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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We continue our latest series, “First Quarter Grades,” at Basketball Insiders with the Northwest Division.

The Northwest Division has shaped up to be one of the stronger divisions in the Western Conference. The Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Oklahoma City Thunder have all gotten off to good starts. The Minnesota Timberwolves have seemingly turned things around following the Jimmy Butler deal and now find themselves only a half game out of the playoff picture. Only the Utah Jazz have been a true disappointment.

With that said, here’s a breakdown of each team’s grades as we hit the first quarter mark of the 2018-19 NBA season.

Denver Nuggets – A

If the season were to end today, the Denver Nuggets would have surpassed all expectations. This was a team that barely missed the playoffs last season. They’ve not only turned that around and entrenched themselves firmly in the playoff race, but they’ve also been a consistent top-four team in the West.

Their defense is largely improved from last year. They had been a middle of the pack defensive team, but this season they are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’ve also been getting key contributions off the bench from guys like Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, and Malik Beasley, guys who weren’t rotation regulars last season. And they’ve yet to incorporate Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. into the lineup.

Nikola Jokic and Garry Harris are looking like true stars, and after a brief rough patch recently, the Nuggets have picked it back up and are only a half-game back of the top spot in the conference. It’s been a strong start for the Nuggets indeed.

Minnesota Timberwolves – C

The Jimmy Butler saga put a damper on the Timberwolves to begin the season, and had their poor start continued, their first quarter grade would likely be lower. This was a group that had aspirations of moving up in the West when Tom Thibodeau took over.

However, their new additions of Robert Covington and Dario Saric have transitioned seamlessly into the rotation. Derrick Rose is experiencing a career resurgence. Karl-Anthony Towns is Karl-Anthony Towns. Questions remain about Andrew Wiggins, and it’s likely that if he was playing at a higher level, this team would be doing much better and their first-quarter grade would be higher.

But as it stands, they’ve seemingly righted the ship and have themselves right back in the mix of things. Although they sit at 10-11, they’re right there in terms of the playoff picture. It’s a testament to how tough the West has been this year.

Oklahoma City Thunder – B

The Thunder got off to a rough start this season. At one point, they were the only winless team in the NBA. They’ve also managed to turn their season around and they find themselves emerging as one of the better teams in the Western Conference.

Oklahoma City is one of the best defensive teams in the league. It’s a welcoming sign considering their defense suffered mightily last season when Andre Roberson was injured. He suffered a setback and has yet to make his season debut, but the defense has remained strong in his absence. Dennis Schroder has fit in well with the team, and he’s given the team a guard dynamic they haven’t had since Reggie Jackson was in OKC.

Three-point shooting, however, remains a sore spot for the Thunder. Jerami Grant has emerged as one of their top outside threats, but they’re still going to need a little bit more if they want to be competitive in the postseason. A more consistent Patrick Patterson would help, but perhaps swinging a trade for another shooter at the deadline would help.

Portland Trail Blazers – A

The Trail Blazers have been right up there with the Nuggets as one of the best teams not only in the division but in the conference overall. They’ve lost three games in a row recently, and have slipped a bit in the standings, but it’s a testament to how much parity there is in the conference that they still aren’t too far off from the top spot.

They lost key bench contributors from last season in Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier. But they’ve managed to replace them with other players. Seth Curry has bounced back nicely from his injury and has provided Portland with another ball-handler and shooter off the bench. Nik Stauskas has been a revelation. And Zach Collins is looking like his billing as a lottery pick.

There may have been some questions in the past about the roster that Neil Oshey has constructed, but the past two seasons, the Blazers have been exceeding expectations. They finished last season with a top-four seed in the West and they’re on pace to do the same this season.

Utah Jazz – F

It’s been pretty solid grades so far for the Northwest Division, but the Utah Jazz are the notable exception. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Jazz were thought by many to be the best team in the division. They were coming off a season that saw them win a playoff series against the Thunder in impressive fashion while Donovan Mitchell became an emerging star. They’ve taken a major step back, however.

Outside shooting has been one of the primary issues of concern for the Jazz since the beginning of the season. They have one consistent perimeter shooting threat in Joe Ingles. That is going to need to change if they want to turn things around. Defense was another area of concern, and they’ve somewhat turned that around, but it still isn’t where it should be. Playmaking has been another issue, and that may be contributing to their lack of success from the three-point line.

The Jazz have the coaching and talent to get back on the right track, but the West has been tough this season. While it’s still early, there have been a good number of teams that have surprised out West. The postseason picture is going to be a dogfight. Time could run out quickly on the Jazz.

As we’ve seen in the past, things can change quickly in the NBA. These teams could slip or fall as the season goes on. Injuries could always change things. But as it stands, these are the early first quarter grades these teams deserve. As the season progresses and the playoff picture becomes much clearer, it will be interesting to see where these teams fall.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For Chris Paul

Left in the lurch, there are few feasible options for Chris Paul headed into the 2019-20 season, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official, we have hit the dog days of the NBA offseason.

