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NBA Daily: The Race For The Eighth Seed In The West

After a summer of retooling, the Western Conference will once again be deep with playoff contenders. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few that could be right on the cusp of finishing in the top eight.

Quinn Davis

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Competing for a low playoff seed is an oft-maligned goal in the NBA. Pundits and fans will almost always call for a rebuild if a team is seemingly heading towards the dreaded 7-11 seed in their conference.

There are a valiant few that will drown out the noise and view any playoff berth as a success.  These franchises are usually in the midst of an extended playoff drought, a young team looking for proof of progress or an old team with too much pride.

This season, the Western Conference will feature a large number of franchises that will feel as if they have failed without a playoff berth.  

There are, of course, only eight spots available, and those spots begin to fill up very quickly when looking at the list of teams who will be vying for them. The Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are considered by most to be bona fide locks. The Warriors still have a perennial MVP candidate and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate that will be playing with a chip on their shoulder.  Then there are the Blazers, who seem to always manage to win five more games than they’re expected to and are coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance.  

This would leave only one spot for the following four teams that seem eager to chase late-April basketball: Spurs, Mavericks, Pelicans, Kings.  

Those four fall across all areas of the low-playoff seed spectrum. The Spurs are trying to maintain a 22-year playoff streak, while the Kings are trying to break a 13-year drought. The Mavericks and Pelicans both are led by players pinned as future superstars and feature a deep roster with veteran talent that they hope will be enough to mobilize a next step.  

Barring a seismic injury or collapse, three of those teams will not make the playoffs. Let’s take a look at how each of them could win this battle, starting at the most likely to win that spot and working down.

San Antonio Spurs

Death, Taxes and the Spurs making the playoffs, right?  Last season, the Spurs clawed their way to 48 wins and once again made the tournament. They did so on the back of a bench that blitzed teams all season long, outscoring opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Spurs also were elite from deep last season, hitting 40.1 percent of their three-point attempts throughout the year. While this number remained relatively unchanged for each lineup, the frequency at which they attempted these shots jumped whenever both DeRozan and Aldridge sat, per Cleaning the Glass.

It will be interesting to see if the Spurs can keep up the production from both the bench and from beyond the arc this season. Davis Bertans, a valuable reserve who shot 44 percent from deep, is now in Washington. He will be tough to replace, but coach Gregg Popovich has a track record of maximizing his talent.

There is also the return of Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.  Murray, an All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2017-18, could help shore up a defense that slipped all the way to 20th in the NBA last season.

There is some mild concern here that the playoff streak could be in jeopardy. The Spurs outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when Bertans was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. DeRozan and Aldridge continue to age, and if their production slips it might be too much for the bench make up.

That said, it still would seem foolish to bet against the Spurs. If the defense rebounds to a Spurs-ian level, it could more than offset the slight dip in three-point accuracy we might see this season.  

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks will enter the season with one of the more intriguing rosters in the league. There is the precocious Luka Doncic, who could be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come.  Kristaps Porzingis is also in tow and will be playing real basketball for the first time since just before the All-Star break in 2018.  

Last season, the Mavericks stumbled to the finish line after trading multiple contributors for an injured Porzingis, finishing 33-49. Now with the Latvian big man healthy – and veteran difference makers like Seth Curry and Delon Wright in the fold – the expectations have rightfully risen.

Much of the Mavericks’ success this season will come down to the health of Porzingis. Before the injury, he was scoring 22.7 points and grabbing 6.6 rebounds per game with the Knicks, while shooting nearly 40 percent from deep and providing elite rim protection. That skill set is rare, and him finding his form will both solidify a creaky defense and open up a clogged offense.

Doncic will be the first to welcome a second option like Porzingis. After the trade last season, Luka’s usage shot up to around 35 percent, and his shooting percentages cratered as a result. With a better roster around him, the 6-foot-7 point forward should find more holes in opposing defenses.  

The virtuoso talent flashed by Doncic last season has many predicting a sophomore year leap.  This leap could be amplified by improved roster, as Doncic may be able to increase both his raw production and efficiency.

The Mavericks lacked in both shooting and playmaking outside of Doncic last season. Seth Curry could give a nice jolt to their 34.9 percent three-point shooting, and Delon Wright will bring rock solid point guard play.

Outside of the big names and new additions, the Mavericks will also look for internal improvements from the likes of Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber. Particularly Brunson, who enters his second season after a summer spent training with the USA Select team .

