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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 PM: The Bright Future Watch – Eastern Conference

Matt John looks at the Eastern Conference’s brightest futures.

Matt John

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“They’ve got a bright future!” Has there ever been a more vague statement in the NBA? Not to mention, something pretty cliche on top of it? The future could mean anything because, well, it depends on what is meant by the ominous ‘future’. Like next year’s future or the far-future five-to-seven years from now?

These days, more NBA teams than not have a bright future. whether it’s immediate or distant, because teams are generally run better now. Teams aren’t spending money just for the sake of spending money like they did five years ago. The best franchises are hiring personnel that actually might be the first steps towards changing their fortunes for the better. And, perhaps best of all, they’re actually treating patience like a virtue.

Take Detroit, for example. The Pistons have predictably been one of the worst teams in the league this season and, to add insult to injury, they’re paying Blake Griffin over $60 million to not play for them. Yet, the newly added Jerami Grant has been stupendous and they’re going to get a high lottery pick in a loaded draft. No one likes to be among the worst of the worst, but they have to feel good about themselves long-term.

The same goes for New York. The Knicks have been mocked for years over incompetent management, but they’re living proof that all they needed was the right guy to flip the switch. Tom Thibodeau changed everything. They now have an elite defense. Julius Randle earned his all-star nod. RJ Barrett looks like a potential franchise player. This is the longest they’ve stayed in the playoff race since 2013. Making the postseason remains in question, but it won’t matter if they reach it or not.

Both of them have promising futures, but we may not see them reach their ceilings for some time. Today, we’re taking a look at the Eastern Conference and teams that project to make an extended run if they play their cards right.

The Time Is Now

Brooklyn Nets

Fun fact about Brooklyn: James Harden or not, they were contenders already. They already had a fair shot at the title with the core they had surrounding two of the league’s best scorers of their generation. Then they added a third. One could have called it overkill in the beginning but, in light of Kevin Durant’s injuries this season, the trade prevented what could have been a major turn for the worse. Even if Durant managed to stay on the court, it’s still a no-brainer to acquire Harden, duh.

Now the Nets are at the top of the conference and they’re only now starting to get back to full health. They brought in some stellar reinforcements to round out the edges with Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe their defense won’t be good enough to be considered the overall favorites right now, but their offense should be legendary enough to compensate.

Brooklyn’s loaded for this season and beyond. Unless their three-headed monster suddenly disbands, it’s going to be like this for the next few years.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks should feel pretty good about their immediate future. They have the reigning two-time MVP locked in for the next half-decade when many perceived that was not going to be the case last fall. They re-upped Jrue Holiday for the rest of his prime. Khris Middleton’s still as good as ever. They also have no assets left thanks to the Holiday trade, so this is it.

Now that their final form is in plain view, it’s time to see if the Bucks can get over their playoff demons once and for all. Somehow, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not enough. Holiday’s better than any playmaking guard they had last year on both sides of the floor. Whether or not he and Middleton, among others, can help rise past their spotty postseason efforts remains to be seen.

The Window’s Opening

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia has gained national attention ever since they started cashing in on The Process in 2017 – but combining last season’s disastrous results and this season of redemption, the 76ers now have a much clearer vision of utilizing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Turns out, it’s pretty simple. They needed shooting – and having it now has done a complete 180.

As Embiid and Simmons continue to progress, floor spacing that won’t compromise the defense should be the point of emphasis from here on out. Putting Tobias Harris back at his natural position as a power forward, while inserting Seth Curry and Danny Green as complementary guards, does just that. If the Sixers want The Process to reach its maximum potential, the team they have right now is the template for how to get there.

If the star pairing is given the necessary room to operate, Philly should be right there with the best of them, year in and year out.

Charlotte Hornets

Simply put, this was their most exciting year as a franchise since Buzz City actually got a professional basketball team. Then, in what feels like one swift motion, they lose their two best players for an extended period, which might very well kill their playoff chances.

That’s tough cheese to swallow, but Charlotte’s put the league on notice. They are young. They are fun. They’re only going to get better. This was just Year One for LaMelo Ball, the new face of the franchise. Gordon Hayward should have a fair amount of good basketball left in him, provided he stays on the court. Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham have all made strides as players too. There’s reason to believe that this team has only scratched the surface of its potential.

No matter what happens this season, the Hornets are not going to be a team to take lightly anymore.

Atlanta Hawks

Coming into the season, Atlanta had one of the deepest collections of talent in the league. Somehow though, no one was quite sure what to expect. Trae Young and John Collins were a nice, young pair, but, in spite of De’Andre Hunter’s jump this year, the results were mixed. That was until Nate McMillan took over.

The Hawks soon rattled off an eight-game winning streak, then one of four games not too long after that. With players coming back from injury, the pieces started to fit, showing themselves to be a functional operation.

