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ICYMI: Northwest Division

We continue our ICYMI series with Drew Maresca’s examination of the Northwest Division, identifying major happenings from early on in the season.

Drew Maresca

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Basketball Insiders recently launched the ICYMI series to keep readers up-to-date on a plethora of news from around the Association. Ariel Pacheco recently covered the Atlantic Division, David Yapkowitz covered the Pacific and Garrett Brooks handled the Central. Next up, we’re serving up all things Northwest Division-related.

To be fair, these teams out westward have had their share of challenges. The collection currently boasts an aggregate record of 46-41 – behind only the Atlantic and Pacific Divisions.

The Northwest Division hasn’t been home to the NBA Champion since its inception in the 2004-05 season. Still, there’s lots of talent in the Pacific Northwest this season and it’s probably never had a better chance of being the NBA Champion’s home than it does right now.

With a proper introduction out of the way, let’s dive into all of the interesting Northwest Division news stories from the first quarter of the season.

Portland Suffer Another Nurkic Injury (McCollum Too)

Jusuf Nurkic is a load in the post. He was still working his way back into his near-All-Star caliber of play, averaging 9.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in 23.3 minutes – or 15.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per-36 minutes. Unfortunately, he suffered another setback earlier this month.

Nurkic had played only 25 games since returning from the lower leg injury he suffered in March 2019. And while it might not sound fair, that isn’t part of the equation in the NBA.

Nurkic suffered a broken wrist on Jan. 15 against the Indiana Pacers. He had surgery to repair the break and the Trail Blazers do not yet have a firm timeline for his return. He was scheduled to be re-evaluated in eight weeks and he’ll miss at least 23 games.

Portland was able to remain in the playoff picture without Nurkic last season, so they could theoretically do it so again. But they appear to be the modern version of the Old Testament’s Job, receiving one test after the next from the basketball gods.

All-Star guard CJ McCollum also went down with a hairline fracture in his foot a few days later.  Portland announced on Jan. 19 that McCollum would miss at least four weeks, or 16 games, at which point he’ll be re-evaluated.

Portland can probably stay in the playoff hunt with Damian Lillard shouldering an even bigger role, but it won’t be easy. The Trail Blazers went 31-35 without Nurkic in 2019-20 prior to his return with McCollum. They are 1-3 since McCollum and Nurkic went down, playing against the mediocre-at-best New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The remaining 55 games could be a long haul for Lillard and the Blazers.

The “Old” Mike Conley is Back

Utah fans have been on a rollercoaster of emotions with Mike Conley thus far. Conley arrived in Utah fresh off career highs in scoring (21.3 points per game) and rebounds (3.4 per game).

But Conley struggled to fit into Utah’s system and alongside All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. He regressed mightily in 2019-20, especially in the portion of the season that preceded the COVID-19 shutdown. Even after looking better in the bubble, Conley still only averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game for the season – worse than he’d performed in years

But Conley has played significantly better so far this season, averaging 16.6 points, 5.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds. And while none of the aforementioned stats are career highs, his resurgence is about more than just raw numbers.

Conley is shooting a career-high 41.9 percent on three-point attempts, while also attempting a career-high 6.9 threes per game. He’s posting the second-highest PER of his career (20.2), and he’s assisting on 29.7% of his teammate’s field goals while on the floor – his fifth-highest total in his 14-year career. Of course, he’s still a pit bull on the defensive end of the floor.

Conley’s future in Utah appeared to be in question as of this past off-season – but it appears pretty solid now.

Denver Finally Steadying Itself

Lately, the Denver Nuggets have been an enigma. They’d squandered a number of leads, failed to close out tight games, appeared viscerally opposed to engage defensively and Jamal Murray looked incapable of following-up his bubble breakout with any semblance of an encore presentation. Additionally, Michael Porter Jr. was out due to COVID-19 protocol

Well, first of all, Denver has improved defensively. They’ve jumped to 18th in the league in defensive rating, up from 25th just two short weeks ago. They also rattled off five straight wins –  two of which were overtime victories, proving they can, in fact, close out tight games.

And while Murray has continued to struggle to score the ball, Denver at least saw the return of Porter Jr., who is averaging 20.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting in his last three games.

Just like it was too early to write off the Nuggets on January 15th, it’s still too early to assume all is well. But NBA fans should be encouraged with how Denver has played of late because, let’s face it, the Nuggets are good for the NBA – plain and simple.

Oklahoma City Should Be Sellers At Deadline

No one expected much from the Oklahoma City Thunder – and they’re not really outdoing our expectations. But there are two reasons to keep your eyes on Oklahoma City as we approach March: George Hill and Al Horford.

It goes without saying that both Hill and Horford can contribute. Horford has had a quietly successful start to the 2020-21 season, averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Hill looks even better, posting 11.8 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 38.6 percent on three-point attempts. Are they necessary pieces for the Thunder’s future? Absolutely not. Are there teams out there who they’d help? You know it.

The net effect of Hill and Horford, along with their experience, makes them incredibly valuable to contenders in need of size and shooting, respectively. Teams like the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans – 30th and 29th in three-point shooting, respectively – could sure use Hill’s services, and Horford would be a welcome addition in places like Miami, Indiana and Los Angeles (Clippers) – which are 30th, 29th and 27th in rebounding.

The Thunder have already amassed (almost literally) too many picks, including the best two of their own, plus HEAT and the Houston Rockets’ first-rounders in 2021. They’ll probably add two more valuable picks to their stash thanks to two of these veterans.

While newer modes of travel and an effective national television strategy have chipped away at the relevance of divisions for a number of years, the Northwest is on the up. Between one of the better burgeoning rivalries between Utah and Denver and one of the most marketable players in the league in Lillard, it shouldn’t be long before they’re atop it all.

While the organization of most divisions is mostly a formality, there is actually something special brewing in the Northwest – and NBA fans should take notice.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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