We’re about a week into the 2020-21 regular season and, while it’s still early, there’s been a number of interesting developments across the league. And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking those developments into account as we set out to rank each team within their respective divisions. Yes, most teams have only played between 4-5 games, but we can make some seriously educated guesses as to how the rest of their season’s might shape up.
We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern Conference — the Atlantic, Central and Southeast Divisions — and now we’ll turn our attention to the Western Conference and, more specifically, the Pacific Division.
Golden State Warriors (2-2)
How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago that the Golden State Warriors were automatically penciled in as the West’s representative in the NBA Finals. Then Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry got hurt, and the Warriors found themselves in the lottery for the first time since 2012.
Despite those setbacks, the team looked healthy and, with James Wiseman in tow, like they were ready to jump right back into the playoff mix. But it wasn’t to be — Thompson suffered a season-ending injury just before the season began. Meanwhile, Draymond Green has yet to play due to a sore foot and Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. have not made near the impact on the court the team hoped they would. Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick, has shown flashes of his talent, but he’s still a rookie adjusting to the NBA game with no summer league and no real preseason or training camp.
Obviously there’s still plenty of time for Warriors to turn this around. With Green’s return, if the team can jell and find a flow on offense, they could even make a run at the postseason. But, as of right now, that would not appear to be in the cards — the Western Conference is too good, with too many teams already vying for a playoff spot.
Sacramento Kings (3-1)
The Sacramento Kings are in an interesting spot. They currently hold the NBA’s longest active streak of missing the playoffs at 14 seasons. They mishandled Bogdan Bogdanovic’s free agency and he ended up leaving for nothing.
But, they did manage to make a huge, long-term move this offseason as they signed De’Aaron Fox to a max contract extension. As their franchise face and a borderline All-Star, it was imperative the Kings’ brass avoid a similar scenario to Bogdanovic’s at all costs. And, this season, Fox has rewarded them for that effort with some outstanding play which, in turn, has fueled a strong start to the season for Sacramento.
In four games, Fox has averaged 20.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, a block and a steal per game. Meanwhile, he’s upped his three-point and free throw percentage by more than 10 points each, as he’s shot 40 percent and 80.8 percent, respectively, to start the season. That strong play (and continued growth) is exactly what the Kings wanted to see from their rising star and, if he can keep on track throughout the season, the Kings may very well find themselves in the postseason hunt as the season winds down.
Of course, there’s more reasons for optimism beyond Fox. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento’s most recent lottery pick, has looked solid in the early goings. Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes, both of whom missed time last season due to injury, appear healthy and more than ready to contribute. In Bagley’s case, it could be his make or break season as he looks to prove himself worthy of being the No. 2 overall pick back in 2018.
Now, with that said, the Kings are still a major question mark. They could easily end up slipping behind the Warriors in the division, or — and this is what management can only hope for — they could just as easily find themselves neck and neck with the Phoenix Suns as one of the West’s newest competitors.
Phoenix Suns (3-1)
The Suns made arguably the best move this offseason, bringing in multi-time All-Star Chris Paul. Last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul showed he was still capable of elite level play and now, for Phoenix, he’ll look to do the same. Not only should Paul make the game so much easier for the Suns two young building blocks, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but he’ll improve the team’s ability to close out games in the fourth quarter and should bring an attitude to the locker room that it has sorely lacked in recent years.
In addition to Paul, both Booker and Ayton looked poised to continue their upward trajectory. Booker has come out firing on all cylinders while Ayton, who put on a strong performance in the NBA Bubble back in July and August, is still getting warmed. Whatever Paul may bring, the Suns’ postseason dreams sit primarily with these two — if they struggle, it this season may not be the franchise turnaround everyone expected after they went 8-0 down in Orlando.
A welcome development for the Suns so far has been the play of Cameron Johnson. A year ago, some questioned his high selection in the draft, which he followed up with a decent, but not great, rookie season. That said, Johnson’s been on fire to start the 2020-21 season, especially from three-point range.
Alongside Paul, the team also added veterans Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twuan Moore, among others. Crowder was instrumental in the Miami HEAT’s NBA Finals bid last season, while Galloway and Moore should help create plenty of space for the offense to operate.
Los Angeles Clippers (3-1)
The Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove. A proverbial favorite to win the title last season, Los Angeles flamed out against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, despite the fact that, at one point, they held a commanding 3-1 series lead. Paul George has since been signed to a max-extension, but Kawhi Leonard could hit free agency as early as the coming summer, should he decline his player option.
It’s entirely possible that this season represents the Clippers best and, more importantly, last shot to win a championship with their current group. And, that said, it hasn’t been the best start to the season.
After an impressive 2-0 start against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nuggets, the Clippers suffered their worst loss as a franchise, a 124-73 drubbing by the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, Leonard took an inadvertent elbow to the face, from his own teammate, mind you, and has yet to play since — not exactly what want to see in an all-0ut bid to win a title.
Still, the majority of Los Angeles’ offseason acquisitions have been positive. Namely, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard have all looked like solid adds, while each of them has added a new dimension to the offense and defense that they just didn’t have last year.
And, despite those early season mishaps, the Clippers still present the biggest challenge to the Lakers coming out of the West again. Their defense remains a strength, while Tyronn Lue has moved away from the isolation heavy offense Doc Rivers ran last season. And, save for the Dallas game, it has done the trick. If they can keep it up on that end, and get Leonard back on the floor, Los Angeles may very well prove the favorite everyone expected them to be a season ago.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-2)
Somehow, the 29 other teams let the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers get even better. Not only did they upgrade the frontcourt, replacing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrel (also hurting the Clippers in the process), but the backcourt additions of Dennis Schroeder and Wes Matthews should give the lineup a bit more energy than Danny Green and Rajon Rondo were able to bring, even if Matthews hasn’t gotten going yet.
In the early going, Gasol’s playmaking at the center position has enabled LeBron James to play even more off ball. Meanwhile, Harrell has picked up where he left off before the bubble as one of the NBA’s top reserves. Schroder’s offensive punch is something the Lakers severely lacked at either guard spot, while he has been the same, if not better, defensively than what they got from the position a season ago.
Health would seem the only major obstacle that could keep Los Angeles from another Finals berth. Anthony Davis tweaked his ankle in their Christmas Day win over the Mavericks and later sat out of their contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves and looked limited against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Laker loss. James, while he has yet to miss any time, has also looked slightly hobbled with an ankle injury.
Still, as of now, the Pacific is the Lakers to lose. Barring something drastic, expect them to once again make a deep run into the postseason.
The Pacific Division is home to arguably the two best teams in the NBA in the Lakers and Clippers. Meanwhile, the Suns and Kings are much improved, both looking to climb back into the postseason for the first time in a long time. And, despite their tough start, it’s still far too early to write off the Warriors, as well. The West is going to be tough this year and the Pacific is going to be a good reflection of that.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.
NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being.
Can anyone new break in this year?
Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.
The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.
The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8.
The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.