They have young talent coming into their own now and they have veterans who have been there before. As long as they make it their goal to keep Collins, the Hawks could potentially be a powerhouse as soon as next year.

Don’t Count ‘Em Out

Boston Celtics

This season’s been a mess for Boston. Kemba Walker hasn’t been able to play on back-to-backs. Jayson Tatum has struggled on those very same games. No team has missed more games than Boston has thanks to COVID-19. For a team that has come so close to getting over the Eastern Conference Finals hump, this was about as disastrous of a season as Boston could have endured.

At the same time, they still have the best combination of two-way wings in the league with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Seasons like these help young stars grow when they’re hitting their primes. Plus, the biggest positive is that Robert Williams III has asserted himself as their center of the future.

They definitely have some roster issues to fix when the season’s over, but Boston should be in for a major rebound next season.

Miami HEAT

Miami’s skeptics screamed from the hilltops that the finals run last season was a fluke. Miami set out to prove them wrong and… they haven’t really done that. The HEAT have been erratic, to say the least. They’ve had extended winning streaks, all evened out by extended losing streaks. Now, they’re just fighting to return to the playoffs.

Even so, the winning streaks they’ve had demonstrates that they’re capable of consistently winning basketball. They still have pretty much everyone from last year’s roster, only with more reinforcements with Victor Oladipo, Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica. If by chance the HEAT don’t succeed, they honestly don’t have much to fret about.

They lost their Plan A when Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee, but they’re still going to be heavy players in free agency. Knowing Pat Riley, this season will at worst will only be seen as a momentary setback.

Regardless of where your favorite franchise lands in the current conference hierarchy, there’s plenty of things to like across the board. From up-and-coming rookies to promising draft futures, the Eastern Conference is stronger than ever. While the Nets, Bucks and 76ers appear to be the biggest threat’s to the Lakers’ immediate throne, even the bottom feeders are on their way up in today’s modern NBA landscape.

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NBA Daily: A Bright Future is Building in Oklahoma City

Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder click and which players can emerge as future stars of the league.

Tristan Tucker

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34 draft picks from 2021-27.

A staggering treasure chest of assets, something that means nothing if the team that owns those assets can’t draft well.

Thankfully for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise has already shown that it can build a competitive and fun roster no matter the circumstances.

There’s no sugarcoating it, the Thunder is truly awful this season. The team boasts a truly atrocious 104.7 offensive rating, good for 30th in the league while pushing out a less-than-stellar 112.8 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the league. The team is dead last in SRS, a stat that factors point differential and strength of schedule while owning a league-worst -8.1 net rating.

But this team is so much fun to watch. So much so that it’s easy to neglect its horrible rankings and record.

The Young Stars

The team already boasts one of the game’s best young stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is enjoying career-best numbers of 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. “SGA” is out indefinitely, but the team can rest assured in the development it’s seeing from its other young pieces.

Look no further than the team’s 2020 draft class composed of Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, two players already making an impact. Entering the season, neither player looked to be significant contributors coming from overseas play and needing time to develop. In fact, “Poku” is the youngest player in the NBA, while Maledon is the sixth-youngest.

Maledon has 30 starts under his belt already at the age of 19, averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Maledon’s shooting splits don’t jump off the page but his instincts do. The point guard isn’t the type of player to give up on a play and it’s easy to see the offensive instincts carry over from his time with ASVEL in France.

Meanwhile, Pokusevski is on fire as of late. Since March 11, “Poku” is a full-time starter, averaging 31.4 minutes, 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The Serbian power forward only turned 19 in December and it’s already clear to see his potential is nearly limitless.

Fan-favorite “Poku” has shooting potential, connecting at a 35.9 percent rate from deep on over six attempts per game. He can make plays, rebound, gather blocks and score at all three levels. He isn’t a marksman, he’s far from it at this stage of his career, but there’s no denying the finesse he puts on every shot. Pick-and-rolls featuring Pokusevski and Maledon is something Thunder fans have to look forward to.

The Thunder’s young talent doesn’t end there, the team is already proving it can find gems on a whim.

Two-Way Contract Development

Moses Brown played out last season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers on a two-way contract and was mostly an afterthought. Brown spent most of his rookie season in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Thunder in training camp, an opportunity he used to pick up another two-way contract opportunity and then a multi-year deal after stellar play.

In a game against the Boston Celtics on March 27, it was clear to see Brown had established himself as a staple of the Thunder’s young corps. In that game, Brown picked up 21 points and 23 rebounds, both of which are career highs. Shortly after, the Thunder converted Brown to a standard deal.

