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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southwest Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is the day! Dec. 15. is finally here.

There are still a few weeks until Christmas, but this particular date marks another major holiday in NBA circles. As of 12:01 EST, players that signed new contracts in the offseason are eligible to be traded at long last. Although we won’t see a flurry of moves by any means, the old rumor mill should be up and running in no time. To commemorate the yearly occasion, Basketball Insiders dusted off the timeless Buyers or Sellers series and this entry will bring the ride to the ever-reliable Southwest Division.

For more trade chatter: Steve Kyler on the league-wide landscape, Spencer Davis covered the Central Division, David Yapkowitz broke down the Northwest, Drew Maresca tallied the Atlantic and Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southeast. With plenty of basketball behind us already, it’s time to take stock within the NBA’s most exciting division.

Spoiler alert: They’re all in it to win it, as always.

Dallas Mavericks

Through nearly 30 games, the Mavericks are right where they hoped to be — right in the thick of things. Before the season began, many wrote off Dallas — not because of their overall roster skill, but simply because the stingy Western Conference is no easy beast to conquer. Of course, they’re far from safe and a losing streak can spell trouble for any franchise, but the Mavericks have the correct balance of young assets and veteran leadership to make these good times last. Dirk Nowitzki made his long-awaited season debut on Thursday night against Phoenix, veterans like DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews have kept the ship steady and then there’s Luka Dončić, the rookie that’s set the league on fire.

Flanked by an experience-heavy bench, the Mavericks have exceeded expectations thus far and clearly won’t be sellers headed into trade season. Although, beyond that, it’s hard to envision Dallas finding a true way to considerably upgrade. Matthews’ expiring contract worth $18 million is intriguing, but his 39 percent mark from three-point range has been invaluable. Same, basically, with Jordan’s looming, consistent presence in the paint. And it’s hard to believe that many teams would bite on paying Barnes and his deal worth $25 million in 2019-20. Dončić and Nowitzki aren’t going anywhere either — duh — so that leaves Dennis Smith Jr. as perhaps the Mavericks’ most expendable piece right now.

Smith Jr. is averaging 13 points and 4 assists, a slight decline on his rookie season numbers, but the Mavericks would be wise to stick with the 21-year-old that went No. 9 overall so recently. If Dallas is serious about making a postseason push — and they should be — look for them to make a minor, bench-fortifying move between now and February.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ryan Broekhoff, Devin Harris, DeAndre Jordan, Salah Mejri, Dirk Nowitzki

Houston Rockets

It’s begun to feel like beating a dead horse, but the Rockets are certainly in trouble.

In the crowded conference, Houston has done just enough not to be completely buried and forgotten about. Still, it’s also difficult to find an easy path back into this season as the legitimate contenders they once were. It’s well-documented by now, but the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute loom large and their replacements — including the already-departed Carmelo Anthony — have failed to replicate their contributions. The Rockets balked at making a panic splash for Jimmy Butler and now they’re just hoping to slowly figure things out. Salary cap complications may have caused the offseason exodus, but the Rockets have lost their bite and defensive identity from a massively successful 2017-18 campaign.

As expected, James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela have been remarkably robust again, but their depth takes a hard nose-dive from there. With so much money already committed to the core, Houston has no choice but to be buyers moving forward. Recent rumors have linked the franchise to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a useful defender and scorer who is, most importantly, obtainable. Badly in a need for a wing, Caldwell-Pope and his expiring contract worth $12 million would be a solid fit both rotationally and financially for the Rockets. Outside of that, Houston could shift around the likes of P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Marquese Chriss and Michael Carter-Williams, but would likely need to attach some picks in order to actually upgrade in a considerable way.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Gerald Green; Jan. 15: Clint Capela, Chris Paul

Memphis Grizzlies

Sixth place! Memphis basketball is back, baby!

Just when we all thought the Grizzlies might be finally, officially dead, they go and rope us right back in. Helmed by head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the 16-12 surprise squad is squarely involved in the postseason race. In fact, as of posting, the Grizzlies simultaneously lead the Southwest Division and only merely outpace the aforementioned disappointing, 13th-place Rockets by two games in the loss column. On the other hand, Memphis is just three behind Denver and Golden State for that elusive top spot, so, yes, the Grizzlies should be buyers in no uncertain terms.

