This year’s trade deadline marked the start of a change for the Memphis Grizzlies.
No, they didn’t trade both franchise cornerstones as anticipated. General manager Chris Wallace elected to move Marc Gasol and hang on to Mike Conley Jr. Other pieces like Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green were sent away.
Four new faces—Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Avery Bradley and C.J. Miles—joined Memphis as a result.
The re-shaped roster is now a healthy mixture of veterans who have been there and young guys that have potential to break out, but haven’t garnered enough valuable experience to this point of their respective careers.
A prime example of the latter is Ivan Rabb.
In his second season as a professional, California’s former Mr. Basketball is finally getting the chance to prove his worth with the Grizzlies.
“Ivan has been playing really well for us,” Memphis head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He’s been playing more minutes since the trade and he’s been productive. You look at his ability to rebound the ball, he’s got great touch around the rim, he’s working and continuing to improve his three-point shooting.
“[Friday night], he hit a big three from the top of the floor for us, which helps with spacing and opens up the floor for everybody else. Which is the new NBA as we know, so the opportunity is there for him and so far he’s been taking advantage of it.”
In the month of February, Rabb is putting up season-best averages of 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 10 games. He’s started in eight of those contests consecutively, which is the longest stretch of his young career yet.
“I think a lot of this whole opportunity is because I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I’ve just put up a lot more shots, a lot more reps,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders ahead of a visit to Cleveland.
“My entire game’s been feeling pretty well. I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well on both ends, and I just want to continue to keep that going and keep building on it every game.”
Rabb displayed his skills late last year in April with the Grizzlies’ eye on the offseason, but this time around the expanded role looks like it’s going to stick. The organization is focusing on player development the rest of the way, so the 22-year-old is going to play a pivotal part in the rest of the season.
This will especially be the case with the recent news out of Memphis.
Promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. will be out for the foreseeable future as he battles a right quadriceps injury, meaning others will have to step up. Rabb knows the Grizzlies will miss his scoring and facilitating, in addition to his shot blocking and defensive prowess.
“No question. It’s just up to all of us to come together,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders of the significant setback. “We just have to try to come together and fill that void, and I feel like we have the guys to do it until he gets back.”
Bickerstaff understands making up for the loss won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t come in the form of an individual effort.
“It’s tough. Obviously, it’s a blow,” Bickerstaff said. “Jaren had been having a really, really good rookie season… We were beginning to feature him in more fourth quarters, so we’ll have to find somebody else who can fill that role.
“It’ll be multiple guys that have to do it. We won’t expect one guy to do what Jaren did. We’ll spread it out, but we believe that we’ve got guys in that locker room that can all contribute and that can help us down the stretch.”
Make no mistake about it, though—Rabb will be one of the important pieces to the puzzle without Jackson.
While he’s only playing about 12 minutes per game on the season as a whole, Rabb has upped that by 10 more this month.
Maybe that’s why he’s found such a rhythm in the key. In February, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward is averaging 6.8 points in the paint per game. That’s the area where he does his best work via the hook or a sort-of push shot floater.
In the non-restricted area of the paint, Rabb has converted 75 percent of his tries. That’s the second-best rate in the NBA this month with a minimum of 15 attempts. Among those averaging at least one point per game on post touches, he’s also runner-up for highest field goal percentage (62.5).
As of late, the Grizzlies have looked to get Rabb involved on the block. The goal seems to be either taking a face-up jumper or backing down whoever’s guarding him. He’s got a knack for navigating lanes to cut through and can also pass the ball quite well (13.2 assist percentage) as a part of an inside-outside game.
Bickerstaff and his assistants have even encouraged the sophomore big man to take threes in open-floor sets.
“They help me a lot,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I put in a lot of time with them after practice, before practice, watch a lot of film. They spend a lot of time with me. I think they’re real focused just like us and try to make sure that we all become great.
“Just keep getting more comfortable out there. I feel like every game I’m kinda like expanding more and more. Like, my game is changing. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do, too.”
Veterans can also be an extension of the coaching staff. Guys like Joakim Noah with over a decade of experience and even a newcomer like Valanciunas who’s seen a lot during his six years in the league—they make a meaningful impact on players who can use guidance.
“The best part about those guys is they’re not in it for themselves,” Bickerstaff said. They’re two very unselfish guys who genuinely care about the team and their teammates and everybody having success in developing, and the guys know that.”
“When they’re talking to them, they know where they’re coming from – that it’s for their best interest in wanting them to improve. The way that they talk to the guys and the way they put their arm around them when they need it, they have an understanding that it’s not about them. They’re there to help the Ivan’s, the Jaren’s, the younger guys who haven’t had as much experience as them.”
Rabb praised all of the vets he’s been with to this point in Memphis, noting that they’ve been huge for him.
“Just staying in my ear, giving me just encouragement, building confidence in me, telling me that they trust me to make the right plays and things like that,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “And that goes a long way. They see the time that I put in, as well as all the other young guys, and they believe in us.”
Listening to pieces of advice from coaches and teammates, Rabb has picked things up quicker with each night.
“There are certain things I don’t do anymore that I used to do,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “Like, small mistakes I used to make that now it’s just I know where I’m supposed to be. Just small stuff like that. It goes a long way. And things like that will keep me on the floor. The faster you learn ’em, the more you’ll play.”
When asked about applying those little things when he’s been out there, Rabb admitted it’s been more difficult than he originally thought.
“I think mostly it comes from just playing,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a lot of things you’ll see on the bench that you think you know what you’re supposed to do in that situation, but you don’t really know until you get thrown in the fire and you have to make heads up plays and things like that.”
Rabb’s dedication to honing his craft is what will solidify his place in the Grizzlies’ rotation. Those workloads are going to grow larger as we approach the final month-and-a-half of the 2018-19 campaign.
At this point, it’s all about being a student of the game and enjoying the ride, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s been a lot of fun out there just playing and learning through my mistakes,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I want to continue to just get better every day. And you never know what’ll happen.”
NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?
Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?
In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.
Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.
The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain.
In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.
The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.
Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.
Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.
Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.
After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks.
As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.
Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals
In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.
It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James.
With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.
However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.
The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.
Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.
Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.
While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury.
Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.
Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.
After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.
The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.
As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.
NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West
With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.
With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.
Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed.
The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.
Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In
Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11
The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.
Likely Play-In Teams
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8
On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12
The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help.
Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13
The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament.
San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7
The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.
Outside Looking In
New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11
The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14
The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch.
The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.
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