It is clear the Mavericks will house a better team this season; the question is whether that improvement will be enough for them to chase a playoff seed. If they do find themselves in that position, it will likely be on the back of a sophomore year leap from Doncic and a fully healthy Porzingis. Those two “what ifs” panning out for Dallas, plus the improved roster on the margins, could make for a feisty team in April.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings bring back nearly every contributor from last season in their quest to snap a 13-year streak of lottery participation. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are coming off career years.  Marvin Bagley III had a promising showing with the USA select team this summer, and Bogdan Bogdanovic showed promise win his Serbian team action as well.

Fox holds the key to the Kings’ future. He is the face of the team and one of the most exciting players in the league.  His ability to grab a rebound and beat all five of his opponents to the other basket is reminiscent of prime John Wall or Russell Westbrook. The Kings were about six points per 100 possessions better with Fox on the court, per Cleaning the Glass.

He is still only 21, and him continuing his trajectory towards elite point guard will go a long way in keeping this team competitive. He had a nice summer practicing with the USA National Team before deciding to head home just before the tournament began.  

Buddy Hield quietly made the seventh most three-pointers in a season ever last year, behind only four Stephen Curry seasons, and both James Harden and Paul George in 2018-19. He will turn 27 this season, and it’s possible that last season will go down as his best ever. Hield getting as close as he can to replicating that production will be necessary for the Kings’ playoff hopes.

The Kings’ wing rotation is deeper than last year with the addition of Trevor Ariza. Bogdanovic is 27 but entering only his third NBA season. His electric World Cup performance has inspired hopes of a big season off the bench. Harrison Barnes will likely man the starting role, and he is coming off his best shooting season as a pro.

The frontcourt is improved with the upgrade from Willie Cauley-Stein to Dewayne Dedmon.  Dedmon brings veteran defense and better spacing at the center position, and should be a better fit next to Bagley. Bagley is another who showed promise over the summer with the USA Select Team, giving credence to the projection of a sophomore year leap from the bouncy power forward.

The Kings lack playmaking outside of Fox. Cory Joseph will take backup point guard duties, but he does not bring the shot-creating ability that the Kings may need in the minutes Fox sits.  Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes both showed flashes last year and could make for serviceable frontcourt reserves.

The Kings should be better a team this season. Internal improvements from the young players and a slight bench upgrade might be all it takes to get above the .500 mark. Slightly above .500 may not be enough realize the playoff dream however, as it took 48 wins for the Spurs to get in last season.

To make it to that level, it may take another slight jump from Fox and large improvements from both Bagley and Bogdanovic. The improvements would also have to come with sustained production from Hield. There is also the unknown effect that new coach Luke Walton will have on the team. If his free-flowing offense open things up a little more in the half-court, the Kings could be in the race at the end of the season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans are almost a completely new basketball team.  Jrue Holiday returns as the team’s captain and best player. His ability to play both on and off the ball make him an ideal fit next to first overall pick Zion Williamson. The bundle of players received in the Anthony Davis trade will also make this roster deeper than in years past.

Williamson is the crown jewel here. His all-world athleticism, solid ball-handling, feel for the game and limitless motor combine to make him one of the best prospects of the 21st century.  That said, there are still concerns about his shooting and the Pelicans’ ability to space the floor around him.  

Despite that, he should make an immediate impact in transition for a team that will run as much as possible under coach Alvin Gentry. His athleticism and quick feet also have him slated as a plus-defender right out of the gate.

Holiday will bring his usual elite defense and playmaking to this group. The Pelicans collapsed whenever Holiday sat last season, per Cleaning the Glass. His shooting slipped to 33 percent from deep last season, and an improvement there would add some much needed breathing room to the Pelicans offense.

Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram will also play pivotal roles after coming over from Los Angeles.  There has been particular noise around Ball’s improved shooting out of Pelicans camp. He will most likely be given the backup point guard role behind Holiday.

The Pelicans are also banking on improved three-point accuracy from Ingram, who fell to 33 percent from deep after shooting 40 percent the year before. Ingram showed flashes of playmaking with the Lakers, but also displayed a penchant for contested mid-range jumpers. That will need to be rectified for Ingram to take the next step this season.

The Pelicans did well in free agency to bring in helpful veterans in JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.  Redick will give the Pelicans an elite shooter to space the floor, and someone who could develop a two-man dribble hand-off game with Williamson. Favors will provide rim protection and a lob threat at center to pair next to the rookie.

It is nearly impossible to project how the Pelicans will perform next season. The height of their ceiling will come down to how quickly Williamson can acclimate to the NBA. Ingram and Ball will also need to take a step forward for this team to reach their full potential. They may struggle to score in the half-court, especially early in the season, but the fury they could unleash in transition will make them entertaining to watch.  