Since March 14, Brown has 12 starts under his belt in 14 games, averaging 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oklahoma City has 10 players on its roster that have three or fewer years of experience, not including Pokusevski, Brown, Maledon or Gilgeous-Alexander.

Shortly after converting Brown, the team moved to sign Jaylen Hoard, who was on a two-way contract opposite of Brown in Portland last year. Like Brown, Hoard spent training camp in 2020 with the Thunder but was ultimately cut, unlike Brown. However, if early signs are any indication, Hoard already looks like another keeper.

In just three games, Hoard is averaging 11.7 points per game while limiting his fouls and playing with his head down.

The other two-way contract slot is held by Josh Hall out of Moravian Prep, a young player that is very raw but has limitless upside. Don’t hold his numbers against him, he has the athleticism to make fans regret that. Watching Hall is always a thrill because there’s always a risk of an explosive play to come. It’s clear to see that the end-of-roster development is just as skilled as the rest of the roster.

The others

Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley became household names for NBA fans in the Orlando bubble last season and have continued their strong play into this season. Dort’s been a full-time starter this season while averaging 12.6 points per game. His shooting is pitiful but he’s a hard worker and he’s made strides as both a playmaker and a scorer. Bazley is also a full-time starter with poor shooting numbers but he’s close to being a nightly double-double. While these two haven’t jumped off the page this year, they’ve both already proven that they can contribute to winning basketball, as seen last season.

Isaiah Roby is another interesting case, he’s a big player that can play the three through the five on a dime. Roby was traded to the Thunder from the Dallas Mavericks for pennies on the dollar — and he’s making Oklahoma City thankful for their doing so. Roby’s averaging 8.9 points on very efficient shooting.

As if the OKC frontcourt wasn’t loaded enough, the team went out and acquired Tony Bradley from the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade that shipped George Hill away. The move looked great at the time and looks even better now, as he’s making the case to be considered a long-term piece. 

Bradley is still just 23-years-old and looked like a suitable replacement for Joel Embiid on the 76ers when the MVP candidate went down. The center’s best game came in a win over the Golden State Warriors in which he recorded 18 points and 11 boards.

If that wasn’t enough the team also has Svi Mykhailiuk, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, who have all proven their worth in one way or another. Mykhailiuk and Jerome have the potential to be some of the best shooters in the league while “Kenny Hustle” is exactly that, the ultimate glue guy.

Overseas development

One of the most underrated traits a developing team can have is the ability to negotiate with overseas players and leagues and pick up professional stars. The Thunder is quickly showing its fans that it is more than capable of doing so.

Firstly, the team drafted Vit Krejci in the second round of the 2020 draft. Krejci didn’t come over this season but has the potential to be a good role player for the Thunder if he’s ever brought over. He also got experience playing in the NBA G League earlier this year.

Then, the team recently signed Gabriel Deck, who isn’t super young but is a winning player. Literal hours before the move went down, Deck scored 19 points to lift Real Madrid to the Euroleague playoffs.

The team is also reportedly bringing over Vasilije Micic next season, a star in Euroleague averaging 16.4 points and 5 assists per game in those games. Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to notch assists overseas. Micic isn’t young either, but he’ll bring a lot of professional experience both on the court and in the locker room to aid a young Thunder team.

While Oklahoma City is constantly touted for its future draft picks, its current roster isn’t something to look over either. Combine that with the fact that, despite his massive deal, the team might be able to actually get something of value for Al Horford and has a roster spot to use once Justin Robinson’s current 10-day deal runs up.

In the NBA not many things are certain, but the Thunder’s bright future and strategic front office surely are.

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NBA Daily: Executive of the Year Watch

Front offices around the league have had their hands full trying to make the right moves in order to steer their organizations towards a championship. With one month of regular season basketball remaining, Basketball Insiders examines the intense race for the Executive of the Year Award.

Chad Smith

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There are three main areas where NBA executives face extreme pressure and scrutiny. Free agency, the draft and the trade deadline are all different avenues for teams to improve as they pursue the ultimate goal of a championship. Under ordinary circumstances, there are sleepless nights, make-or-break decisions and countless “what if” scenarios that run through their heads. During two seasons amid a pandemic, things somehow get even more hectic.

With a shortened offseason and limited access to players, executives were given the impossible task of drafting the right player, signing the best free agents and making the perfect trade just before the deadline. Some teams have done well while others — like Danny Ainge in Boston — have struck out looking. With the regular season heading towards the finish line, five contenders have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of winning the Executive of the Year Award.

Sean Marks, Brooklyn Nets

Technically the biggest move of Marks’ career came two seasons ago when he signed Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan and traded for Kevin Durant. This set the table for everything else and, while some view it as Brooklyn simply lucking out, Marks still had to put the team in a position to make the deals work. He began collecting key role players like Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Tyler Johnson and kept Joe Harris with a new contract.

