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Most Important Player: Northwest Divison

Shane Rhodes breaks down the most important player for each team in the Northwest.

Shane Rhodes

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The Northwest Division is looking quite flush with talent heading into the 2017-18 regular season. Paul Millsap, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler are just a few names that have made their way to the Northwest during the offseason, and their arrival should not only coincide with one of the more competitive battles for a division crown in recent memory but should make for an intense battle for playoff seeding in the Western Conference from top to bottom.

Each player in the Association has their role to play for their respective teams, but there is always someone who plays an integral part in their team’s success throughout the season. Here’s a look at the most important player for each team in the Northwest Division.

Denver Nuggets — Nikola Jokic

Last season, Nikola Jokic inserted himself into the conversation of the NBA’s best big man. While he may not be the all-around player that DeMarcus Cousins or Karl Anthony-Towns are, his offensive game proved vital for the Denver Nuggets last season as they made a run at the postseason. Jokic’s progression and offensive improvement will again play an integral role for this season for a Nuggets team looking for its first playoff berth since 2012.

One of the best passing big men in the league, Jokic was second among centers with 4.9 assists per game last season and was one of only four at the position to average more than 4.5, but did so on a meager 8.4 potential assists per game. The Nuggets were at their best last year when Jokic was running the floor and moving the ball around and have seemingly constructed the roster to amplify his greatest strength. Now sharing the frontcourt with a talented scorer like Millsap, while also being surrounded by shooters Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, Jokic should have a plethora of options when looking to dish the ball next season which, in turn, should lead to more wins.

Minnesota Timberwolves — Andrew Wiggins

Going on his seventh season in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves knew what they were getting when they acquired Jimmy Butler in the offseason. Heading into his third season, Karl-Anthony Towns has already cemented himself as one of the best centers and players in the Association and has become a dominant force on the floor. While both players together are capable of taking the Timberwolves to the playoff promised land, it is Andrew Wiggins who will determine how good this team can truly be.

In the lead-up to the 2014 draft, Wiggins was lauded as an uber-athlete and future do-it-all type of player: scoring; playmaking; and defense, all wrapped up into one soon-to-be superstar package. Wiggins’ scoring output has since improved each season, but his development has seemingly lagged behind in other areas. Now in his fourth season, the Timberwolves are expecting Wiggins to be, at the very least, their third-best player alongside Towns and Butler. In order to be that, Wiggins’ averages of four rebounds and 2.3 assists per game from last season, as well as his lackluster effort on the defensive end, need some serious improvement.

The Timberwolves can clearly see the untapped potential within Wiggins, having offered him a max contract extension during the offseason. Whether or not Wiggins will capitalize on that potential is a different story, but his overall improvement and play this season will be vital to Minnesota’s success and should make the difference between another disappointing year and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2003.

Oklahoma City Thunder — Paul George and Carmelo Anthony

The Oklahoma City Thunder will go as Russell Westbrook does during the regular season, but the players most integral to the success of the franchise next season are newcomers George and Anthony.

George and Anthony are both known commodities in the league, but their collective shift from ball-dominant stars into more off-ball roles will be something to watch as the season progresses. A successful transition for the two will allow the Thunder to run with the best of them, but if George and Anthony are unable to cede control to Westbrook and still perform at a high level then there will be problems. Both George and Anthony had a usage ratings over 28 percent last season and, while many would think their arrival in Oklahoma City would coincide with a dip in Westbrook’s ridiculous 41.7 percent usage rate from last season, he is still the best player on the team and head coach Billy Donovan is going to want the ball in his hands as often as possible. While he won’t see the ball as often, Westbrook should still have the highest usage rate of the three.

While their early showings in the preseason have been positive, this will be a season-long transition for both George and Anthony; how they handle that transition will dictate how far the Thunder are able to climb in the standings come the end of the regular season, and could have some sway in where George and Anthony are playing next season, both being in potential contract years.

Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard

The Portland Trail Blazers have had their ups and downs in recent years. The one constant? Damian Lillard.

Lillard’s scoring totals have improved every year of his five-year career and, heading into his sixth season, the Trail Blazers are going to need him to take another step forward. The Western Conference will be tougher than ever before, and while Portland added the talented big man Jusuf Nurkic before last season’s trade deadline and potential impact rookie Caleb Swanigan via the draft, the Trail Blazers will always ride or die with Lillard.

The Trail Blazers’ defense wasn’t great last season, coming in at 21st in the league with a defensive rating of 107.8 points per game. Even with Nurkic down in the paint, the defense isn’t expected to improve much on the year, so Portland’s offense will have to step it up for them to stay in games. That offensive attack will almost certainly be spearheaded by Lillard, who had career highs in points per game and usage rate last season at 27 points per game and 31.5 percent, respectively.

Utah Jazz — Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz were dealt a big blow this summer, losing homegrown star forward Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics. The team isn’t lacking for talent, however, with defensive stalwart and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Rudy Gobert still roaming the paint and creating havoc for opposing offenses.

With Hayward’s departure, Gobert immediately replaces him as the Jazz’s best player and face of the franchise, his presence becoming even more indispensable than it already was; losing him would be detrimental to any chances the Jazz have of having anything close to a successful season. Gobert made the leap into the world of the elite last season while averaging 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and a monster 2.6 blocks per game, and while the Jazz may be hard-pressed to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, a similar leap from Gobert in his fifth season would be a huge boon for the franchise as well as its prospects with future free agents.

While the franchise may see a downturn in its win total from a year ago, expect Gobert to be at the center of any and all success for the Jazz this year and for years to come.

The Northwest will be serious players in the playoff picture down the stretch next season as one of the strongest divisions in the NBA. To push their way to contention, however, these players will need to stand up and lead the charge for their respective franchises.

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NBA Daily: Six Small Sample Size Overreactions

It’s not always healthy to overreact to small sample sizes — but it sure is fun! Ben Nadeau checks in on five of his favorite early season storylines.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is October 20, 2018.

The newest NBA season has been a thing officially for four days. On Monday, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies penned a piece with pointers on how to enjoy the 2018-19 campaign. Naturally, Davies urges that it’s important to not overreact to sample sizes after just two games. It’s sound advice but, on the other hand, it’s definitely not as fun either. Sports were tailor-made for grandiose overreactions, particularly in the volatile realm of professional basketball, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

In game No. 1 last year, the Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo dropped 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in a nine-point win over the hapless Nets. Interesting, we thought, but small sample sizes, right? Two games later, Oladipo tossed out 28 points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and four three-pointers — then 28-, 35- and 23-point lines quickly followed. When the season was all done and dusted, Oladipo’s blisteringly hot start ultimately finished with the guard hoisting the award for Most Improved Player. So, sure, some of this might be hollow, but there’s also a decent chance it isn’t either.

And if it isn’t just a momentary flash in the pan, here’s your cheat sheet for getting ahead of the rest of your friends, family and fantasy leagues.

Luka Dončić and Deandre Ayton: Special Already

It took about 30 seconds to realize that the NBA was blessed with at least two remarkably special rookies this season in Dončić and Ayton. The pair kicked off their respective careers against each other on Wednesday and, generally speaking, neither disappointed. Dončić brought his smooth operating style — the same style that helped him take home EuroLeague MVP last year — right from the opening tip. The Slovenian sensation tallied 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists, including a fantastic behind-the-back dime to a cutting DeAndre Jordan. It wasn’t exactly a coming out party, per se, but this 19-year-old may just meet all of our massive expectations and then some before long.

