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NBA Daily: Biggest Surprises – Northwest Division

Matt John begins Basketball Insiders’ “Biggest Surprises” series by taking a look at the toughest division in the league: The Northwest.

Matt John

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We are now officially one week into this NBA season and so far, so good.

With the Hamptons Five disbanded, we believed that this was the most parity in the history of the NBA. The season may still be young, but this newfound competitiveness has definitely shown itself.

We have some standouts, of course, and, for the most part, they were the ones we expected to see: Both Los Angeles-based teams, Milwaukee, Houston, Philadelphia, etc. We knew they were going to be the league’s elite, but we have seen our fair amount of twists so far as the 2019-20 season hits its infant stages.

This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at the biggest surprises in the NBA thus far and we’re doing it by division. Today, we’re taking a look at the Northwest Division, which might be the toughest sector in the entire league.

Minnesota’s good… maybe?

Man, what happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves?

It was only two years ago that they were supposed to be one of the league’s powerhouses led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. This season, they were supposed to be a lottery team whose best thing going for them was Towns blossoming into an undeniable superstar and not much else.

What’s funny is that basically is what has happened so far. Towns has been as phenomenal as he’s ever been. Wiggins is still badly overpaid and the rest of the Timberwolves’ roster is usually average at best. Only thing is, however: Minnesota stands as one of the four remaining undefeated teams in the NBA.

How have they done this? Well, it begins and ends with Towns, really, but that’s a little unfair to the other players on their roster. Last year, Minnesota’s team was depleted often by injuries. Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Derrick Rose all missed significant portions of the 2018-19 season. While Rose is killing it in Detroit, having Teague and Covington back healthy does fill in the gaps for the Wolves.

It’s not just them this time either. Their second unit has been doing its part during their early successes, which stems from a productive offseason that doesn’t get enough credit. Despite Minnesota missing out on the prize they set out to get this summer — D’Angelo Russell — their summer was filled with under-the-radar additions like as Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh and Treveon Graham.

This writer would elaborate more on that, but Douglas Farmer already did it.

Minnesota hasn’t exactly beaten the toughest competition — Brooklyn, Charlotte, Miami — but they’ve made it clear that they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s a small sample size, but the Timberwolves have come out this season throwing some good punches. Only time will tell if they continue to land.

Utah’s still winning the way they always have

The Utah Jazz are 3-1 to start the season. No surprises there. The surprise is that they’re still doing it in the fashion that they’ve prided themselves on: Defense. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that Utah’s offense was supposed to hold up on their end and, so far, they’re still not crisp.

Donovan Mitchell is playing like the future star we’ve been expecting him to be by averaging 24 points on 51/44/77 splits. Following a shaky preseason, Bojan Bogdanovic has given the Jazz their money’s worth too — 23.7 points on 53/45/100 splits.

It’s clear as day that the Jazz now have two excellent scorers on the team, so why is it that they still rank 28th in offensive rating — 99.5 points per 100 possessions — even after all the offensive firepower they added this summer?

Because said firepower still hasn’t kicked in full gear just yet. You know who the third-highest scorer on the Jazz currently is? Emmanuel Mudiay at a paltry 10 points a game. That’s a problem when you have the likes of Mike Conley Jr., Joe Ingles and, yes, even Rudy Gobert.

Conley, in particular, has been about slow-to-start as the Jazz could have reasonably feared. So far, he’s averaging just 7.8 points a game while putting up 20/15/83 splits. He’s done this while also averaging 4.3 assists to go along with 2.8 turnovers. That shouldn’t continue as the season goes on, but this is something to monitor as the 32-year-old is not getting any younger.

The Jazz are still an excellent team. As we can see from their record, they can still win games leaning on their championship-caliber level defense. But, what was supposed to vault them to the next level was their new and improved all-around offense, which we still have yet to see.

Seeing the glass half-full, the fact that they’re still winning games despite their offensive struggles has to make fans wonder what they’ll be like should they figure it out. Glass half-empty, however, this could very well be a problem if Utah fails to put the ingredients together.

The new face of the Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander! Who’d have thunk? Something else needs to be brought to our attention. This Oklahoma City Thunder team, even after all they lost this summer, is still a good team. Further, they may even be the NBA’s best-kept secret.

Chris Paul, even in decline, is still a fantastic player. Steven Adams is one of the league’s better interior rebounders and defenders. Danillo Gallinari is an exceptional scorer. Dennis Schroder, Andre Roberson and Terrence Ferguson are all capable rotation players on a good team. And then there’s SGA.

Gilgeous-Alexander was the centerpiece behind the Paul George trade following a very promising rookie campaign with the Clippers. It’s only been four games, but Gilgeous-Alexander has looked every bit like the franchise cornerstone that will segue the team away from the Russell Westbrook.

We already knew he was the future — and that he’d produce fairly well for the Thunder — but this much? This soon? In an admittingly-tiny four-game sample, the second-year standout has wasted no time elevating his play by notching 23.8 points on 48/36/68 splits while also being a pest on the defensive end.

Drew Mays has already gone into lengthy detail explaining why Gilgeous-Alexander is next up in Oklahoma City, which is definitely worth a read. Seeing him produce this much this quickly has got to make everyone in Thunder management so giddy for what could lie ahead.

It stands to mention that the Thunder are 1-3, but they have lost to two of the league’s best in Houston and Utah, while their one win was their long-awaited vengeance-driven blowout of the now-depleted Golden State Warriors.

Whether they decide to keep their current roster together will depend on how the team has done leading up to the trade deadline. In what could be the league’s most notorious anti-surprise at the moment, Paul should be in a lot of trade rumors leading up to the deadline on Feb. 7. Among all the uncertainty, one thing is for certain: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the new face of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Between Minnesota, Utah and Oklahoma City — alongside with two other postseason hopefuls in Denver and Portland — the Northwest Division has brought the early-season noise already. The jury remains in waiting on these results — but improvements, adjustments and outright stardom always appear to be right around the corner.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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