Sean’s next move was to put together a package to acquire James Harden from the Houston Rockets. The deal had been rumored for quite some time but once it became official, Marks had put together arguably the greatest trio of superstars the league has ever seen. The Nets were also able to add Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market to bolster their already impressive roster.

Brooklyn has only had all three of their star players on the court for six games but they have also had the luxury of one or two guys carrying the load while the others get healthy. When you factor in the deals for guys like Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Alize Johnson, it is easy to see why Marks is the clear frontrunner to win the award this season.

James Jones, Phoenix Suns

As a player, Jones was always associated with winning teams. Now, the same can be said for his career as an executive. When Jones was able to put the trade together for veteran point guard Chris Paul, he knew exactly what he was doing. The move was successful in three ways. The veteran leadership and talent acquisition is obvious, but it also prevented them from having to overpay Kelly Oubre. The third and probably most important, was proving to Devin Booker that they were serious about winning – and winning now.

With Booker under contact through the 2023-24 season, it removed any potential desire to request a trade in order to play for a winning team. This was becoming more apparent at the end of last season when the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble down in Orlando. The pieces were nearly in place, but Jones still had to work around the edges to make everything stick.

Jones got busy in free agency, signing Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, Dario Saric and E’Twaun Moore. Crowder provides more playoff experience that their young nucleus can digest. Jones even picked up a talented young player like Torrey Craig for next-to-nothing at the trade deadline. From reclamation projects like Jevon Carter, Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky, to the player development of Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, the stars have aligned for Phoenix, who own the second-best record in the league.

Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers

While the award is seemingly a two-horse race between Marks and Jones, Daryl Morey has quietly revamped the 76ers into serious title contenders. It began with drafting Tyrese Maxey, trading for Seth Curry and signing Dwight Howard. His biggest move was shipping out Al Horford and adding Danny Green. Morey, who won this award in 2017-18, has raised the ceiling on their offense by surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with capable shooters.

Embiid has been one of the top candidates for MVP this season, though his most recent injury may hurt his case. When he plays, he is the most dominant player in the league. Though he and Simmons have both missed time this year, Tobias Harris has been able to step in and lead the team. Morey has his three stars under contract for the foreseeable future and Doc Rivers has this team playing exceptional defense.

Morey was able to acquire George Hill at the trade deadline, giving the team another ball-handler and an outstanding three-point threat. He has addressed their weaknesses and essentially turned them into strengths. By tweaking the roster since his first day in Philly, Morey has put his stamp on this team as they battle with Brooklyn for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have been sliding down the standings as they continue to play without their two superstars. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis still sidelined for weeks to come, the team has had to rely on their bench to fill the void. This is where Pelinka has improved the roster the most from last season’s championship team.

Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol have provided the depth and talent needed to make another title run. They upgraded at nearly every position while retaining key pieces like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.

Signing Andre Drummond after his buyout should provide dividends in the postseason as they face guys like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert. This means Davis can play his more natural position at the four spot. Pelinka’s biggest move was signing Davis to a multi-year extension, keeping the big man in a Lakers jersey through at least the 2024-25 season.

Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

After a brutal exit from the playoffs last season, the Bucks decided to reload their roster. Horst was able to complete a deal to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Much like the Paul trade in Phoenix, this move convinced their franchise player to stay. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228 million supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee.

The failed trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic did not set this team back one bit. Horst signed a couple of key free agents in Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, who have been solid contributors for the Bucks. The signings of Craig and AJ Augustin didn’t pan out but they did use one of them to acquire PJ Tucker in a deal with Houston.

Tucker is a perfect fit with this group, providing them with another outstanding defender that has led the league in corner three-point shooting each of the last two seasons. The Bucks had been one of the worst three-point shooting teams from that spot. Milwaukee should have no problem in tight games come playoff time. A closing lineup of Holiday, Khris Middleton, Tucker, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez should give opposing offenses nightmares.

Honorable Mention

The popular pick before the season was Travis Schlenk, who assembled quite the roster in Atlanta. The Hawks stumbled out of the gate, as they navigated through injuries and a lack of on-court chemistry. After firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, Nate McMillan has guided this team to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Other notable names to mention are Tim Connelly of the Denver Nuggets and Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz. Denver lost Jerami Grant in the offseason but the recent trades to acquire Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee have turned Denver’s season around. While the Jazz didn’t make any significant signings before the season, this cast is one that Lindsey assembled and now is thriving with Mike Conley finally settling into their system. Lindsey should get more credit and praise for the Jazz continuing to own the best record in the league.

Winning this award is special, but the ultimate goal for each one of these individuals is to win a championship. Since 1996, only three executives (Ainge, RC Buford, Bob Myers) have won this award and the NBA Finals in the same season.

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