Before the start of the season, Basketball Insiders did an article about potential playoff sleepers.
A handful of teams made that list, but no team is living up to the hype quite like the Memphis Grizzlies. This wasn’t a crystal ball decision. People knew that this team had potential. But many likely forgot that Marc Gasol is an incredibly talented basketball player.
Let this be clear: most NBA fans know that Gasol can play. But last year – in a less than ideal situation playing for a hobbled team – an un-motivated Gasol started to look a little washed. Many questioned whether he would return to prominence and few likely wrote him off, assuming he’d join the ranks of his brother Pau Gasol as a consistent, quiet big riding out into the sunset.
If we’ve learned one thing up to this point of the season it’s this: a motivated Marc Gasol is a dangerous man. He is so talented on both ends of the floor, anchoring one of the top defensive teams in the league and scoring at an efficient clip.
There are quite a few factors in play as to why the Grizzlies are returning to NBA not ability. Point to the return of fringe All-Star point guard Mike Conley, the drafting of Jaren Jackson Jr., and even the free-agent acquisitions of Kyle Anderson, Omri Caspi, and Shelvin Mack. But the reason as to why the Grizzlies are playing at such a high-level and beating teams they likely shouldn’t be beating is pretty clear: Gasol is back, and this time, he’s determined to win.
Let’s take a look at some personal numbers that stick out with Gasol’s season up to this point. He’s second on the team in scoring at 18.5 points a night. He’s doing so on 47.4 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from beyond-the-arc, and 73.3 percent from the charity stripe. He’s leading the team in rebounds at 9.4 per game and he’s second in assists at four per night. Defensively he leads the team in steals at 1.7 per game and is second in blocks at 1.3.
Gasol is the only player in the league currently averaging that combination of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. Take away blocks and only Russel Westbrook appears. Taking away steals adds Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin. That’s some elite company.
Diving into more advanced statistics, he’s leading the Grizzlies in plus-minus at plus-4.4. He’s anchoring a Memphis defense that allows the least amount of opponent points per game and has the fifth best defensive rating in the league at 104.9. Gasol, personally, has a defensive rating of 101.5. He’s second on the team in net rating at plus-6.8, trailing Casspi who only logs 11.7 minutes per game to Gasol’s team-high 35 minutes.
While the Memphis reserves have played significantly better than expected up to this point, the team is just so much better when Gasol is on the court. Like previously mentioned, the Grizzlies boast a plus-6.8 net rating with Gasol on the floor. When on the bench, the Grizzlies boast a team-low minus-9.3 rating. That is the result of a 96.2 offensive rating and a 105.5 defensive rating.
Gasol is a member of the top seven most-used lineups for the Grizzlies, and all but one of them boasts a positive net rating. Including the negative mark, the average net rating of their most used lineups is a plus-8.3. Needless to say, Gasol has been an integral part of the success of the 12-8 Grizzlies up to this point in the season.
While Gasol is posting career bests in rebounds per game and three-point percentage, and near bests in points per game, he’s been murdering your favorite center on defense as well. Looking at the Player Points Difference statistic on the NBA’s website, it’s almost alarming how dominant Gasol has been. This statistic takes an offensive player’s points per 100 possessions in a specific matchup and compares it to his season average points per 100 possessions.
-LaMarcus Aldridge: -7.2 points
-Joel Embiid: -17.3 points (!)
-Rudy Gobert: -10.4 points
-Karl-Anthony Towns: -11.4 points
-Brook Lopez: -11.7 points
-Nikola Jokic: -25.2 points (!)
-Jonas Valuncias: -13.0 points
The Gasol-for-DPOY noise is starting to grow a lot louder and these numbers are a big reason why. He’s playing arguably the best basketball of his career at age 34.
The Memphis Grizzlies might not have the talent on their roster to win a championship, but they are probably the best team in the league at forcing their opponent into their game. The grit-and-grind attitude might actually help them earn a birth in the playoffs. The season is still young, but we are a quarter into the regular season, which is a large enough sample size to see that Memphis isn’t messing around this year.
Gasol is central to everything that Memphis does. Up to this point, it is hard to argue that anyone else in the league deserves Defensive Player of the Year more than him.