Everything will need to go right for the Pelicans to make the final eight. Even then, they will likely need help by a collapse from a team in front of them.

While the most likely playoff scenario seems like the seven aforementioned teams plus one of these four, anything can happen in the NBA. The Warriors and Blazers may just be one injury away from sliding down a tier. The Timberwolves could be a sleeper to enter this race if they stay healthy and get a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins.  

The Western Conference will be a bloodbath as usual, and at least three teams will come away from the wreckage with hung heads as they trek to the lottery.

It will be exciting to watch it play out.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Central Division

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by taking a look at issues that teams in the Central Division will have to confront in the near future.

Matt John

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Welcome back to another installment of Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations.” We’ve dug into the Northwest Division and the Southwest Division, and today we’re going to dig into the Central Division.

Bringing up situations for the Central Division feels a little more suitable, seeing how three of the eight teams that were left out of the 22-team bubble are from that group of five. 60 percent of the division’s season is already over and looking towards what next year’s plans are. However, that doesn’t mean those in this division whose seasons will continue next month don’t have pressing issues that need to and will be addressed soon enough.

Let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks – Can they convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around?

That’s right, Bucks fans. You’ve probably heard it about a thousand times by now, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more between now and next summer. Giannis’ next deal will be on everyone’s mind for the next year. The Bucks can dominate the regular season all they want. If that dominance doesn’t translate into any substantial postseason success, then that could be all the motive for Giannis to jump ship.

Giannis has pledged his loyalty to Milwaukee on numerous occasions, and the Bucks have built a team that fits around him like a glove. Yet, there still seems to be this stigma that’s making everyone uneasy when talking about his long-term status with the team. Oddly enough, this unease hasn’t stemmed from anything Giannis has done, but from what some of his compatriots have done over the past decade.

LeBron James set the standard for superstar players choosing to leave their original upper-tier teams for greener pastures, and since then, we’ve seen the same happen over and over again with players who followed in his footsteps. Kevin Durant did it. Kawhi Leonard did it. LeBron’s done it twice more since “The Decision.” No matter what Giannis says or how the Bucks fare, no one knows how this will play out until the Greek Freak signs his name on the dotted line.

Of course, if the Bucks win the championship this year or next — which as we all know is definitely in the cards — then all of these concerns most likely will be put to bed easily, but we’ll have to see it first. It won’t be long now before we see if the Bucks can do enough to keep the best player the franchise has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Indiana Pacers – How will they approach the Victor Oladipo contract situation?

This is a potential issue that needs to be brought up more than it has been. Oladipo has been the symbol of the Pacers’ new era of basketball — bedazzling the masses, grinding out the games, and above all else, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of whether he can be the same player he was before his knee balked may put him at odds with the Pacers when they discuss his next extension.

The ‘Dipo we got from 2017-18 would definitely be worth every penny of a max extension, but the Pacers had that guy for only one season. No one knows if that version of Victor Oladipo will resurface. The playoff bubble will be a golden opportunity for him to show that he can still be that guy, and even if he’s not, he’s got another season to do the same. Come to think of it, there may not have been an individual player who benefited more from this time off than Oladipo did now that he had even more time to rest and rehab his knee.

Oladipo definitely showed some encouraging signs before the season halted, but what if he doesn’t get back to that level? Do the Pacers give him a max extension on good faith and/or sentiment? Teams have done that, and some came to regret it. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Oladipo gets back to full health, but is not quite able to get back to where he was. He was an above-average player before his surprise ascension in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with having a guy like that locked up long-term…at a modest price.

Knowing his story, no one in the world should be rooting against Oladipo rediscovering his old form. We do have to ponder what his and the Pacers’ options are if he doesn’t.

Indiana Pacers – Will they end the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing once and for all?

All signs certainly point to yes. The two of them have gotten better as a pairing — together they have a plus-2.1 net rating which is a step up from the past — but that may have to do with Sabonis continuing to stake his claim as one of the league’s best young bigs while Turner has stayed the same, give or take. They still aren’t a great duo, and they probably never will be.

So the next move would be to trade one of them, with the odd man out indisputably being Turner. Sabonis has morphed into an All-Star this year while Turner’s progress continues to stagnate. At the same time, it’s a nice privilege to have two young bigs who, even if they don’t play well together, can alter the course of the game with their individual skill sets.

In all honesty, they don’t have to trade either of them if they don’t feel a pressing need to. They have both locked up on reasonable contracts. Neither has expressed any issues playing with one another. They would have to figure who would be better for which matchup, but that’s not the hardest task. Until someone wants out, Indiana can ride this out with the duo intact.