Then there’s Ayton, the reigning No. 1 overall pick and presumed future star as well. While everybody rightfully gushed over Dončić on opening night, Ayton went and showed out himself. With 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a block, Ayton went toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Jordan — a center 10 years his senior and an excellent rim protector in his own right — and shot 72.7 percent in his debut. The 7-foot-1 prospect will need to overcome some defensive hurdles, but he’ll put up some serious numbers in this Suns offense — that is nearly guaranteed. The last few years have brought some incredibly talented classes to the league lately and this one, headlined by Dončić and Ayton, appears as if it could be just as good.

Caris LeVert is LeGit

All summer, it was LeVert this and LeVert that. His coaches showered effusive praise on the third-year wing, while teammates — both new and old — touted LeVert as a breakout candidate this fall. Well, so far, it looks like his admirers were right on the money. LeVert, a slasher at heart, talked throughout last season about maturing and growing into his body — now, we’re getting an important taste of that comfort he’s long sought after. Dropping 27 points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 34 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, LeVert carefully used every herky-jerky step to mince his opposition to shreds. When the Nets were floundering in another infamously poor third quarter — a tradition like no other, at this point — it was LeVert that helped to claw them out of their self-made deficit. Most of the attention in Brooklyn has been focused on D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen, but perhaps it’s now LeVert’s time to shine.

On Friday, he did exactly that. The Nets called on him time and time again against the Knicks and the budding star delivered in spades. Not only did LeVert set a new career-high of 28 points, but 15 of them came in the final 12 minutes, including a tough, game-winning finish with just a second left on the clock. If people simply assumed that Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie would seamlessly resume duties as the crunch-time operators, they’d be dead wrong so far. The Nets have gone to LeVert with the game on the line twice in a row already and there’s a fair chance a star is being born in front of our very eyes.

The Knicks Are Probably Bad… But Absolutely Fun

In the Knicks’ season opener, jokes were flying around social media early about their potential ineptitude, particularly so without Kristaps Porzingis to save the day. Of course, New York then went and dropped 49 points on Hawks’ heads in the second quarter and never looked back. The Hawks are likely destined to be in the cellar this season and the Knicks won’t get 31 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. each night out. Having said all of that, this is an honest-to-goodness fun basketball team and, all of a sudden, there’s a nice collection of youngsters New York can develop moving forward. Kevin Knox, who surprisingly lost his starting spot just before the season began, tossed in 17 points versus Brooklyn on Friday; with newcomer and the perpetually-breaking-out Mario Hezonja helping with 15 points of his own in the opener.

Led by the ever-charismatic Enes Kanter (cue the nipple clip) and Hardaway Jr., it’s way too early to think about the postseason for the Knicks, but there will be plenty of reasons to tune in. Former G-League castaway Trey Burke is still here too, playing side-by-side with the defensive-minded Frank Ntilikina, while preseason standout Allonzo Trier is looking right at home in the rotation. The cherry on the top? Mitchell Robinson, the uber-athletic mystery man from June’s draft, has played just one minute in their first two games — his time will come soon enough. Even if head coach David Fizdale can’t transform the Knicks immediately, they will play hard and stay competitive on most nights — that alone is a better fate than half of the league’s lottery-bound franchises. The Knicks might be bad, but they’ll be a fascinating puzzle to watch come together over the coming months.

Devin Booker: Still Divisive, Still Very Good

Long before Booker brought home a five-year extension worth $158 million, fans and pundits alike were arguing about the sharpshooter’s true impact on the game. Between the Suns’ losing record since his arrival and an open discussion on empty stat-padding, many scorned the Phoenix front office for giving the 21-year-old a max deal. But if the next 81 games are anything like his first outing, Booker will be torching any defender that comes near him. Even a semi-alarming hand surgery in early September couldn’t slow down Booker in the opener. Against Dallas, Booker poured in 35 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-for-10 from three-point range — well, then. New head coach Igor Kokoškov promptly called Booker their “anchor” and noted that he will only continue to improve.