Memphis may have been in the lottery last year, but with a new coach and a healthy roster, it appears Gasol is leading this team straight to the postseason.
NBA Daily: Dennis Smith Jr. Taking Lumps Until His Time Comes
In the middle of his toughest professional season, Dennis Smith Jr. remains surprisingly positive through injuries, limited playing time and personal tragedy. Drew Maresca caught up with the New York Knicks guard to discuss his approach to the game and what he can do to get back on track.
Dennis Smith Jr. sits at his locker, checking his phone and listening to music before most games. He’s available to the press in the locker room more than most Knicks, but he’s looked increasingly forlorn. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
“I’m thinking exactly what you’re thinking,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I had a good rookie year. Sophomore year was solid, too. I played well when I got here last year. Now to have things going the way they are…You just can’t dwell on it – positive or negative. You can’t change it. All I can do is focus on the right now.”
Smith Jr. is presently a reserve guard for the New York Knicks, but it wasn’t long ago that he was the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard of the future.
He was drafted by the Mavericks with the ninth overall pick in 2017 after demonstrating elite athleticism and leaping ability at NC State. There was a lot of speculation that the Knicks would draft their point guard of the future, and Smith Jr. looked like the obvious pick. But the team ultimately decided on Frank Ntilikina over Smith Jr. Considering the franchise’s draft mishaps, Smith Jr. was unsurprisingly playing well, whereas Ntilikina struggled. Adding insult to injury, LeBron James and others piled on by publicly supporting Smith Jr.
“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” LeBron James said after a game against Dallas in November 2017. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
Smith Jr. had a successful rookie season, averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. As expected, he had some jaw-dropping highlights, but struggled shooting the ball – posting a field goal percentage of 39.5 percent. Still, the future looked bright.
But things quickly became complicated. The Mavericks executed a draft-day trade in 2018, which enabled them to select Luka Doncic. Doncic had been (and continues to be) otherworldly as the Mavericks’ lead guard since his very first game. So just like that, Smith Jr. was expendable.
Fast forward to Feb. 1, 2019 – Smith Jr. was dealt to New York along with Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and two future first-round draft picks in exchange for Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. And serendipitously, the Knicks got their guy.
Smith Jr. continued his fairly strong play in New York for the remainder of last season. In 21 games with the Knicks, he averaged 14.7 points and 5.4 assists in 28.6 minutes per game after seeing dips in points (12.9) and assists (4.3) with Dallas. The key takeaway for the Knicks pertaining to Smith Jr. was that he showed promise. Still, there was enough doubt that the Knicks signed free agent point guard Elfrid Payton.
Then-head coach David Fizdale spoke highly of Smith Jr.’s performances in training camp, but the third-year guard’s back injury flared up, causing him to miss seven consecutive games after struggling in the first three games of the season.
But Smith Jr.’s role remained unclear after he returned. On the whole, 2019-20 has been tough on him. He is posting only 5.5 points and 3 assists per game, and he’s shooting only 34 percent from the field and 29.6 percent on three-pointers. But most alarmingly, he’s really struggled to secure playing time.
February has been Smith Jr.’s most successful month so far this season; he’s averaging 6.6 points in 17.9 minutes per game – a far cry what was expected of him just a few years ago. And previous months were just more of the same. Smith Jr. averaged only 5 points in 10.4 minutes per game in January, 5.3 points in 17 minutes in December, 6.4 points in 17.8 minutes in November and only 1 point in 8.7 minutes in October.
While it’s logical to assume he’s suffering from residual setbacks related to his preseason back injury, Smith Jr. is quick to distance himself from that excuse.
“There’s no physical limitations on me,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been practicing, haven’t missed any practices. My wind is good, too. Last time we played the Pacers, I played big minutes. So I’m definitely good.”
While he may be healthy, it’s hard for anyone to develop a rhythm when minutes are limited.
“It’s been tough on me for a while,” Smith Jr. explained. “I’m just looking for an opportunity. Even if my minutes are limited, I can’t worry about going out there and worry about trying to play perfect. It’s hard to do, especially when your time is cut. It’s something I gotta get better at. It’s just another challenge.