Odds are, Turner probably will get traded in the near future, but it’s not like the Pacers will be beyond desperate to get rid of him.

Chicago Bulls – Is Jim Boylen the next man to go?

Again, the obvious answer should be yes. This season alone, Boylen’s created quite a track record for baffling decisions that have led to a disconnect in the locker room, bizarre choices at the end of games, and of course, another season ending with a sub-.500 record. The only difference between this season and last is that there was quite a bit of optimism coming into this season.

A coach who’s done what Boylen has would usually get the first ticket out of Chicago once the season has concluded. Even with his job security remaining a hot topic for a good chunk of the season, he is still employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, puzzling pretty much everyone in the NBA outside of Bulls’ ownership.

Chicago has already made some shake-ups in their front office by replacing Gar Forman and John Paxson with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. To some degree, this is tough for the Bulls seeing how they extended Boylen after last season, but this is about team progress more than anything. If the Bulls think Boylen is the man for the job despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, well then that’s their choice.

It just seems like, at this point, they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate.

Cleveland Cavaliers – What direction exactly are they going in?

The Cavaliers were bad this year in general, but strangely enough, there were some signs of encouraging play both early on and at the end. They actually started the season okay — going 4-5 in their first nine games — before the whole John Beilein saga commenced (#SlugLife). Then, following Beilein’s resignation, the team actually started picking it up a bit before their season prematurely ended. Even if they wound up with the worst record in the Eastern Conference — 19-46 — they won half of their last 12 games.

Their outlook for the future is kind of difficult to see. They have a promising arsenal of young talent — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. — and they also have a fair amount of veterans on the team in Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson that makes their roster pretty confusing. Love’s been on the trade market since pretty much the start of last season, yet is still on the team. Then, when the team’s already way out of playoff contention, they go out and get Andre Drummond because… well, why not get Andre Drummond? Especially at the price Cleveland paid?

Now, they are in discussions to extend Drummond and Tristan Thompson’s free agency is coming up. They also have a potentially high lottery pick coming their way. The results J.B. Bickerstaff got as the coach were promising, albeit too short to draw conclusions. So, what exactly is the plan going on in “The Land?” Their roster is full of guys who are on different timelines right now. Are they going to commit to the youth movement, or are they going to cash in to acquire a star or two? Because there are definitely going to be some available this summer.

Even though the Cavaliers have been pretty bad since LeBron’s second departure, since they’ve kept a good chunk of their veterans, they haven’t embraced a rebuild. Perhaps they’re preparing to make a big splash, or maybe they are delaying the inevitable. No matter what, they could be an interesting player in what’s going to be a pretty boring offseason.

Detroit Pistons – What do they do with Blake Griffin?

You know, Detroit definitely has one of, if not the bleakest outlook in the league right now. They only have three players on the roster that have the potential to be more than they are right now: Christian Wood, who they lucked into; Luke Kennard, who they tried to trade(?!); and Sekou Doumbouya, who is largely raw and not much else. Other than that, they have mostly roster filler and veterans whose services would be better used elsewhere in Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway. They paid the price for waiting too long to trade Andre Drummond, and now, they might be stuck with Blake Griffin for the duration of his max contract.

Getting a nice shiny lottery pick will probably help things a bit, but whether prime Blake is coming back or not, he really does not have a place on this roster anymore (not that he really had one before?), and that might be the exact problem in Motown. With all the surgeries accumulating, it’s tough to foresee if we’re going to get the same Blake that we’re used to seeing. Granted, prime athletic Blake will never be back, but the one that accommodated his game because of said lost athletic ability may not be there, either.

If, by some miracle, Blake shows enough to draw interest, Detroit should take the first offer it gets because this team is definitely headed for a rebuild and has absolutely no use for the former MVP candidate. The chances of that happening are not good in the slightest. Blake’s injuries continue to pile up, and that contract is pretty expensive to take on. It would have been easier to take on before Coronavirus got in the way, but that’s like saying a turtle will race better than a snail.

It’s a shame that a great player like Blake Griffin may have to spend the remainder of his prime — if his prime is still here — on a team that has no use for him, but that’s life in the NBA.

Unlike our previous installments, these situations are going to be looked into much sooner than later. Much like our previous installments, none of them have straightforward solutions.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Southwest Division

Ben Nadeau continues the 6 Situations series by checking on those battling it out in the Southwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.

Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some country-wide. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.

If you can donate, consider doing so. If you can’t donate, educate yourself. Even if you donate, continue to read, learn and listen.

Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.

Yesterday, Matt John dug into the next steps for the Northwest Division – what will become of this surprisingly successful Oklahoma City roster? Where will Mike Conley Jr. fit moving forward for Utah?  But the Southwest is an awfully crowded collection of franchises, one in which all five teams are involved in July’s restart. Although some of them should certainly fair better than others, stocked by MVP candidates, up-and-comers and veteran-led rosters, there’s plenty to ponder beyond this summer.

Many didn’t know what the NBA would look like if and when it returned – but now that they have, the same question and logic applies to the forthcoming muddied and rapid-fire offseason too. Blow it up or keep it together? Cut costs or go all-in? Although the restart shouldn’t be used to draw any consequential decisions, it may inform front offices of the best way forward — even if it may be a painful direction.

In the spirit of revving up the ol’ crystal ball prediction machine, here comes the Southwest Division.

Houston Rockets: Did the James Harden + Russell Westbrook experiment work?

And what needs to happen to make another season more successful?

As mentioned in the Rockets’ X-Factor piece, the fit of Russell Westbrook has always been a suspect one. Despite all the assumed pitfalls, it was ultimately a plunge worth taking in lieu of Chris Paul’s massive deal – but will anything come of it? In this current iteration, built entirely around James Harden and a system that nearly propelled him to back-to-back MVP awards, the Rockets have hoisted up three-pointers like they’re going out of style for years and years.

However, that becomes a bit dicier as a team-wide mantra when the new point guard has struggled from there for over a decade. Westbrook’s best-ever mark is 34.3 percent (2016-17), which would stand as a career-low for his backcourt partner. Former key shooters like Eric Gordon and Danuel House have regressed from deep, while they’ve missed Gerald Green entirely. Compounded by their decision to deal the up-and-coming Clint Capela for wing defense and more shooting, the Rockets now run with P.J. Tucker as the starting center.

If Houston struggles at all to re-acclimate in Orlando, they could pay a pretty hefty first-round price. And if they flame out quickly during the Golden State Warriors’ now infamous down year – then what is the real ceiling of this redesigned roster? Any potential departure of Westbrook would be marred by the same criteria that brought him to the Rockets in the first place – the price and years left on a big contract. This iteration is one that runs awfully hot-and-cold — they’re part of the NBA elite. But those off-nights, against the more powerful and consistent Western Conference, are seeding killers.
Logical progression might suggest that the best way forward is a structure reset — find a real center, build for more balance, etc – but it might not be possible. Harden, of course, is used to doing the impossible – and he’ll need to in July.

If the Rockets can’t make combination work – both in the short- and long-term – they’ll have more questions than answers with very little influence in changing them. Houston has rolled the dice significantly on this pairing, now it needs to improve… or else.

Dallas Mavericks: Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzinigs fully healed and healthy?

Will they need another star to truly compete?

This sentiment assumes that Luka Doncic cannot transcend rosters – hell, he’s already done that in Dallas over a season-plus. But in the Western Conference, it’ll take more than just a perennial MVP candidate to top that massive hierarchy. That’s also why they moved for an injured Kristaps Porzingis last year and re-signed him before the Latvian ever played a game – Batman needed a Robin.

Over 51 games for Dallas, Porzingis has averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over 31 minutes – numbers that saw a healthy boost during the contests in which Doncic missed out in early February. Recovering from ACL injuries are no joke, so the Mavericks were rightfully careful not to push Porzingis too quickly, even frequently scheduling rest days in 2020. Alongside Doncic, the international duo could make waves as a lower-seeded opponent down in Orlando. But if they get matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, a year of great growth may end swiftly.

Losing to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard would be of no immense shame, especially in the midst of the weirdest NBA season ever. But matched at 40 wins with Oklahoma City and Houston, the Mavericks will have work to do in the loss column if they’d like to move up the ladder at all. Assuming that the quarantine has done nothing to negatively change the health of their stars, they’ll have two ready-to-go 20 point scorers — but will that be enough?

After that pair, Dallas’ best scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. at 15.8 points per game – but as an up-and-down shooter, he’s had plenty of off-nights to go with the explosiveness. With 17 games in 2019-20 with 11 points or less, that probably won’t get it done against a balanced Denver roster, much less an LA-based superteam. In a strange COVID-19 landscape, both on the trade market and in free agency, who knows what upgrades or replacements will even exist in the next modified offseason.

Doncic is an incredible, still-improving superstar – but we’re about to find out just how good he can be.

San Antonio Spurs: Is it time, at long last, to blow it up and start over?

