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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the Pacific.

David Yapkowitz

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The craziness that was the NBA Trade Deadline has come and gone with multiple deals being made, including some big ones that sort of shook up the landscape of the Eastern Conference. Not only that, but buyout season has arrived as well with teams looking to add pieces for a playoff push.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we started a new series this week highlighting each division in the NBA and how each team stacks up following the trade deadline. We started this week with the Central Division, and we continue with the Pacific Division. The Golden State Warriors are the obvious cream of the crop, followed by a few teams fighting for a playoff berth, and the lottery-bound Phoenix Suns.

Here’s a look at how each team in the Pacific fares after the deadline.

Golden State Warriors (41-15)

Deadline Moves: None

The Warriors didn’t make any moves, either by trade or a buyout signing, and let’s be honest, did they really need to?

The defending champs experienced a little bit of turmoil early in the season, but have since righted the ship. They currently sit atop the standings in the Western Conference. If anything, we could consider the return of DeMarcus Cousins to the lineup as their mid-season acquisition. In his first game back against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 18, Cousins was aggressive offensively and moved well on defense.

Since then, he’s fit seamlessly into the Warriors starting unit. He provides yet another offensive weapon who can score from anywhere on the floor, and he is a willing passer; one of the best big men in the league at making plays for others. The Warriors have so many offensive options on the court that for the first time in Cousins’ career, teams cannot afford to double-team him.

While teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, and even Houston Rockets have hoped to emerge as legitimate threats to a fourth straight finals appearance for the Warriors, it’s going to be a daunting task. As of now, the Warriors should remain the favorites to emerge from the West, as well as win the title. Their lack of moves at the deadline does nothing to change that.

Projected Finish: First Place

Sacramento Kings (30-26)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Harrison Barnes from Mavericks, Alec Burks from Cavaliers, and Caleb Swanigan from Trail Blazers

What a season it’s been for the Sacramento Kings. They currently have the longest playoff drought in the league; it’s been over a decade since they last made the playoffs. This season, they’re looking to change that. It’s been quite a while since Sacramento was heading into the All-Star break with a winning record.

If it wasn’t clear before, the new acquisitions from the Kings left no doubt that playoffs is the goal. Harrison Barnes is a legitimate scorer capable of putting up 20+ points a game. He is another option for budding star De’Aaron Fox to feed the ball to. Alec Burks wasn’t doing much in Utah to start the season, but after the trade to Cleveland, he looked once again like a capable rotation player. He’ll do well to fortify the Kings bench.

Caleb Swanigan is a prospect who hasn’t shown much yet in the NBA. He was among a couple players battling for backup big man minutes for Portland in training camp, but the majority of those minutes have gone to Jake Layman. He probably doesn’t figure much into Sacramento’s plans.

After what has seemed like an eternity, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel for the Kings and their fans. All of their futility finally seems to have paid off.

Projected Finish: Second Place

Los Angeles Clippers (31-27)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Wilson Chandler and Landry Shamet from Sixers, Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green from Grizzlies, and Ivica Zubac from Lakers. Waived Marcin Gortat, Milos Teodosic and Michael Beasley

The Los Angeles Clippers had quite a bit of movement at the Trade Deadline. They opted to ship out budding All-Star Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers. Harris was in line for a pretty big raise this summer and by dealing him, the Clippers ensured that they will retain cap space to pursue a marquee free agent this summer.

The return they got from Philadelphia was pretty solid, however, Landry Shamet had emerged as a key rotation guy off the Sixers bench, and he’s already fit in well the Clippers. Wilson Chandler is currently nursing a quad injury and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break, but once he returns, he gives the team another dependable veteran on the wing.

The Clippers also acquired Mike Muscala from the Sixers, and they were able to flip him to their crosstown rival Lakers for promising young big man Ivica Zubac. Zubac has seen sporadic playing time since entering the league, but this season, in particular, he’s put up some big performances when given the playing time. He’s only 21 years old, and he’ll get plenty of opportunities to develop.

The trade with Memphis, that saw them ship out Avery Bradley, was also a good one. Bradley was in a prolonged slump and Garrett Temple gives them a guy who can do similar things; play defense and knock down the three. JaMychal Green is a tough, blue-collar player who isn’t afraid to do the dirty work.

Although they started out the season strong, the Clippers have faltered somewhat over the past few months. They’re still in contention for a playoff spot though, and the moves they made at the deadline ensure that they’ll still remain competitive this season, while adding some nice young talent and ensuring they’ll have cap space to go after big-time free agents.

Projected Finish: Third Place

Los Angeles Lakers (28-29)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Mike Muscala from Clippers, Reggie Bullock from Pistons

It’s not going out on a limb to say that it was a very disappointing deadline for the Lakers. All the chatter leading up to last Thursday was that by the end of the week, Anthony Davis would be wearing the purple and gold. Instead, different iterations of potential deals leaked throughout the week with the Pelicans seemingly holding out for an impossible asking price.

The aftermath of that seems to be a broken and dispirited team that aside from a thrilling win in Boston, has suffered some humiliating defeats against teams they can’t afford to lose to with a playoff berth on the line. It takes a toll on players mentally when their names are constantly thrown around in trade rumors. The majority of the young guys on the Lakers have never had to deal with that before.

The Lakers did manage to bring in some veteran guys; Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock are solid veterans that you know what they’ll bring to the table. In theory, they should help for a playoff push, but it remains to be seen how much the deadline rumors affected the rest of the team.

They did make one puzzling move, however, and that was shipping off Ivica Zubac to their crosstown rival Clippers. Zubac hasn’t seen much playing time throughout his short career thus far, but this season, in particular, he really showed some solid potential. If anything, he could’ve been used as a piece in a potential Davis trade over the summer.

Projected Finish: Fourth Place

Phoenix Suns (11-47)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Tyler Johnson from HEAT

The Suns have been one of the top contenders for the worst record in the league since the season began. They’ll be one of the favorites to land the No. 1 pick in the draft this summer. They didn’t stand pat at the deadline, however.

They made a move that actually made some sense. Ryan Anderson hadn’t been doing much for them this season and his contract was a hefty one too. They shipped him off to Miami and brought back Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington. They waived Ellington and allowed him to sign elsewhere, but Johnson is a guy who might help them now.

The Suns have had issues at point guard all season long, and Johnson is a decent stop gap for the rest of the season until they can address it in the offseason.

Projected Finish: Fifth Place

With the deadline now in our rearview, the compelling storyline in the Pacific Division is who will make the playoffs. The Kings, Lakers and Clippers are all fighting for that final spot. It would a massive disappointment if the Lakers, with LeBron James, fail to reach the postseason. And what an epic storyline that would be if the reason the Lakers don’t make the playoffs is because of their one time nemesis, the Sacramento Kings.

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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?

Bobby Krivitsky

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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.

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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.

Bobby Krivitsky

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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.

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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.

Ariel Pacheco

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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

Dallas Mavericks

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.

Memphis Grizzlies
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.

Sacramento Kings

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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