“But I’ve had a lot of challenges in my life, whether it’s basketball or not. And I ain’t never quit at nothing. I’m gonna keep pushing. Like I always say, my faith in myself is always high.”
It might seem as if Smith Jr. is surprisingly upbeat considering the uncertainty surrounding his role, but he’s been blessed with a new perspective and approach.
“I’m still only 22 – but I understand how important the mental part of the game is,” Smith Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “And I’ve been working at that, at staying positive and waiting for my chance.”
Chances have been few and far between for Smith Jr. this season. But fortuitously, an opportunity recently presented itself when Ntilikina aggravated a groin injury that’s resulted in him missing the last four games. Ideally, Smith Jr. and Ntilikina should play alongside one another; Smith Jr. will take any playing time however he gets it.
Prior to Thursday night, when Smith Jr. suffered a concussion and did not return to the game, he appeared more comfortable in the last few games. He led the Knicks in assists (6) last Friday against Indiana, scored 15 points in a loss to Houston on Monday and posted a huge highlight dunk on Wednesday again Charlotte.
“I know I’m fully capable,” Smith Jr. said. “The NBA is a lot about opportunity. We all know I’m more than capable.”
While Smith Jr. remains positive about capitalizing on opportunities, he was clearly less enthusiastic about discussing the reasons behind why he may not be playing. It could be indicative of a rift between Smith Jr. and Miller. It could be that he understands that Miller might not return as coach next season. Or it could mean that he’s simply focused on improving and tuning out all of the background noise.
“The rotation is the rotation and that’s out of my control,” Smith Jr. said.
“I just have to focus on the things I can control,” Smith explained. “Maintain my work ethic, my physical, my mental – definitely my mental. Understanding the differences in my actual life, dealing with ups and downs. Take my lumps like a champ and keep moving.”
So while Smith Jr. has struggled to carve out a role in the league this season, lots of accomplished people close to the game believe in him. James’ quote from 2017 is the highest profile example, but there’s numerous others. Elfrid Payton was a 2014 lottery pick himself and played alongside another uber-athletic point guard for nearly four seasons in Victor Oladipo. And Payton’s still impressed with what he’s seen from Smith Jr.
“He’s building momentum. A breakthrough is coming for him,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “He’s shown flashes in practice. He’s very talented. It’s coming. Any day now.”
Doug McDermott, his former Dallas teammate and current Indiana swingman, also spoke highly of Smith Jr. and his abilities after the Knicks-Pacers game on Friday. He sympathizes with Smith Jr. sadly losing his stepmother last October. He was inactive for the seven games before returning to action.
“We all loved Dennis. He’s a hell of a player,” McDermott told Basketball Insiders. “He’s gone through a lot this year on and off of the floor, and with some family stuff. I’m not super close with him, but it must be weighing on him. He’s got a lot of talent. People have to stay patient with him. It’s a tough market to play in (New York), especially when you’re struggling. I went through it in Chicago. But I know he’ll have a long career. I believe in him. He’s too talented not to be in this league.”
Smith Jr. approaches the game differently these days, but as he indicated, he’ll never quit. Yes, the road has been windier than expected, but the destination remains.
It might not be on everyone’s preferred timeline, but the flying 22-year-old point guard will make his mark on the NBA.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 2/27/20
Just like in a game, it’s who finishes the season atop watch lists that matters most, not who starts. The new Sixth Man front-runner has risen to that status by being a key part of finishing games for the surprise team of the year.
There comes a point in the season when a reasonable watch list needs to whittle down from its typical five or six names to three. With less than 30 percent of the NBA season remaining, this is that time.
With all due respect to Detroit Pistons’ guard Derrick Rose, his team’s current seven-game losing streak ruins any chances of him earning hardware this year. Rose’s averages of 18 points and 5.7 assists per game are laudatory, but the reality is that he remains an inefficient scorer in the modern NBA. Shooting 29.9 percent from beyond the arc actually underscores a rate lower than his already-worrisome career mark of 30.4 percent.