Is there any reason to ponder Gregg Popovich’s future?

The Spurs, although trekking down to Orlando, have a tough mountain to climb to reach the No. 8 seed – again, just to play the Lakers.

It’s a task that became even harder when LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery a few weeks ago. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s wise not to bet against Gregg Popovich. Of course, the legendary coach has led San Antonio to the postseason in every single campaign since 1997-98. At 27-36, the odds aren’t great – but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has done more with less before.

He’s still got DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs still have Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and a wisened Rudy Gay as well. There’s even the potential to just unleash Lonnie Walker and see what happens – for better or worse. Losing Aldridge hurts, perhaps a bit too much, but Popovich is still Popovich.

Regardless of their slim chances next month, there’s still speculation about the head coach’s future in general. 71 years of age is no spring chicken, a stance only fueled further by recent attempts to elevate responsibilities for assistant coaches like Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan. Naturally, the Spurs are synonymous with Popovich until he decides differently – but once his historic postseason streak is officially struck down, where does a potentially rebuilding team go from there?

Would they try to move on from a near-expiring DeRozan contract? What about an aging Aldridge that only has $7 million guaranteed in 2020-21? If they miss the playoffs and deal with the tough reality of a rebuild, could they – finally, truly, actually – take that path? Even if Orlando goes swimmingly, this is a franchise that might look vastly different the next time basketball begins, whenever that is.

New Orleans Pelicans: How much Zion Williamson is too much?

Which players tested positive for COVID-19 and will their availability change in Orlando?

Look, obviously, most everybody would like to see Zion Williamson against the Lakers in a seven-game series. Undoubtedly, the NBA didn’t want to erase that possibility either.

Beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have the tools and roster to make a real go of it too — Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, etc. But the biggest question of all is where the former No. 1 overall pick stands in terms of health and conditioning. Pushing a postseason berth at the risk of another serious injury wouldn’t be worth it – so surely the New Orleans front office has been pondering minute allocations since the stoppage in March.

If Williamson is in better shape than ever, watch out. . . but the Pelicans certainly have a responsibility to protect their franchise cornerstone beyond this odd restart.

On Tuesday, Andrew Lopez of ESPN noted that the Pelicans had three of the 16 recently positive COVID-19 tests. While young athletes can recover from the virus – and David Griffin has said he expects everybody to go to Florida – the pandemic has been anything but predictable.

Both DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie announced that they’d tested positive too. In Jordan’s case, he was immediately opting out of the restart, while Dinwiddie wants to recover in time but has some worrying symptoms to deal with first – including a fever and chest tightness. Without guarantees of perfect health here on out in the Pelicans’ trio of cases, that could have plenty of impact in their play-in chase.

This is an evolving story, undoubtedly, but will it dent the postseason momentum New Orleans has on their side? Only time will tell.

Memphis Grizzlies: Would a veteran star elevate the roster in 2020-21 or should the team keep growing organically?

The Memphis Grizzlies have been the surprise team of the season out westward, led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillion Brooks and a cast of supporting players, both young and old.

But the franchise is fast approaching a fork in the road – should they push their stack toward the middle of the betting table? Or will they continue to let their budding stars grow? Outside of the newly-re-signed Anthony Tolliver, the bit work of Gorgui Dieng, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill have played key minutes in Memphis’ successes, but none are part of the long-term plan.

The one massively contributing veteran stalwart has been Jonas Valanciunas, who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes per game – an underrated factor in the squad’s rapid climb. At 27-years-old, the Lithuanian will earn $29 million between 2020-22, so it’ll hardly be a cap killer should the right move arise during the offseason.

Adding a star player in the offseason could push them up over the top as an eventual contender – but who will be available and at what price? The Grizzlies have rebuilt tremendously, so they must be careful about attempting to skip steps in the process. It might be tempting to ship off a player or two for a win-now option – however, we’ve seen that be the dagger in up-and-coming rosters time and time again.

Ultimately, of all the teams in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies have one of the rosiest outlooks right now. Nobody in the core is aging out, the window is just beginning to open, the current stars are bright already and everybody remains as healthy as one might be during a worldwide pandemic. The Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs own fascinating questions for their stars and roster-wide makeup – but the Pelicans and Grizzlies appear to be next-up contenders, all they must do is wait it out without getting hasty.

Easier said than done.

After the Orlando seeding games conclude in August, we’ll likely have a much better picture of where these five franchises stand, both today and down the road.

Until then, the crystal ball will have to do.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “6 Situations” series by looking at which scenarios are worth looking into division by division, starting with the Northwest.

