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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: 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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