Rose has started 12 of his last 13 games, but if he either comes off the bench in just one more game or misses one more game, he will guarantee he qualifies for Sixth Man of the Year honors. He just hasn’t kept up with the more competitive contributions set by the following award stalwarts.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
This is only the second time this season that this space has slotted Williams lower than No. 2 in the watch. Some of that traces to the reputation of the three-time Sixth Man winner, Some of it is an acknowledgment of the Clippers’ success — currently just one game out of second in the Western Conference — and some of it is the simple fact that Williams is still a reliable player in his 14th season.
In the 30 games in which he has broken 20 points this season, part of averaging 19.1 points per game, Los Angeles has gone 19-11. Compared to its 20-8 record otherwise, that may seem like a disappointing correlation, but when realizing he was usually pouring in points without either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, the still-consistent winning rate makes more sense.
Without Leonard, but with George, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 4-3. Without George, but with Leonard, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 8-5. (Los Angeles has also gone 0-2 when Williams scored 20 or more with both star wings sidelined.)
Without Williams reliably playing 55 of 58 dates, through Thursday, then Los Angeles would assuredly be further back in the conference, perhaps skirmishing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks to avoid falling to the seventh seed. The difference between reality and that hypothetical is a mere three games, so it isn’t hard to envision Williams’ buckets being the difference in that many games. Considering he scored 32 points during crucial wins against the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans over a two-week January span without Leonard in the former and George in the latter, Williams is just as good as ever.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Of course, Williams has not been alone supporting the Clippers’ bench, just as he has not been alone atop this watch all season. Harrell has been the frontrunner the entire season — taking over from Williams in the preseason — but that is shifting. Harrell is still averaging 18.6 points and 7 rebounds per game, both career highs, but he has cracked 20 in just three of his last 13 games, putting up just 16.1 points in that span.
Harrell has not stopped scoring efficiently, shooting 61.1 percent across those 13 games, but he is taking a full two field-goal attempts fewer per game. Just like Williams, Harrell steadied Los Angeles through the season, but his role has been diminished as the season reaches its stretch run.
If that continues, Harrell’s hopes of winning the Sixth Man of the Year will diminish as well.
Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder
In a similar stretch, Schröder has taken on an increased role. Across the last 15 games, the Thunder point guard is averaging 21.4 points, raising his season mark to 19.1 points per game. It is no coincidence that Oklahoma City has gone 12-3 during this run, charging into the fifth-seed out West with reason to dream about home-court advantage in the first round.
Never known as an efficient scorer in his five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Schröder is shooting career highs of 47.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from deep. They better be efficient, considering the German has taken the second-most shots on the Thunder. The team leader in field-goal attempts is not Chris Paul or Danilo Gallinari, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (871 to Schröder’s 854). Schröder’s eFG percentage of 53.9 outpaces Gilgeous-Alexander’s respectable 50.5 percent, but both trail Paul (55) and Gallinari (55.1) among Oklahoma City players attempting more than eight field goals per game.
Schröder may have started only one game this year, but he is closing most games alongside those other three and center Steven Adams. That lineup has a net rating of plus-31.5 on 350 possessions, as absurd as that sounds. It is that kind of advantage that has turned the Thunder into the surprise of the season and should result in Schröder finishing the year with some hardware.
Still, there’s plenty of time for this annual race to the finish line to shift once more.
NBA Daily: Glenn Robinson III Navigating Change Of Direction With 76ers
Spencer Davies sits down with Philadelphia 76ers forward Glenn Robinson III to discuss his initial thoughts on being traded midseason, his career-best production with the Golden State Warriors and his desire to earn a new contract in the summer of 2020.
Glenn Robinson III always knew he could be an everyday starter in the NBA.
As a second-round pick in 2014, it took time. The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Robinson, but held onto him for just 25 games. He had a quick pit stop with the Philadelphia 76ers before spending the next three emotionally taxing and injury-riddled seasons with the Indiana Pacers. He ventured north to the Detroit Pistons the year afterward and, though he found himself in the first five for 18 games, never quite found his niche.
That was until a deal with the Golden State Warriors came along.
For the first time in his career, Robinson found a perfect fit. Starting and averaging a career-high 31.6 minutes per game, the former Michigan standout was producing at a rate on both ends that he had always strived for: 12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and a steal per game. He was converting three-pointers at a 40 percent rate and boasted a 57.4 true shooting percentage, all personal bests since entering the league.