(In fact, they nearly acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. earlier this morning…)

The early returns on recent additions like Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi are promising, but there’s still a discernable gap between Memphis and the perennial powers that oppose them. Furthermore, they probably lack the type of big offer it’ll take to acquire somebody like Bradley Beal, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally limited here either.

J.R. Smith and Courtney Lee could be intriguing options for a roster that badly needs more shooting from deep. If Memphis wants to roll the dice, the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore — who is owed $19.2 million in 2019-20 — would be a culturally strong fit for the on-court brand as well. Ultimately, there are targets here for the taking if they’re willing to move on from JaMychel Green following the fast emergence of rookie phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. Green, 28, will be an unrestricted free agent in July and might be an enticing prospect for any franchise looking to clear up a chunk of cap space.

Assuming that Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. are both invested for the long haul, the Grizzlies will remain firmly in the win-now column. Now, if only they could find a taker for that Chandler Parsons contract…

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi, Shelvin Mack

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have Anthony Davis, so their designation should be awfully clear: Buyers.

It’s all about Davis, obviously, and the future Hall of Famer is eligible for a supermax contract in the 2019 offseason. If the Pelicans want to keep their once-in-a-generation star, there’s no time like the present to prove your undying commitment. Naturally, that’s why the Pelicans are one of the trade market’s most active teams right now, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN. Similarly to Memphis, New Orleans lacks the high-ceiling prospect or hefty expiring contract that a significant upgrade in this scenario would entail. However, given that Pelicans must do whatever it takes to appease Davis, their trove of untouched draft picks should be available this winter.

Julius Randle has proven to be a quality signing, while Elfrid Payton was contributing nicely prior to fracturing his finger in November. Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Davis have all missed a sampling of games as well, leading the Pelicans to some unpredictable performances. Attempting to tread water out west is a dangerous game, so New Orleans may feel compelled to jump in the deep end sooner rather than later. Whether it’s small trade or a blockbuster effort, keeping Davis happy is one of the NBA’s most intriguing narratives as the superstar quickly hurdles toward potential free agency in 2020.

Although they’ve been marred by lingering injuries, this Pelicans team is clearly talented — but can they afford to wait much longer without adding reinforcements?

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Kenrich Williams

San Antonio Spurs

This is a Gregg Popovich-led franchise still — so the Spurs, who haven’t missed the postseason since 1996-97, aren’t about to sell their assets and tank out anytime soon.

Sure, it’s been slow-going at times for an injury-riddled roster that’s now deep into their first full season with Kawhi Leonard at the helm. Granted, the breakup was indeed messy — but adjusting an entire scheme to a different superstar is not always an easy task. To his credit, DeMar DeRozan is soaring in San Antonio, averaging a career-high in both rebounds and assists through the first 29 games. Beyond that, Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker signed in Charlotte and Kyle Anderson left in free agency — all of sudden, everything had changed.

Toss in the brutal injuries to Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray and Pau Gasol, it’s easy to see why the Spurs have struggled out of the gate.

Since long-time wing Danny Green was part of the DeRozan-Leonard swap in July, the Spurs have sorely missed a defensive contributor at that spot. The just-moved Ariza would have been a flawless fit for Popovich and the Spurs, but there are plenty of veterans on the market for them snap to up if they’re willing. There’s a question of whether or not a healthy San Antonio team is a contender anyway — but as long as that legendary head coach is still in charge, they’ll be competing until the very end.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Marco Belinelli, Dante Cunningham, Rudy Gay, Quincy Pondexter; Jan. 15: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes

It’s business as usual in the Southwest Division and that won’t be changing in the near future. Between the hungry superstars and talented head coaches, selling at the trade deadline seems like a near impossibility. Although it’s still early, all five teams are entrenched in both the division and postseason battle, so get used to seeing them slug it out until April. The volatile Western Conference means that four of them could easily miss out — but the smart money says that it’ll be a close race until the very end.

Davis, Popovich, Dončić, Conley and the reigning conference runner-ups — how could you bet against any of them? For now, the best we can do is keep an eye on this space and watch the stars shine.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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