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NBA Daily: Ranking The Southwest Division

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down what we’ve seen from the Southwest Division to start the 2020-2021 regular season.

Bobby Krivitsky

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We’re just over a week into the NBA’s 75th regular season and, already, we’ve seen some significant developments. From the new direction teams that made an offseason coaching change have taken, to the impact of some of the more critical offseason acquisitions with their new teams or even the development of the rookie class as they continue to transition to the game’s highest level, almost all of them have played a part in the trajectory of the young season.

And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking stock of those developments and more to provide a comprehensive ranking of how each team stacks up within their division. We’ve already discussed the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, and Pacific Divisions earlier this week and, today, we’ll look over the Southwest.

Houston Rockets, 0-2 

We’ll start in Houston, where the Rockets are a franchise in transition. With Daryl Morey gone to Philadelphia, long-time front office assistant Rafael Stone took up the mantle as the team’s GM while Stephen Silas replaced Mike D’Antoni as the team’s head coach. And, as for Houston’s roster, an offseason makeover that included a John Wall-Russell Westbrook swap (among other additions) has left the team in flux as they continue to search for a trade partner to move James Harden.

As of this writing, Harden is still a Rocket, but that could change in an instant. Meanwhile, the team’s asking price for him — a host of young players and a package of draft pick — could leave them within a range of different as to their immediate future, should a team meet that request or Houston make a compromise as to what they want in a return. Pending that return, the Rockets could find themselves competing for a spot in the NBA’s new play-in tournament just as easily as they could find themselves far and away from any postseason basketball. If Harden doesn’t get traded (a big if at this point), the Rockets should be a playoff team, barring injury, COVID-19 or a toxic locker room derailing their season.

For Stone, a point of emphasis will be to restock their draft assets. Morey, before last season, emptied the war chest to maintain the Rockets’ status as a contender but, ultimately, it blew up in his face. Stone has already done a good job of replenishing that chest, however, as he’s added multiple picks — one from the Washington Wizards in the Wall-Westbrook trade and another two from the Portland Trail Blazers in a deal for Robert Covington. Christian Wood, acquired via a sign-and-trade with the Detroit Pistons, has also proven a strong addition and should prove a cornerstone in the Rockets’ new era.

That said, barring something drastic, don’t expect Houston to hold their spot at the top of the Southwest’s hierarchy.

Memphis Grizzlies, 1-3

Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, has wisely remained patient with Memphis’ rebuild. They already have a strong base in cornerstones Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr and, in fact, nearly made the postseason year ago. Even so, while clinging to that eighth and final playoff spot, Kleiman and the Grizzlies made a deal for their future, as they dealt starting forward Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala for Justise Winslow at the trade deadline. While Winslow has yet to play for the franchise, at 24-years-old, he’s a much better fit for the franchise’s timeline than the veteran Crowder, fits their timeline much better than the veteran crowded.

The Grizzlies aren’t going to be rushed in this rebuild — their priority has always been the long-term growth and development core. That said, their current roster features plenty of intriguing young talent who will receive ample playing time to prove they’re a part of the future. Brandon Clarke has the look of a promising young big man, while the team retained De’Anthony Melton and drafted Desmond Bane, both of whom should contribute to Memphis’ bench for a long time.

The team has yet to provide a return timetable for Jackson Jr., who tore his left meniscus in early August while playing in the bubble, or for Winslow, who suffered a hip injury in July. Meanwhile, Morant has since sustained a Grade 2 left ankle sprain and is expected to miss three-to-five weeks. If those three can surprise and return earlier than expected, the Grizzlies may have a shot but, if not, it may be time to wave the white flag on the 2020-21 season.

Dallas Mavericks, 1-3

The Mavericks are coming off a campaign that produced the most efficient offensive season in NBA history. That said, even on that end of the floor, this team faces a number of questions which could determine their ceiling.

Thanks in large part to their defensive struggles, the Mavericks often found themselves in close contests that were within five points in the final five minutes. In those situations, per NBA.com, as defenses tightened up, Dallas’ record-breaking offense reduced to scoring at a below league average rate.

It’s easy to write off the Mavericks’ season-opening 106-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns, especially after a shortened offseason and the absence of Kristaps Porzingis. However, in the game’s final five minutes, Dallas missed all three of its attempts from beyond the arc, Luka Doncic missed a free throw and, down three with less than 10 seconds left, the Mavericks gave up a rebound that led to a back-breaking free throw from Devin Booker.