Despite Golden State’s losing record, Robinson was comfortable. He was making a nightly impact and proving his individual worth going into a 2020 free-agent class perceived as sparse. However, as we all know, the league can change one’s plans at the drop of a hat.
Before the NBA Trade Deadline in early February, the Warriors dealt Robinson and Alec Burks to the Sixers in order to accelerate their own young players’ development. On the other side, Philadelphia desperately needed some new life to bolster its depth and add some more talent.
While Robinson has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, he has never been traded midseason to another team, which has admittedly affected his psyche — and as a surefire knockdown perimeter shooter, he hasn’t hit a three-ball in nine attempts.
The first thing that comes to mind is the impact it has on those closest to him.
“You’ve got family. You’ve got to try to get out of a lease, move your stuff, all of that. I think that people don’t realize how much it is,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “You’re expected to be at the next place in like the next day or two after the trade, so I think it’s just a lot going on. And then, you’ve got to go out on a court and focus and play like nothing happened.
“I mean at the end of the day, we’re still human beings. And that’s what I tell people all the time. To try to get people on a flight the next day is crazy to me. But it is a business. It is what it is at the end of the day and we just try to make it work.”
Robinson is extremely candid about the situation he now finds himself in. Yes, the Sixers are going to be playoff-bound. Yes, the Warriors are going nowhere fast in a down season. That doesn’t change the fact that — along with Burks, his year-long teammate — Robinson is aiming for a healthy payday this summer.
Six games in with his new team, and his playing time cut in half, Robinson is once again fighting an uphill battle.
“Even when (Golden State) played Philly, I showed them what I could do,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “So to play those consistent minutes a night and perform well… that’s the most disappointing part about coming here is that — both of us (are) coming off career years where we’re looking at hopefully big numbers after the season. I know I’ve got a family to feed. So you think about all those things.
“All those things play a role, and then when you come here and your role’s not really explained or you don’t know what’s going on with the trade — it’s not like it was a trade where you come in and immediately have an impact. It’s a little different, so… this team is full of wings, full of guys who can play. So really, I don’t really understand it. But it’s a business, you’ve got to make it happen and go out and try to do your best every night.”
Robinson can’t afford to mail it in and he won’t. It’s helpful that he’s familiar with a number of coaches, including headman Brett Brown. He’s also grateful to have come over with a familiar face in Burks, who has experienced this more than a handful of times.
Let’s not overlook the positive impact he’s made on the Jekyll-and-Hyde Sixer offense. He’s doing everything in his power to get his feet wet and figure things out in his second stint there. The itch to crack further into Philadelphia’s rotation and earn increased minutes is never going to go away.
“As a competitor, as an NBA player — this is my sixth year — I think that’s always gonna be there to want more and more,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “So I’m definitely interested to see what happens down the stretch here.”
The Sixers might be forced to try something different. They’ve lost Ben Simmons for a significant period of time. Joel Embiid just suffered a shoulder injury following yet another loss on the road against the basement-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers.
Winning five out of your last seven games is usually a good sign, but all of those victories came at home. The splits between those contests in Philadelphia and the ones away from there have been a season-long, head-scratching issue.
Still, Robinson is confident in the group of guys the Sixers have in the locker room to right the ship.
“A lot of talent. I think we can go as far as we stick together and want to go,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve just got a lot of great players and they know how to play the game. That’s the biggest thing, so as long as we can stick together, come together… it’s about defense for this group. We’ve got all the talent in the world to score. I think that we’ve got high chances.”
No matter how far Philadelphia goes — or how short it falls — Robinson is betting on himself. He took a veteran’s minimum deal with the Warriors last summer and, considering what he gave them, that was a ridiculous bargain for Golden State.
“That’s the good thing,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “You know, I think, hopefully, I did [enough to justify a payday in the summer]. I believe in my mind I did. For me and my career and just my confidence — to have that year with Golden State, I always knew that I could do that in the league, so, hopefully, that stands up no matter what happens the rest of the season or whatever happens here.”
Robinson’s player option for 2020 would be a bargain if he opted in and stayed with the Sixers — but that’s one big, unlikely if.
And rightfully so.