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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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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve

While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.

Dennis Chambers

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In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.

The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.

Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.

For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”

Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.

Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.

Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.

In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.

“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.

“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”

From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.

Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.

“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”

With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.

After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.

“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”

Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.

Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.

“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”

Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.

The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.

So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.

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First Quarter Grades: Southeast

David Yapkowitz breaks down each Southeast Division team at the season’s quarter pole.

David Yapkowitz

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We wrap up our latest series here at Basketball Insiders with the Southeast Division quarter grades.

There was one brief surprise in the division during the first quarter of the season when the Orlando Magic started off looking like a playoff team. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth. The Washington Wizards are the obvious cream of the crop here, but even they have been up and down. Here’s our final installment of each team’s first quarter grades.

Atlanta Hawks 5-19

It was only a couple years ago that the Hawks were emerging into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. In Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach during the 2014-15 season, they won 60 games and made a conference finals appearance. Since then, they’ve either traded away or allowed the key players from that team to sign elsewhere, entering a full rebuild.

Bright Spot: When teams start down the rebuilding path, getting draft picks right goes a long way to regaining prominence. The Hawks’ front office certainly got this last draft right with John Collins. Although the promising young rookie is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, he’s been the biggest bright spot for Atlanta. Prior to his injury, he had been inserted into the starting lineup. He’s put up 11.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds so far. As the Hawks reshape their roster, Collins is proving he’s part of the future.

Areas to improve: During Budenholzer’s first couple of years with the Hawks, they were always one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This year, the 108.6 points per game they’re giving up is all the way down at 25th out of 30 teams. They do have players on the team capable of being good defenders. Collins is one, and so is second-year forward Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid rim protector. A lot of it comes with improvement as well as more effort on that side of the ball.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Charlotte Hornets 9-15

When the Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in the offseason, they looked like a team trying to get back to the playoffs. They haven’t played like it, though. The two worst teams in the league are clearly the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but the Hornets are not all that much better. They’ve had two extended losing streaks, one of six games and one of four. Nicolas Batum was injured to start the season, but his return hasn’t managed to turn things around.

Bright Spot: Sometimes it takes a few seasons and a change of scenery for players to emerge into legit contributors. Such was the case for Jeremy Lamb. He started in place of Batum early on and was having the best season of his career. Coming off the bench now, he’s still kept up his solid production. He’s come off the bench for ten games now and scored in double figures for nine of those games. To date, he’s averaging 15.3 points on 44.7 percent, 35.7 percent from three, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

Areas to improve: Defense has also been an issue for the Hornets. In Steve Clifford’s first year as head coach during the 2013-14 season, they gave up 97.1 points per game, good enough for 4th in the league. They’ve been slipping a bit each year since then and this season they’re down at 16th. Their defense hit rock bottom on Friday night when they gave up 119 points to the Bulls in a loss. The Bulls scored 56 points in the paint and had been on a ten-game losing streak. This isn’t a young team anymore so you can’t just chalk it up to being green. If they want to turn their season around and make the playoffs, they’ll need vast defensive improvement.

First Quarter Grade: D-

Orlando Magic 11-16

As the season began, the Magic looked like they had finally turned the corner. They revamped the front office, and the team was playing inspired basketball. At one point, they were even sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Things can change fast in the NBA, however. The Magic were 8-4 when they hit a rough patch that saw them lose nine games in a row. Since snapping their losing streak on Nov. 29, they’ve played .500 ball and suffered some critical injuries.

Bright Spot: Although he often played out of position, Aaron Gordon has always been a power forward. This season, he was moved back to his natural position full-time. He’s responded with the best season of his career to date. He’s averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field and 8.3 rebounds. What’s most impressive, however, is his 40.6 percent from downtown. He’s definitely performed at an All-Star level.

Areas to improve: Rebounding-wise, the Magic could do a lot better. Their 42.0 rebounds per game are 22nd in the league, and they’re giving up 46.7. They have guys on the team in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic who should be capable of averaging double figures in rebounding. They also could stand to improve defensively. They’re giving up 110.8 points per game, right smack at the bottom of the NBA, 28th to be exact. For the Magic to regain that early season momentum, it would do them well to take a look at these areas.

First Quarter Grade: C-

Miami HEAT 11-13

Last season, the HEAT surprisingly finished with a .500 record at 41-41, and just missed the playoffs. This season, they’re on track to finish in a similar position. Considering they pretty much brought back the same group, it shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve got the talent to make the playoffs in the East, but they also could just as easily finish on the outside looking in once again. They’re an average team.

Bright Spot: They have seen crucial development from some of their young guys, which is key to how they end up finishing the season. As detailed by our own Spencer Davies here at Basketball Insiders, Josh Richardson has emerged as a defensive anchor of sorts for the HEAT. He’s their best perimeter defender and he can score too, as evidenced by his 10.1 points per game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out recently due to injury, and rookie Bam Adebayo has also shown defensive flashes with increased minutes due to Whiteside’s injury. He’s a multi-position defender, capable of patrolling the paint as well as switching off onto wings.

Areas to improve: The HEAT could stand to improve offensively a bit. They are averaging 100.2 points per game, which puts them down at 27th in the league. Better ball movement on the perimeter could help with that. They’re currently near the bottom half of the league in assists. It would also help if they were able to make more of their shots from the three-point line. They take a high number of threes per game at 32.6, third most in the league. But efficiency-wise, they’re down at 14th (36.7 percent). To be near the top of the league in three-pointers attempted, you should be hitting at a higher efficiency.

First Quarter Grade: C

Washington Wizards 14-11

Coming into the season, the Wizards were seen as a potential threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. They haven’t really looked the part, however. They’re only three games above .500 and 5-5 in their last ten. They look like an average playoff team, not one hoping to challenge the defending conference champs. That said, they’re still far and away the best team in the division.

Bright Spot: This may finally be the year that Bradley Beal makes an All-Star appearance. He’s overtaken John Wall as the leading scorer on the Wizards with his team- and career-high 23.8 points per game. His three-point shooting is down a bit at 36 percent, but he’s getting to the free throw line with more frequency. He’s always been a great outside shooter since coming into the NBA, so as the season goes on look for that improve.

Areas to improve: What the Wizards need to do is to stop being just average. They’re pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to every facet of the game from scoring, to defense, rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, you name it. They don’t really do any one thing exceptionally well. If that’s the goal, to be an average playoff team, then by all means, continue. But this was a team that was supposed to be in the upper echelon of the East. They can’t have a 6-5 record at home as they currently do.

First Quarter Grade: B-

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