fouls that slow down the game – but he knows how to orchestrate an elite offense by himself. Until Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry separate, which may or may not happen, James Harden is the league’s top offensive weapon at the top of his prime.
Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela
Houston made Capela a very rich man this summer, and for very good reason. The Swiss center has gradually become one of the league’s top rim protectors in the couple of years. Last year alone, Capela saw a gradual increase in both rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9). In fact, Capela’s 137 total blocks ranked second in the league behind only Anthony Davis.
What should excite Houston is that Capela is still only 24 years old who is playing in a system that suits his strengths, so his ceiling could potentially be even higher. Future star may be a stretch, but Houston could still even more improvement from Capela in the coming years. Best-case scenario: Capela winds up becoming what Houston hoped Dwight Howard was going to be.
Top Clutch Player: Chris Paul
Paul doesn’t exactly have the best resume when it comes to playing in the clutch, but he’s proven that he can step it up when his back is up against the wall. Whether it’s for the better or worse of the team, Chris Paul has never been afraid of the moment. This was best evidenced by him pretty much single-handedly beating the Warriors in an intense Game 5 during the Western Conference finals.
His statistics in the clutch are pretty solid as well. Paul only played in 21 games last season that were deemed clutch, primarily because he missed a good chunk of the season with injury and when he played, Houston’s games were rarely close. In those games, Paul has a plus-minus of +3.5, averaging three points a game and shooting 59 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three. Harden has an even shakier history in the clutch, so Houston should feel fortunate to have CP3 in crunch time.
Top Playmaker: James Harden/Chris Paul
This is is definitely one topic where everyone can agree these two are dead even. Paul and Harden are two of the league’s very best distributors, which played a huge role in Houston arguably having the best offense in the league last season.
Houston, believe it or not, ranked among the lowest in overall team assists, averaging 21.5, a game which tied for 26th overall in the league. Harden and Paul together account for 16.7 of the team’s assists, good for about 78 percent. That makes it all the more impressive that they had the league’s highest offensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Their efforts offensively proved to be for Houston’s benefit as well. The Rockets’ offense was +8.1 when Paul was on the floor and +6.6 with Harden on the floor. As long as one of these two are on the floor at all times, Houston’s offense will be in good hands.
The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon
Eric Gordon is evidence of the abundance of riches the Rockets have. He is perfectly capable of being the second guard on a championship team. Yet, he’s the Rockets’ third guard. Because he plays for a team whose two best players play the position as him, Gordon falls a bit under the radar, but his impact on the floor is undeniable.
Gordon gives Houston a potent offensive option off the bench who fits quite well in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and complements Harden and Paul quite well. This is evidenced by his scoring output, as his 18 points per game average last season was the best he’s had in years. Better yet, his contributions get results for Houston. Gordon’s net rating placed him first on the team among players who played at least 1,000 minutes, as the Rockets were +10.3 overall when Gordon was on the floor.
The real triumph to all of this is seeing Eric Gordon salvage his career so swiftly after all he’s been through. Hopefully, it just gets better from here on out for him.
Best New Addition: Carmelo Anthony
Even at this point in his career, who would have thought that when you call Carmelo Anthony your best new addition this summer, you have to follow that up with, “By default”?
Though not the sexy name he once was, Carmelo Anthony is still capable of putting up 15-20 points a game. Since he has experience playing with both James Harden and Chris Paul on Team USA, ‘Melo may prove to be a better fit than the skeptics give him credit for. Even if he continues to play below expectations, it’s not like Houston invested much in him. If the guy stinks, the Rockets won’t play him. If he thrives, they found another dimension to their team. It doesn’t matter what happened last season in OKC. Adding Carmelo Anthony for $2.4 million provides minimal risk.
Adding him to the Rockets isn’t really low-risk/high-reward, but rather a low-risk/high-enough-reward for the Rockets.
– Matt John
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mike D’Antoni
Even though he’s won Coach of the Year with two separate teams, D’Antoni’s best coaching of his career may have come last season. On top of having the league’s best offensive rating – surprising absolutely no one – he finally disproved the fallacy that he can’t coach defense. Houston had the league’s sixth-best defensive rating, which can be attributed to their improved personnel on the defensive end. However, having better defenders can only work so well if they are utilized properly, which was the case under D’Antoni. Offensively, the Rockets should still be top of the line, but for Houston to stay in the discussion with Golden State, D’Antoni needs to build off his success defensively despite what he lost.
2. Daryl Morey
The Rockets’ general manager never ceases to amaze. He somehow was able to find a taker for Ryan Anderson’s mammoth contract, acquired a potentially better player in Brandon Knight, and even received intriguing young talent in Marquese Chriss, whose career outlook is still up in the air. That’s masterful work for a guy who didn’t really have much to work with this summer. When people count him out, Daryl Morey always manages to have something up his sleeve. That’s why nobody should sleep on Houston. The Rockets may take a step back, but never underestimate what Morey can do.
3. Brandon Knight (or Brandon Knight’s contract)
It really is a shame to see how much has gone wrong for Knight. Because of injuries and playing on a rebuilding team, Knight hasn’t done anything relevant in the NBA since 2015. It’s important to remember that he is only 26 years old, so the potential he has on this team could be much higher than people think. If Knight returns to form, he’s going to be a fantastic addition to Houston’s high-octane offense. If he doesn’t, then he’s going to be a valuable trade asset if Houston decides to search for another wing this season.
4. PJ Tucker
So much has been made about the 3&D wings the Rockets lost. What about the one premier 3&D wing they still have? Tucker proved to be a smart investment by Houston last season, as he gave the team more needed three-point shooting and tough-as-nails defense. Tucker also gives the team a fair amount of good leadership and is a pretty good rebounder for a man of his size. Now that he’s the only proven 3&D wing they have – James Ennis could prove this notion wrong – expect Tucker to have an even bigger role.
– Matt John
The Rockets have two of the league’s best all-around guards playing under one of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds. Those three components alone make them one of the NBA’s best teams. Harden and Paul proved to be one of the league’s best backcourts, and should that lead to a title, they could be among one of the best of all-time, if they weren’t already. Also, despite all the skepticism that came from adding him, Carmelo Anthony still is another proven offensive option that could add some more pizzazz to the league’s best offense. Adding him to a team that has Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker should make Houston a great all-around team no matter what.
– Matt John
Last season may have proven that Mike D’Antoni can coach defense after all, but only if he as the personnel to do it. Houston’s defense should be fine overall, but losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts their perimeter defense and more importantly, their versatility. Those two aspects weren’t the main ingredient, but they played a huge role in Houston’s improvement last season. Carmelo Anthony is expected to take Ariza’s spot in the starting lineup, but he’s hardly ever been a plus defender. In a league where teams take advantage of defensive mismatches now more than ever, Carmelo is bound to get picked on. Again, the Rockets’ defense should be fine, but if it’s not elite this time, then their season may wind up in disappointment again.
– Matt John
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this the team Houston goes with when the playoffs come around?
As long as they have their whole team healthy in time for the playoffs, Houston should still be an elite team. However, the reason why they almost toppled the Warriors was because, along with their starpower, they had players that gave Golden State matchup problems. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gone, that advantage isn’t nearly as strong as it once was. Adding Carmelo Anthony’s scoring and/or James Ennis’ defense could potentially soften the blow, but if it’s not enough, then the Rockets could be in trouble. Houston has to remember that Chris Paul is on the wrong side of the 30, so they have no time to waste.
There is a chance that Houston does just fine even with the hits they took, but the odds aren’t in their favor. If Houston does take a step back, then they better look for the best wing they can get on the trade market.
– Matt John
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.