In the midst of Booker’s 19-point fourth quarter explosion, he showed off the full arsenal. Certainly, Booker is known from his long-range skills, but the talented scorer is proficient at taking defenders off the dribble as well. Booker has only played once — he’ll face off against the Denver Nuggets later on today — but he just continues to chug along, picking up right where he left off in March of last year. Through injury, rehab and a big money contract, it may just be time to admit that Booker is every bit ready to become a star. With potential-laden assets like Josh Jackson and Ayton surrounding him now, we’re about to find out how good this former Wildcat can be.

For now, the shaken-up Magic Eight Ball says this: “Signs point to yes.”

Kemba Walker: Setting Charlotte Ablaze

It feels like an eternity has gone by since the Walker trade rumors initially began — running the full gamut between certain availability, cautious denial and the point guard’s steadfast desire to stay right at home. Still, Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and Charlotte has their work cut out to even make the postseason in the weaker Eastern Conference at all. While destinations like Cleveland and Phoenix have popped up in accordance, Walker has gone on record that he wants to “create something special” with the Hornets. But when push comes to shove, will Charlotte be willing to take the risk of their star walking away for nothing? As of now, February is a lightyear away, however, and Walker himself has helped the Hornets off to a positive start through two games.

Albeit in a slim one-point loss to Milwaukee, Walker erupted for 41 points, four assists and two steals on 7-for-13 from three-point range. On Friday, the Hornets took home their first win of the campaign on the back of Walker’s 26 points, five assists and five three-pointers. Flanked by standout rookie Miles Bridges, a more confident Malik Monk, plus healthy versions of Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller to boot, Walker looks poised to record his best season yet. Walker, 27, has always been a big-game killer and more than happy to talk down those pesky trade rumors — but this will be an extremely interesting case to check in on in a few months. Walker can’t keep up a 34.5-point per game pace, obviously, but it certainly appears as if a special, fire-breathing effort is brewing down the coastline. Don’t sleep on Kemba, he’ll make you pay.

Julius Randle: Unleashed?

And then there’s Randle: New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins replacement, the formerly renounced Los Angeles Laker and criminally underpaid big man. Under the never-well-hidden guise of LeBron James’ inevitable arrival, Randle seemed like a bit of an afterthought this summer for the purple and gold. Despite improving in every successive season, Randle’s trip to unrestricted free agency was a bit of a dud too, eventually landing him in a fantastic situation alongside Anthony Davis on a two-year deal worth $18 million. Randle is no stranger to impressive performances — his 36-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist onslaught last year against the Cavaliers instantly comes to mind — but he’s been undoubtedly key to the Pelicans’ red-hot start.

Randle is currently stepping confidently into three-pointers — he’s already at three through two games and his career-high in a season is just 17 — and the 6-foot-9 big man has shot 55 percent during their blowout victories over the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. But what’s been most impressive so far is his continued versatility on the offensive end; smooth enough to stroke from deep, but more than able to post up, spin past a defender and then throw it down. Needless to say, the list of players capable of such flexibility, particularly those at the age of 23, is a short one. For now, he’ll continue to come off the bench behind the floor-stretching Nikola Mirotic — off to an even hotter start than Randle, somehow — but these minutes aren’t going anywhere.

The season is still in its early infancy stages but these storylines seem like sure-fire bets to continue well into the future. Whether these players compete for postseason hopefuls or lottery-bound rebuilders, it’d be wise to watch these storylines unwind and take shape. Most would agree that Dončić and Ayton are special — but how quickly can they find consistent success at the top level? LeVert and Randle are poised for their biggest respective seasons yet, while Walker and Booker look to ready to smash their detractors once again. Tiny sample sizes are admittedly dangerous, that goes without saying, but they can also offer helpful glimpses through the crystal ball at some of the league’s brightest stars. Feel free to sleep on these entries here — but if Oladipo taught us anything last season, it’s that these type of starts can turn into year-long heat checks and a renewed status across the entire league.

Who here has called next?

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NBA Daily: Can The Milwaukee Bucks Be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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