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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Pacific Division

Jesse Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Pacific Division.

Jesse Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders started off this week by giving the Central Division teams grades for their respective performances through the first quarter of the NBA season. We continue the grading by taking a look at the Pacific Division, which features a few teams that are beating early-season expectations, including the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings. While some teams have earned high marks early this season, the Pacific Division and the NBA still belongs to the Golden State Warriors, who have run into some drama this season but still have the best overall talent.

With all of this in mind, let’s get to the grades:

Los Angeles Clippers – A

It is almost December and the Clippers hold the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. There was a small group of people who had guarded optimism about the Clippers before the start of the 2018-19 season but no one predicted that the Clippers would stand atop the Western Conference standings at this point in the season. Considering this, it’s hard to argue that the Clippers have earned anything less than an A through the first quarter of the season.

Beyond the fact that the Clippers are winning at a high rate, this team is almost a complete contrast to the “Lob City” era, which came to an end last season. Unlike the Clippers teams led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, this team has no elite star player and the players clearly enjoy playing with one another.

Tobias Harris is having a career-year thus far and is lining himself up for a nice payday when he hits the free agent market after the offseason. Danilo Gallinari has been healthy for the most part and is knocking down three-pointers and getting to the line frequently. Gilgeous-Alexander has been arguably the most consistent guard in spite of the fact that he plays alongside proven veterans like Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley. Lou Williams continues to be an offensive force off the bench. Additionally, Montrezl Harrell has been a force on both ends of the court so far this season. He has become a lethal offensive weapon as a rolling big man out of the pick and roll and has become an effective defender and shot blocker as well despite being an undersized center.

The Clippers have defeated some of the best teams in the league, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Clippers may come down to earth at some point this season but for now they have done more than enough to earn an A.

Los Angeles Lakers – B

Signing LeBron James was an amazing step forward for the Lakers. But the subsequent signings of Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley left many to wonder whether the Lakers would make the playoffs this season – even with James leading the charge. We knew there would be an adjustment period for this team early on, but the Lakers’ defense was hemorrhaging points in the first few weeks of the season and James stated he was losing his patience.

Fortunately for the Lakers, Tyson Chandler and the Phoenix Suns agreed to a buyout, which made it possible for him to sign with L.A. Chandler isn’t putting up impressive box score statistics but his presence on the court is making a positive impact for the Lakers. The Lakers are holding teams to 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 10th in the NBA. That is a massive leap forward from where the Lakers were just a few weeks ago. Though that may have something to do with the fact that they have faced some teams with less-than-stellar offenses in their last few matchups. Chandler is limited at this point in his career but it’s clear that he is providing a level of defensive competency at center that the team had been missing.

The Lakers will likely continue to have ups and downs throughout the season considering how many new rotation players they have and continue to integrate this season. However, after a conqueringly rocky start, it’s fair to say the Lakers have stabilized the ship and earned a solid B.

 Sacramento Kings – A

The Kings have failed to make the playoffs since the 2005-06 season (when players like Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Shareef Abdur-Rahim were still in the NBA). Between this long playoff drought and several avoidable missteps along the way, it was fair to not expect much from this year’s team. However, Sacramento has been of the surprise stories so far this season, posting a 10-10 record and holding the eighth seed in the deep Western Conference.

The Kings have managed this behind the efforts of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica and Marvin Bagley, whom the Kings drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. Fox has been pushing the pace for the Kings, who are ranked second in overall pace so far this season, trailing only the Atlanta Hawks. The Kings’ offense isn’t setting the league on fire as it ranks just 19th in efficiency (per 100 possessions), but on any given night they can put a significant amount of pressure on their opponents with speed and shooting. On that front, Buddy Hield has been hitting 45.1 percent of his 5.7 three-point attempts per game, while Nemanja Bjelica has knocked down 50.7 percent of his 3.4 three-point attempts per game.

Simply put, several of the Kings’ young players have taken a step forward and are contributing at a higher level than anticipated entering this season. Sacramento has stumbled a bit of late, losing six of their last eight games, but several of those losses came against tough opponents like the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans.

Don’t expect the Kings to make the postseason but let’s give them credit for taking a big step forward so far this season and beating everyone’s expectations so far.

Phoenix Suns – D-

The Suns are currently dead last in the Western Conference with a 4-15 record. Considering how young the Suns’ key players are, it’s not surprising that they are already effectively eliminated from playoff contention. The problem is, however, that Phoenix made moves to be competitive this season, such as signing Trevor Ariza to a one-year $15 million deal and acquiring veteran sharpshooter Ryan Anderson. Despite these moves, the Suns currently rank 28th in offensive and defensive efficiency and have been an easy win for most of their opponents thus far this season. Additionally, the Suns have thus far failed to address their glaring hole at point guard and have not let Devin Booker take over as the team’s lead playmaker.

The good news is that their core players, like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, have posted solid numbers thus far. Booker’s shooting percentages are concerning (32.3 percent from beyond the arc), but he is posting 24.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Additionally, Ayton has looked solid on both ends of the court and is posting 16.9 points, 10.4 rebound, 2.8 assists, 0.6 assists and 0.7 blocks per game.

All things considered, it’s hard to have much optimism for the Suns’ performance so far this season. This is especially true when there was so much optimism about the offensive and defensive system head coach Igor Kokoskov was putting in place this season.

Golden State Warriors – C+

The Warriors currently hold the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 15-7 record. Golden State is also posting some of the best offensive numbers in the league, while struggling defensively, especially in the recent absence of Draymond Green. So why are we giving the Warriors a C+? Because of the locker room drama that became public in the Warriors’ recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in which Green berated Kevin Durant for a variety of issues, including his impending free agency. These issues have calmed a bit but there are reports that the issue has not gone away completely and may not until there is more clarity regarding Durant’s free agency.

The other issue goes back to the team’s defense. The Warriors have mostly been known as an offensive powerhouse during their recent run. However, Golden State has also been a juggernaut defensively, with Green anchoring the team, often times at center. Green hasn’t been quite as effective this season in that role and no other player has stepped up to fill in for that loss. It could be the case that Green will bounce back when he returns from his recent injury, but that isn’t clear at this point. Green has also fallen off as a three-point threat this season, shooting just 22.2 percent on 2.1 attempts per game. Green may recover on this front once Steph Curry is healthy and able to create the space and time for Green to get his shot off from distance, which has been missing during his absence.

The Warriors still have far and away the league’s best roster and is maintaining the No. 2 seed while struggling with injuries and locker room drama, so we aren’t sounding the alarms yet. But as far as assessing a grade through the first quarter of the season, we think a C+ is appropriate.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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