Trading Seth Curry for Josh Richardson should help the Mavericks’ defensive and, to an extent, he should alleviate some of the burden on Doncic to create his own offense. And yes, while Doncic is an MVP candidate, it may end up being Porzingis’ durability, Richardson’s productivity and how the Mavericks close out games as a team that determines their place in the Western Conference and the Southwest Division pecking order.

New Orleans Pelicans, 2-2

David Griffin brought Stan Van Gundy in to replace Alvin Gentry as the Pelicans’ head coach, believing young, talented players such as Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball would benefit from his tutelage. The other part of Griffin’s calculus was Van Gundy, who coached the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, is plenty qualified to have at the helm if this trio proves they’re ready to compete at a high level this season.

The Pelicans opened this season with an impressive 113-99 win over the Toronto Raptors. Ingram poured in 24 points to go along with 11 assists and nine rebounds, while Williamson registered a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Ball showed off his improved shooting form, splashing four of his eight three-point attempts en route to a 16-point, five rebound performance.

Since then, New Orleans suffered a 111-98 loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas, squeaked by the Spurs, 98-95 and were then blown out by the Phoenix Suns, 111-86.

Though Ball’s shooting form is the best it’s ever looked, it hasn’t exactly translated to success on the court: he’s shot just at a 28.6% clip from deep on seven attempts per game, markedly worse than the 37.6% he shot from beyond that arc last season. Perhaps it’s just a case of small sample size, but Ball’s shot will prove critical to the Pelicans. With Jrue Holiday gone, the space Ball’s shot could create is vital to the success of Williamson and Ingram down low.

Defensively, New Orleans is still adapting to Van Gundy’s system, which emphasizes rim protection above all else. The early returns are encouraging as the Pelicans are surrendering the second-fewest points in the paint per game, per NBA.com. In fact, the most pressing issue they currently face is that they’re tied for the third-most turnovers per game this season. When combined with their poor transition defense, those turnovers have provided teams with easy buckets on the fast break. They also need to tighten up their perimeter defense, as opponents have shot 36.1% from beyond the arc against them.

If they can manage that, the Pelicans should easily carve out a place in the play-in tournament for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs, 2-2 

Gone are the days of being a perennial title contender. However, this iteration of the Spurs has an intriguing blend of promising young talent and savvy veterans. 

Gregg Popovich has reconfigured San Antonio’s starting lineup, which now features LaMarcus Aldridge flanked by four perimeter players, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray, who are under 6-foot-7. DeRozan is the tallest member of that quartet at 6-foot-6.

And the early return has been promising: improved ball movement, an increase in three-point attempts per game from a season ago and, as you’d expect, a faster pace of play. Defensively, the Spurs have proven far better on the perimeter than they were a season ago.

Of course, there’s always a price to pay for playing with a smaller group. In San Antonio’s season opener, the Grizzlies managed to post 66 points from the painted area. In their second contest, the Toronto Raptors managed 50, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans 44 in their third. They’ll need to shore up the inside if they want to stay competitive in the Western Conference.

Derrick White’s return should help in that regard, as well. White, who averaged nearly 19 points per game in the NBA Bubble down in Orlando and recently signed a four-year, $73 million extension, should provide an immediate spark on offense. There’s also the case for Devin Vassell, the Spurs’ first round selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, who’s seen a quiet start to his rookie campaign but, with time, should provide San Antonio with the strong shooting ability and defensive prowess he displayed as a Florida State Seminole.

Should they falter, there should be plenty of interest in the Spurs at trade deadline. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay should certainly generate some buzz while Aldridge and DeRozan, both on expiring contracts, should interest many a contender.

Still, for now, the Spurs would appear to be in the division driver seat. And, after they missed the postseason for the first time in 22 seasons, don’t be shocked to see San Antonio right back in the thick of the postseason hunt or securing a spot in the play-in tournament.

The door to the Southwest Division title would seem to be wide open. At the very least, the Spurs, Pelicans, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets (should they retain Harden) are all capable of competing for a spot in the NBA’s expanded postseason. And, with that in mind, the Southwest should be one of the more interesting divisions to keep an eye on this season.

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Ariel Pacheco

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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.

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