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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch – Northwest Division

Someone unexpected may shift the balance of power in the Northwest Division, but who? Douglas Farmer takes a look at the top possibilities.

Douglas Farmer

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In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, multiple playoff bids may be determined by presently unexpected or unproven players. Every game matters, particularly as franchises begin counting up the wins and losses headed into the springtime. Superstars can carry a roster, but it’s the breakout that helps them rise above their ceilings. Whether it be through renewed health, a new opportunity or old-fashioned development, a breakout player in the right situation could shift seeding, at the very least.

That may not be truer anywhere than in the Northwest Division, with three bona fide playoff teams, one with faint hopes of reaching the postseason and another that just might have a roster talented enough to play into May if it remains intact past the All-Star break. Today, Basketball Insiders kicks off a week of breakout-related analysis by predicting candidates for each team ahead of the preseason.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

If hype precludes a player from breaking out, then disregard this notice. But the working definition of a breakout player is one who significantly improves. In that respect, Porter has an advantage on the rest of the league, given that he logged exactly zero minutes last season and then didn’t even partake in this past Summer League — the latter circumstance due to a knee sprain suffered in practice.

Still, of course, Porter remains an unknown commodity, yet also the exact piece needed to accelerate the Nuggets’ growth. As a 6-foot-10 wing who can keep up with Jamal Murray in transition and knock down shots from deep to provide proper spacing for Nikola Jokić, Porter’s contributions will show up both on the court and in the box score.

“He’s a really good shooter. He can post up guys. He can go by guys. He’s a really talented player,” Jokić told The Denver Post. “We didn’t have a player like that just size-wise (last year).”

Clearly, Denver is already fanning the flames around Porter’s potential.

Yes, those are in-house highlights released with the explicit purpose of exciting fans, but they are also some of the first glimpses of Porter in action in years. If the reality of Porter compares at all to the theory of him, his breakout could push the Nuggets to the top of the West.

Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers

Collins got lost in some of the shuffle this offseason as the Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore, lauded Anfernee Simmons as their next great backcourt piece and preached patience in awaiting Jusuf Nurkić’s return from injury. Collins’ modest 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year certainly did not much boost notice — well, at least for a little while.

With Nurkić sidelined in the playoffs, though, Collins posted 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He may have been playing only 17.2 minutes per game, but that was still a hefty contribution for a team that reached the Western Conference Finals. Collins’ strong defense remains a key factor and his growth is one of the greatest Portland-related plotlines to consider in 2019-20.

Given the severity of his broken leg, Nurkić may not be himself even if or when he returns this season. In that case, Portland may be better served relying on a youthful upstart in Collins rather than a tenured question mark in Whiteside.

Dante Exum, Utah Jazz

Part of the reason the Jazz are such a popular preseason pick for postseason success is the roster is filled with proven contributors. Of the top-six rotation players, arguably Donovan Mitchell or Bojan Bogdanović is the least established, the former a burgeoning superstar and the latter a six-year veteran. Both Utah and the world know what the peak of that roster brings to the table, with the exception of Exum. His health the last four seasons simply has not allowed him to make an imprint of note.

As much as bringing in Mike Conley and Bogdanović may lessen the scoring and creating workload on Mitchell, neither will fare well against physical point guards. Conley is only 6-foot-1 and Bogdanović is better suited against wings. Neither Portland’s Damian Lillard (6-foot-3) or Denver’s Jamal Murray (6-foot-4) is a towering player, but each will likely find success against Coney and/or Bogdanović.

That may be where Exum factors in. He stands 6-foot-6 and is still only 24. He should be able to handle stretches defending the best guards in the conference if the Jazz need that stopgap. Utah knows where its scoring will come from, and its backline of defense remains the league’s best thanks to Rudy Gobert, but funneling ball handlers into Gobert will still be a priority, and an avenue Exum can take to consistent playing time.

Exum remains a Hall of Fame member of the Sky-High Potential, But Always Hurt team — but it’s tough to leave him off this list nonetheless. Maybe, this year, finally, is Exum’s time to shine and, if so, the Jazz will be that much scarier.

Jake Layman, Minnesota Timberwolves

Of the Timberwolves’ moves this offseason, only one looked beyond the coming year. Minnesota signed Layman to a three-year, $11.2 million deal, the length more pertinent than the amount. Minnesota has intentions of developing the 6-foot-9 forward next to franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, not just bringing Layman in to eat minutes until the next free-agent chase.

Layman’s and Towns’ roles do not overlap, either. If anything, Layman’s best offensive skill should complement Towns’ work from the high post, and even outside the arc, as an underrated passer.

“His ability to cut to the basket is really good,” Minnesota point guard Shabazz Napier said at Media Day. “He’s able to slash, shoot the ball tremendously well. He’s a high-flyer, very athletic. His IQ for the game, he understands what to do and what not to do.”

It was one thing for Napier to offer these compliments, but it was another for forward Jordan Bell to immediately nod vigorously at the mention of Layman’s cuts. Presumably, Bell has fallen victim to a cut or two in preseason workouts.

Layman may not manage much more than 10 or 11 points per game, but that could be a solid fit alongside Towns, something the Wolves are desperate for as they attempt to build the “sustainable” model first-year president Gersson Rosas seeks.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

For all the praise Gilgeous-Alexander deservedly received in his rookie season, he still averaged only 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. Whether or not the Thunder find a way to move Chris Paul and his onerous contract, Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers should skyrocket to such an extent that his initials will no longer be a litmus test to discern an NBA fan’s breadth of basketball intellect.

That will be especially true as a strong season from him will alter public perception of the Paul George trade. Moving a top-tier point guard of the future for what could be only two seasons from an injured wing may not age as well as presumed all offseason. To wit, the Los Angeles Clippers originally wanted to keep Gilgeous-Alexander at all costs, but eventually budged only once two MVP-worthy candidates were on the table.

Oklahoma City’s roster is an utter curiosity at this point, but the one piece head coach Billy Donovan knows is not going anywhere is Gilgeous-Alexander. Pushing him to the forefront of the scheme will help the Thunder both in the short- and the long-term. And with Paul — one of the greatest guards in league history — he’s got the mentor to make things happen as well.

Whichever of these players breaks out, that so-called X-Factor could have an impact on the Western Conference playoff race, particularly the top three possibilities. Naturally, there could be another name altogether unexpected. Perhaps Minnesota starting point guard Jeff Teague suffers another injury and Napier stars in relief, maybe Nerlens Noel will shine in a contract year for Oklahoma City or it could be Mario Hezonja that becomes the third piece of Portland’s backcourt.

The unforeseen keep things entertaining — but if anybody wants to pull away from the pack in the Northwest Division, the breakout watch should be highly entertaining.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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