Matt John

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Well, that does it, everyone. The NBA is officially coming back.

There are definitely concerns about whether this is going to work and whether the team that wins the title will be considered the legitimate champion of 2020. We’ve had plenty of players pull out albeit, in retrospect, most of them have been on teams that are not likely to make the playoffs or make a serious run in the playoffs. A lot can change leading up to when the season resumes on July 30, but the headline here is, “The NBA has returned!”

Now that the hiatus has an official expiration date, every team, whether they are playing or not, is worth taking a look at from here on out. With that, it’s time to introduce you to Basketball Insiders’ newest series – “Six Situations” in which, as the title suggests, we look at six scenarios from each division in the league that are worth paying attention to.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Do they bring the band back together?

This season worked out about as beautifully as OKC could have imagined. Chris Paul has been awesome when they weren’t even asking him to. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a franchise cornerstone in the making. Danilo Gallinari’s continued comeback is an amazing story that continues to fall under the radar. The supporting cast has done everything that’s been asked of them. Billy Donovan is a dark horse candidate for Coach of the Year. As an added bonus, they are the team that nobody in the Western Conference wants to face in the first round.

We already knew that the future would be bright for the Thunder. We didn’t know that the present would be bright enough that the future has somehow become somewhat of an afterthought. This has been the Thunder’s most entertaining season since 2016. They’ve been so much fun to watch that seeing a team that plays so cohesively well together would be a shame to break up.

But, they have to be realistic about this too. This team could throw some good punches, but the odds of winning a title are very much not in their favor. Paul will only continue to age, and despite an All-NBA-caliber performance, it’s going to be even harder to get rid of that contract. Gallo will be on the open market coming off another classic Gallo performance – minus the injuries. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are transitioning from young guns to veterans.

Their competitors are only going to get stronger too. Golden State and Portland will be at full strength next season. Memphis and New Orleans will only get better as their youth movement progresses. Sacramento, Phoenix and Minnesota will do everything in their power to take another step forward. It may not be worth making a playoff push when pretty much everyone in the conference will be doing the same — especially when the future draft picks coming your way is basically your ace in the hole.

However, because of their ace in the hole, there’s no wrong answer here for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz: Is the tiff over between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert?

This might be the most dysfunctional a fourth seed in the Western Conference has ever looked. Despite the impressive 41-23 record, the body language the Jazz have displayed has not been too pleasant to look at. They just don’t play like a unit like they did in the last two years. Something is very, very off.

The hiatus has only made things worse it seems. This all started with Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, which made for an awful PR storm on his behalf seeing how days earlier, he demonstrated how careless he was in preventing the spread. Then, Mitchell’s positive test came to light. It then became pretty telling that none of his teammates stood up for Gobert when this all blew up. All of this came to a head when it was revealed that Gobert and Mitchell were at odds with each other.

Since then, Jazz management have stressed that the two have kissed and made up, but in case you don’t remember, things weren’t going all too swimmingly before the hiatus. Now, the Jazz are coming back, but without Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a rare positive for them — and that badly damages their floor spacing. This could be a lone hiccup in a long and prosperous partnership, or it might be the beginning of the end for them. We won’t know until the rest of the season unfurls, but these are not easy times for Jazz fans.

Times like these also go to show that just because you have developed a winning culture does not mean that it will stay that way.

Minnesota Timberwolves: How do they correctly build around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell?

So much has gone wrong for the Timberwolves since the Jimmy Butler fallout that they should take every little victory they can get. They acquired Towns’ best friend, and they followed that up by acquiring Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, both of whom were playing the best basketball of their careers. Even then, none of them were altering the Timberwolves’ chances one bit.

Appeasing your franchise player is always a good move because it keeps his head on straight, but if the losing continues, there’s only so much he can take before he decides being loyal just isn’t worth it. We’ve seen as much over and over again over the past decade. Towns has been a good soldier in Minnesota, but before the shake-ups they made, his frustration on the court was as clear as day.

Having Russell around should put his mind at ease for now. But seriously, is anyone thinking that Russell and the other new faces will magically turn everything around in Minnesota? The Timberwolves will have a lot more work to do, and they have a timer on their forehead. Because who knows how long they have before both Towns and Russell realize that they can be teammates on a better team?

As stated earlier, the West is only going to get tougher. Their new additions give them more offensive firepower, but they’ll need defensive personnel to not only match it, but to make progress too. Adding a high lottery pick into the mix could definitely help things out a bit, but the Timberwolves have relied on that strategy before to not so great results…

Portland Trail Blazers: Can they surround Damian Lillard with better players?

