Throughout the week, Basketball Insiders has released post-deadline rankings on teams in various divisions around the NBA, and next up is the Southwest Division.
The Southwest is incredibly diverse this season. It features a team that is gunning for the NBA Finals, teams that can’t decide to what extent they want to tank and everything in between.
Regardless of where the teams stand, there was plenty of movement throughout. Let’s take a look at what changes occurred and how it will affect their respective team’s record through the end of the season.
Houston Rockets (33-24)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Iman Shumpert from the Kings
The Rockets are certainly in a different place compared to where they were at this point last season. They still have a winning record, they still appear to be headed to the playoffs and James Harden is still playing ball at a historical level – yet they have about 10 less wins.
Harden is in the midst of one of the greatest offensive stretches of all time. He’s now notched 30 or more points for 30 straight games, joining an elite list featuring himself and Wilt Chamberlain. Despite his heroic efforts, injuries to key players Chris Paul and Clint Capela – coupled with the offseason departure of key players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – have severely limited any success the Rockets were due.
The Rockets were able to acquire Kenneth Faried in the buyout market a few weeks before the trade deadline and his presence has helped the hobbled Rockets to a 7-5 record over the period. He’s playing the best basketball of his career, likely a result of being on the same court as Harden.
Adding Shumpert via trade allowed the Rockets to get below the luxury tax as well as bolster their defensive presence on the wing. Losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute severely hurt the Rockets’ defensive abilities, so adding Shumpert will certainly hamper the bleeding on that end of the court. With Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul healthy, the Rockets are quite productive on offense, so Iman will certainly help Houston get key stops on the defensive end of the court.
While Shumpert doesn’t totally improve the Rocket’s chances of a repeat to the Western Conference Finals, his acquisition definitely doesn’t hurt.
Projected Finish: 1st Place
San Antonio Spurs (33-26)
Deadline Moves: N/A
The Spurs decided to stand pat this trade deadline – just like they have the last few years. This wasn’t necessarily a bad move as they would’ve likely needed to make some major moves to essentially move the needle, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Pau Gasol has fallen out of the rotation, but he’s getting too old to garner any serious interest in the trade market. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were both likely off the table due to the fact that they are the main reasons the Spurs are even still in the playoff race. And if the Spurs keep up their play, their first-round pick in 2019 will likely not be that prized as it would essentially unfold in the latter half of the upcoming draft.
With the sudden departure of Kawhi Leonard, most Spurs followers were probably expecting to miss the playoffs in the stacked West. Lo and behold, they are in the thick of the playoff race and don’t appear to be dropping out anytime soon.
In order to get back to championship contention, San Antonio will likely need to retool their roster. Aldridge and DeRozan are both leaving their primes, and their only significant young piece to build off of is Dejounte Murray, who was sidelined the entire season to an ACL tear.
The Spurs clearly have a lot of questions to tackle this offseason, so not wasting resources for a potential first-round exit was likely a smart move.
Projected Finish: 2nd Place
Dallas Mavericks (26-31)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. from the Knicks and Justin Jackson from the Kings
The Mavericks likely made the biggest splash during the trade deadline and were certainly responsible for the first major domino falling.
They essentially traded their entire starting five – sans Wonderboy Luka Doncic – and added valuable assets for the future. Porzingis will likely not suit up this season as he continues to rehab his knee from an ACL tear last season at this time. But pairing him with a shoo-in Rookie of the Year winner in Doncic can definitely lead to a fun dynasty in Dallas.
Taking on Hardaway’s contract was definitely part of the deal, but Hardaway at least adds a decent amount of value on the offensive end.
Shedding Harrison Barnes salary in a trade with Sacramento can very well open up a max slot this summer, and Dallas is banking on bringing in a third star to pair with the future Porzingis-Doncic duo.
The trade was definitely not made to bolster their chances of the playoffs this season – if anything it made the odds of them making it much worse – but Dallas is in a good a place as any team in the league moving forward.
Projected Finish: 3rd Place
Memphis Grizzlies (23-36)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Jonas Valanciunas from the Raptors and Avery Bradley from the Clippers
This was a very strange deadline for the Grizzlies. Both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the two players essential to the aging Grit-and-Grind era, were made heavily available in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Memphis ended up sending Gasol to Toronto, but for whatever reason couldn’t find a home for Conley – despite heavy interest from a handful of teams.
Conley, who isn’t getting any younger, is now stuck on a team that isn’t quite sure what direction they want to go in. It seemed very apparent that he was going to be traded – you could see it in his face during his last couple of interviews as a Grizzly – but for whatever reason, Memphis decided that no team was willing to offer their specific asking price.
There is still a chance that Conley is moved over the summer, but it’s obvious Memphis will not get nearly the same haul they were asking for this past deadline.
Keeping Conley on the roster will certainly not improve their chances of a higher draft pick, so it will be interesting to see how Memphis uses him through the rest of the season.
As for new additions to the team, Wright has an opportunity to get more minutes at point guard than what he was getting in Toronto. Valanciunas will automatically be plugged into the starting center role, and if you look at his numbers so far this season, he’ll likely provide the same punch Gasol did on offense.
Avery Bradley is an ideal fit for Memphis, but are the Grizzlies still trying to win? Only time will tell.
Projected Finish: 4th Place
New Orleans Pelicans (25-33)
Deadline Moves: N/A
While the Pelicans didn’t make any moves, one could argue that keeping Anthony Davis in and of itself was an acquisition. After he demanded a trade, it felt almost imminent that he would be sent elsewhere. We know that the Lakers actually offered multiple deals, and other teams showed a legitimate interest, but at the end of the day, general manager Dell Demps decided to hold onto Davis until at least the summer.
They ended up sending Nikola Mirotic off for four second-round picks but weren’t able to find homes for Julius Randle or Davis – players they were actively shopping.
Reports are surfacing that the Pelicans wanted to sit Davis out the entire rest of the season, but that NBA did not want them to do that. This makes things even more difficult for a franchise that for some reason couldn’t find success with arguably a top-five player on their roster.
New Orleans would be better off losing a handful of games as the season continues in hopes of landing a higher draft pick in the summer. But being forced to play Davis could certainly complicate things. Look for a few teams to call the Pelicans in the summer about both Davis and Jrue Holiday – each has at least one year left on their contracts and will likely want to play for teams competing for a championship.
They probably could have gotten decent offers for both Holiday and Randle before the deadline, but by not pulling the trigger, it’s obvious they are hoping for some better offers after the season.
Projected Finish: 5th Place
Like mentioned previously, this division is diverse with both win-now and build-now teams. A lot can change in a short time, as the Pelicans were likely penciled in as the second best team in the Southwest to start the season. The future didn’t look all that bright in Dallas at the end of last season, but after drafting a future perennial All-Star in Doncic and pulling multiple savvy moves before the deadline, their future is gleaming.
While none of these teams appear ready to make a championship run this postseason, let’s not forget that the Rockets were only one game – some may say one hamstring – away from dethroning the Golden State Warriors in the West last year. They are clearly a less talented team than last season, but their mainstays are still there. If healthy, they could definitely make noise a second year in a row.
As for the rest of the conference, no one really made any “win-now” acquisitions. As such, the remaining four teams will look to develop their current rosters over the break. That, coupled with any surprise free agent signings, could easily have just about every one of them back in the postseason next year.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.
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