What began at such a frenetic pace has inevitably sputtered and slowed, as deals have been made, unmade and some of the biggest names in the NBA have moved house. Everything that could have happened seems to have and now, with Summer League over, basketball is left with almost nothing to occupy the seemingly infinite amount of time between today and training camp.

And, unfortunately for Chris Paul, it may feel even longer than that.

Despite the Houston Rockets’ declaration to the contrary, Paul has since been traded, stranded on an Oklahoma City roster that has no business competing in a stacked Western Conference next season.

Between his contract – more than $124 million over the next three seasons – and his regression a season ago, Paul’s removal from the Rockets’ roster was a necessity; it’s a business, and the point guard was a hinderance to Houston’s championship aspirations.

But the situation hasn’t changed for Paul – he is still unwanted, a (very) pricy veteran miscast on his current roster.

So, where does that leave him? There are but a few teams that could afford to take on the massive amount of money owed to Paul and even fewer that would want to. There is no doubt that, given a clean bill of health, Paul could recapture some of his prior form next season but, still, would it be worth his price tag?

Probably not. And that should only limit Paul’s options further.

The Thunder reportedly want to get a deal done “as soon as they can” according to Adrian Wojnarowski, but discussions are “parked” for now. They could always opt to retain him; who better to serve as a mentor for the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than the Point God himself?

But would Paul want to serve in that role? There would be a clear opportunity to rebuild some value and open up potential landing spots. But, Paul, 34, is a soon-to-be 15-year veteran with a single Conference Finals appearance to his name. Surely, if he were to step back into a secondary role, he would rather do so for a contender.

And, of course, the money would be an issue as the Thunder, despite the recent roster reconstruction, are still expected to pay a heavy luxury tax penalty next season. Given their current situation, it should be obvious that keeping Paul on his current deal isn’t the best move.

The Lakers serve as another potential destination — don’t forget, Los Angeles tried to acquire Paul back in 2011, but the deal was subsequently nixed by then-commissioner David Stern.

While there is almost no connection between that iteration of the Lakers and the current one, it is still an interesting option. Los Angeles is an obvious fit because, for lack of a better option, the Lakers are set to start LeBron James at point guard next season. With Paul in the fold, James could serve in his normal role and reduce his workload with time off the ball.

The prior relationship between James and Paul could also serve to benefit the Lakers’ chemistry and may allow for an easier roster transition.

But, again, Paul’s contract looms large. The Lakers opened a max-slot in their salary cap earlier this summer, hoping to land recently-minted champion Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard spurned them for their in-house neighbor, the Clippers, they made use of that space to fill out the rest of the roster with complementary players.

Now, a buyout would be necessary to facilitate any deal before the start of the season. Otherwise, the Lakers would have to wait until December, when those players that signed new contracts would become eligible to be traded.

And then, of course, there are the HEAT. Miami is almost always mentioned when a big-name is available, whether as a free agent or via trade, and the rumors proved true this offseason in the case of Jimmy Butler.

Despite the awkward fit in Philadelphia alongside other stars such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, Butler proved his worth and, at times, looked like the 76ers’ best player during the postseason.

Now in Miami, Butler should almost certainly bolster their future outlook, but they are far from done with the roster. Without a subsequent move, they aren’t a championship contender — could Paul be the one to take them a step further?

The reported mutual interest, according to Brian Windhorst, should only fuel the flames, but a deal involving Paul could be as much of a necessity for Miami as it was for Houston.

The HEAT were the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago and Butler is a major upgrade, but the rest of the roster is underwhelming at best. While Butler and Paul could prove an awkward fit basketball-wise, there is no doubt that the two of them together would significantly elevate the HEAT’s ceiling above that level. Miami, unlike many of his other potential suitors, would also have the salary to match Paul’s incoming deal.

But a dispute over draft compensation seems to have tabled discussions until further notice.

Beyond those scenarios, it’s hard to imagine Paul anywhere else next season.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Paul is anywhere other than Oklahoma City to start next season, barring a change of heart (either from Paul regarding a buyout or the HEAT and Thunder regarding potential compensation), anyway.

And so, the long wait for Paul will continue. It would be foolish to doubt him now, after 14 seasons in the NBA, but it’s hard to imagine that Paul will come close to providing adequate value relative to his contract. Ultimately, a potential move may be out of his hands, left up to the teams to determine whether or not Paul is an asset worth acquiring.

So far, it would seem the NBA has deemed him not worth it.

But, it is the NBA and if the offseason thus far is anything to go by, anything could happen.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Chicago Bulls

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the Chicago Bulls.

David Yapkowitz

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With summer league over and the big name free agents all signed, we’re now approaching the doldrums of the NBA offseason. Most big moves have all been made, and we shouldn’t expect to too much movement between now and the start of training camp.