Portland has done an excellent job building around Lillard. It only took two seasons for them to build a pseudo-contender around him. Even after they were gutted in 2015, they retooled the team well enough that they’ve won a few playoff series since then and even made a surprise run to the conference finals just last year.

This season’s obviously been a different story, but no one’s really to blame on their end. Better yet, when the season resumes and next season, they should be much better with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in action. Losing Trevor Ariza will sting a bit, but even if Portland misses the playoffs, they should conceivably play well enough to turn some heads.

With a full squad, the Portland Trail Blazers are good…not great. Damian Lillard is a top-10 player in the league, and he’s put up the finest regular-season performance he’s ever had in his career. It’s evident that as he approaches 30, he’s entering the very top of his game. A talent like that can only do so much though. Guys like Nurkic and CJ McCollum are great surrounding pieces, but as guys who are next in command, comparing them to the likes of others in the same role such as Anthony Davis and Paul George is downright laughable.

Now that he’s in his prime, Lillard doesn’t have years to waste. Portland needs better talent surrounding him if they both want to go on deep playoff runs as well as keep Lillard happy. How they do that is anyone’s guess. They don’t exactly have a ton of assets at their disposal, but they have a good executive running the show in Neil Olshey, so don’t count them out.

Lillard has never complained once since being drafted by the Blazers in part due to them putting a solid team around him for most of his tenure. That could change if, well, nothing changes.

Utah Jazz: What do they do about Mike Conley Jr?

This really isn’t anyone’s fault. Conley just has not been a good fit with the Jazz for a combination of factors. At 32 years old, it’s possible his best days are behind him. It’s also possible that the Jazz have realized that Mitchell is best used as a point guard, as he’s played 49 percent of his minutes there — a career-high — which is Conley’s position. Whatever the case is, the Conley experiment has been a failure.

With Bogdanovic down for the count, Conley’s role on the team has become more crucial than ever before. This is his chance to prove that the Jazz didn’t waste assets when they acquired him from Memphis, but his season output should not make anyone optimistic. There’s still hope for him, as he’s had his moments, but expecting him to get his old groove back might be wishful thinking.

If the Conley we saw throughout the season is what we get when the season resumes, that puts Utah in somewhat of a bind. Conley has a player option at the end of the season for upwards of $34+ million, which he is definitely going to take given how uncertain the market is going to be. Should Utah make Mitchell the team’s starting point guard full-time, there’s not much use in having another point guard that’s being paid a near-max contract to come off the bench.

If they were to trade him, teams wouldn’t be interested in Conley for his services at point guard but more for his expiring contract. The real conundrum would be what to trade Conley for. Would it be for defensive help — Utah’s defense suffered when Gobert sat on the bench — or maybe for more scoring/playmaking that Conley was originally supposed to provide.

Then again, with the salary cap presumably going down with all that’s happened over the past year, it might be best for Utah to just ride this wave until it passes over.

Denver: Does Michael Porter Jr. make Paul Millsap expendable?

You gotta love when the low-risk/high-reward scenario actually comes to fruition, and thus far, it looks like that’s exactly what happened when Denver took Porter 14th overall in the 2018 draft. The young stud definitely has some kinks to work out in his game, but there’s a lot to like when it comes to Porter’s upside as a scorer. Denver already made some accommodations like trading Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to open up some room for Porter. It looks like they’ll have no regrets for doing so.

It’s clear they view Porter as part of the future, and even though he hasn’t been able to escape the injury bug entirely just yet, they clearly believe he’s worth the risk. Enter Paul Millsap.

Despite being paid $30+ million annually for the past three years, you don’t hear a lot of complaints coming from Denver regarding Millsap’s production. He’s not putting up the same numbers he did during his days in Utah and Atlanta, but his reputation as a sturdy reliable veteran on both ends of the floor has been a welcome addition to the young Nuggets. With him entering the last days of his prime combined with Porter prepping as his heir, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before the youngin’ usurps good ol’ Millsap.

Whether that will be after this season or later is up to Denver. Millsap’s contract is up after this summer, so who’s to say that he couldn’t be an important fixture while the team simultaneously develops MPJ? It’s also possible the team may view the younger, more defensively versatile Jerami Grant over Millsap, but again, that’s up to them.

No matter what direction they go, Denver selecting Porter will more than likely go down as yet another brilliant move since they started the Jokic era. Should he live up to his potential, there may not be much else Denver needs before they go on their most extended run ever as a franchise.

A fair amount of these questions are for teams that don’t have to worry about that in quite some time. Even so, they are something they will have to keep in mind when they see how their players do once the season resumes.

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