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Most Important Player: Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz looks at the most important player for each team in the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s Southwest Division is an interesting one. As it stands in the Western Conference, the Northwest Division is looking like the strongest and the Pacific Division probably has the most rebuilding teams. The Southwest, however, has a couple surefire powerhouses in the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs, but the rest of the pack could go either way. The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans all possess enough talent to make the playoffs, but it’s no sure thing.

Each team does possess a key player or two who will be instrumental to achieving whatever regular season and, ultimately, postseason aspirations each team has. Here’s a look at the most important player for each team in the Southwest Division.

Dallas Mavericks – Harrison Barnes

The Mavericks made quite an investment in Harrison Barnes when they acquired him from the Golden State Warriors a year ago. Often the forgotten man in the Warriors’ starting lineup, Barnes had a poor showing against Cleveland in the 2016 Finals. Once the Warriors agreed to terms with Kevin Durant, it was evident that Barnes was the odd man out.

During his time with the Warriors, however, Barnes often displayed flashes of brilliance and the reason why he was a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. It was thought that he still had untapped potential that wasn’t going to be realized playing alongside the Warriors star players. Barnes started off last season a bit slow, but he picked it up as the season went on and ended up having a very successful first season in Dallas. He led the team in scoring with 19.2 points per game. He shot a very respectable 46.8 percent from the field, including 35.1 percent from three-point range.

Dirk Nowitzki has long been the face of the franchise for the Mavericks, but as he approaches the twilight of his career, Barnes is next in line. For the Mavericks to turn their fortunes around from last season and contend for the playoffs, they’ll need Barnes to take an even greater leap this upcoming season.

Houston Rockets – Chris Paul

The Rockets have a perennial MVP candidate in James Harden, but this season their fortunes will rest in the hands of newly acquired Chris Paul. Long considered one of the best point guards in the league in seasons past, Paul has seen his status atop that plateau shrink with the emergence of point guards such as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. That’s not to say that the old veteran doesn’t have anything left in his tank.

Last season was Paul’s first in the past ten that he was left off the All-Star team. He still put up All-Star numbers, however. His 18.1 points per game were right at his career average of 18.7. His 9.2 assists per game were good enough for fourth in the league behind only Harden, John Wall, and Westbrook. He still shot 47.6 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range. He remains one of the best playmakers in the NBA and will no doubt take much of the pressure off of Harden.

With the start of the season rapidly approaching, it remains to be seen whether or not the Rockets new additions are enough to seriously challenge the Warriors. For them to have a chance at doing that, though, the Rockets will need Paul to be at his best. He’s faced playoff disappointment after disappointment with the Clippers. This season he gets a chance at redemption.

Memphis Grizzlies – Mike Conley

Mike Conley is probably the best player in the league who’s never made an All-Star team. The Grizzlies needed to keep Conley in the fold when he was a free agent a year ago. They did so by giving him, at the time, the richest deal in NBA history. Conley responded by having the best season of his career.

His 20.5 points per game, 46 percent shooting from the field, and 40.8 percent from the three-point line were all career highs. His 6.3 assists per game were right with his career-high of 6.5. He also is one of the better defensive point guards in the league. It was only two years ago when the Grizzlies had a 2-1 lead on the Warriors in the playoffs with Conley helping lead the way.

The Grizzlies are a much, much different team now than the one who put a brief scare into the Warriors. Gone are the gritty veterans such as Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph. But the Grizzlies still have a pretty talented roster and the last couple of playoff spots in the West could be a toss-up. If the Grizzlies hope to claim a playoff spot in the West, they’ll need Conley to reproduce his numbers from last season.

New Orleans Pelicans – DeMarcus Cousins

The Pelicans shocked the NBA world when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins at last season’s All-Star break. On paper, Cousins and Anthony Davis formed what appeared to be a dominant front court. The pairing hit some rough spots and the team didn’t quite gel right away. The Pelicans will have a full training camp this time around to work out the kinks.

Cousins is perhaps the most talented and skilled offensive center in the league. Few bigs possess his offensive capabilities, such as his ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as a big man and his unlimited range out to the three-point line. He is also one of the better passing big men in the league. Before the trade to the Pelicans, he was averaging a career-high 27 points per game. In New Orleans, his scoring numbers dropped a bit to 24.4 but his three-point percentage of 37.5 percent was a career high.

Only time will tell how the Cousins/Davis pairing will work out. Defensively, Davis is a much better player, but offensively, Cousins still has the advantage. Perhaps an offense centered more around Cousins and his strengths would benefit the team as they try to make the playoffs for only the second time since trading Chris Paul.

San Antonio Spurs – Kawhi Leonard

A mid-first round pick, Leonard has emerged into one of the best players in the league. Few possess his combination of offensive efficiency and tenacious perimeter defense. Although the outcome may not have been any different, it’s a shame that Leonard’s injury in last season’s playoffs prevented a fully healthy Warriors/Spurs series.

Leonard’s numbers have improved every year he’s been in the league. His 25.5 points per game were a career-high. He’s a career 49.5 percent shooter from the field, amazing efficiency for a perimeter player, and he shot 48.5 percent last season. He’s also become one of the best long-range marksmen in the NBA, shooting 38 percent last year and 38.8 percent for his career.

Each year the Spurs continue to stay among the NBA’s elite. In recent years, Leonard has been the reason why. At age 26, it’s safe to say that Leonard probably still has another level he can get to. The Warriors are still the Warriors, and teams like the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have greatly improved. For the Spurs to remain among those teams and contend for a title, they’ll need Leonard to get to that level.

While the Western Conference has gotten stronger overall, it remains to be seen where the teams in the Southwest Division will fall. If the Spurs and Rockets want to seriously contend for a championship, and if the Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Pelicans want to sneak into the playoffs, it will be these players who lead the way.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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