Most teams probably have an idea already of what the bulk of their roster will look like come training camp, and as such, we’re starting a new series here at Basketball Insiders taking a look at each team’s offseason to this point.

Next up in our series is the Chicago Bulls.

Overview

The Bulls are a team clearly in rebuilding mode. After this offseason, they’ve done a pretty solid job at filling out the roster with young talent at every position. It’s obvious now that they were clear winners of their trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago that netted them Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

LaVine continued his ascent to stardom this past season. There may have been initial concerns when he was traded to Chicago as to how he would respond after his torn ACL, but since then, he’s showed no lingering limitations. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the elite shooting guards in the league. Few can match his scoring prowess whether he’s slashing to the rim or shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line.

Markkanen has emerged as one of the top young big men in the NBA. He made some strong steps forward in his second year in the league. He’s moving closer to becoming a double-double threat every night. He’s exceeded projections from when he was drafted that pegged him as little more than a three-point shooting big. He has shown a lot more versatility to his game.

One major addition the Bulls made last season was the trade deadline acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. When he arrived in Chicago, he quickly played some of the best basketball of his career, fitting in seamlessly with the team and solidifying himself as part of their future core.

They’ve also got Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold. Their top draft pick last offseason, Carter quickly established himself a great defensive complement to Markkanen. An injury cut his rookie season shorter than expected, but he still showed flashes of being a capable around the rim scorer.

They do have some other decent rotation guys in Antonio Blakeney, Chandler Hutchinson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Blakeney is an instant offense scoring guard for the second unit, and Hutchinson was showing flashes of his talent before he too went down with an injury during his rookie season. Arcidiacono was re-signed by the Bulls after being one of their most consistent outside shooters last season.

Offseason

The Bulls came into draft night with the seventh overall pick. It might have seemed like a disappointment seeing as how the Bulls probably had a shot at a top three pick considering their record. But ultimately, Chicago might have gotten what it wanted in the end. Point guard has been an area of need for the Bulls for quite some time, and they used their pick on North Carolina’s Coby White.

White is a little more in the mold of a scoring guard, but if you could take away one thing from his performance in summer league, it’s that he can thrive as a playmaker as well. It’s unlikely that White will get to start right away, but he’s got the makings of developing into the Bulls eventual starter at the point.

Chicago also picked up Daniel Gafford in the second round. The Bulls needed frontcourt depth after losing Robin Lopez in free agency, and they may very well have found their answer with Gafford. Summer League isn’t always a great indicator of how a player will translate to the NBA, but Gafford was solid as a finisher around the rim and a shot blocker in the paint. He may end up becoming one of the steals of the draft.

In free agency, the Bulls made some rather solid moves. On a team full of young players, it’s necessary to have a couple of key veterans for the young guys to lean on and to provide leadership and stability in the locker room. Thaddeus Young certainly fits that bill. Entering his 13th year in the league, Young played in 81 games last season and was a key guy on a Pacers team that made the playoffs. He’ll provide the Bulls with consistency on and off the court.

They also made a big step to addressing their point guard woes. They acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign and trade with the Washington Wizards. He’ll provide a perfect stop-gap as the starting point guard while White develops. He proved himself as a facilitator with the Wizards, and he’s one of the better three-point shooters in the league, He’s a versatile guy who can play and defend multiple positions.

The Bulls also picked up Luke Kornet who spent last season with the New York Knicks. Kornet is relatively young and gives the Bulls a solid stretch big man on a decent contract. He’s also a solid shot blocker and should compete with Gafford for minutes off the bench.

Chicago also picked up an intriguing prospect in Adam Mokoka. The French combo guard initially declared for the draft a year ago but ultimately withdrew. He re-entered the draft this summer but went undrafted. In summer league, he showed flashes of playing both wing positions and being a capable defender who can shoot from three. He’ll be on a two-way contract so he’ll see significant time with the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s G League affiliate.

PLAYERS IN: Adam Mokoka (two-way), Coby White, Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet, Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky

PLAYERS OUT: Brandon Sampson, Rawle Alkins, Robin Lopez, Shaquille Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Walt Lemon Jr., Wayne Selden

What’s Next

The Bulls roster currently stands at 15 guaranteed contracts and one two-way contract. They’re likely done with any roster additions unless they find someone to take that second two-way contract slot. They’d most likely move Cristiano Felicio if they could find a taker for his contract, but it’s probably unlikely.

With the additions of Satoransky and White, that likely spells the end of the Kris Dunn experiment in Chicago. If Dunn remains on the roster through the season, and the Bulls aren’t able to move him, it’s highly unlikely Chicago tenders him a qualifying offer. In all likelihood, this is his final season in the Windy City.

The Bulls have done a decent job at filling the roster out with good, young talent. Making the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference, is still likely a few seasons away. But there is reason for optimism for the Bulls future.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B

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