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NBA Trade Watch: The Southwest

Shane Rhodes breaks down the mindset of each Southwest team headed toward the deadline.

Shane Rhodes

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New Years may have come and gone, but Trade Season is still very young. In fact, the NBA sits under a month away from the February 9th trade deadline. One of the most exciting times of the season, the trade deadline presents the opportunity for teams to improve both in the immediate and or distant future whether they are acquiring talent or accumulating future draft compensation.

In the lead up to the deadline, Basketball Insiders will tackle each division and break down where each team can improve or any trade chips they may have; Dennis Chambers has already covered the Atlantic Division here. While there doesn’t appear to be any major moves or changes on the horizon, the NBA never sleeps and that could change at a moments notice.

Here is a breakdown of the Southwest Division.

Houston Rockets (28-11)

The Rockets sure have fallen on hard times in recent weeks.

Houston has lost seven of their last 10 games, nine of which were played without superstar guard James Harden. Thanks to a dominant early season, the Rockets still sit comfortably at the two-spot in the Western Conference, but the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and others are all quickly gaining ground on them. And if they want any chance to catch the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the standings, the Rockets are going to have to right the ship and do so quickly.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Chris Paul — $24,599,495

Trevor Ariza — $7,420,912

Clint Capela — $2,334,528

Names Worth Talking About:

The Rockets roster is already a fleshed out one; despite their recent struggles, they boast a top-shelf offense and, at the very least, an average defense. However, looking ahead, Houston’s top priority should be retaining talents Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

When healthy, Paul has been his usual dominant self and has formed one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA when alongside Harden. Capela, meanwhile, is in the midst of a breakout season for the Rockets and, at just 23-years-old, should continue to develop into an impact player on the floor. It would behoove the Rockets to maintain both their services.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Rockets don’t need much outside of the return of James Harden. They have already fortified their bench with Gerald Green, who has provided Houston with a major spark off the bench in Harden’s absence. Leading up to the deadline, the Rockets should be focused on maintaining the health of the players and trying to lock down the likes of Paul and Capela for the future.

San Antonio Spurs (28-14)

Gregg Popovich has worked his magic again this season.

Despite Kawhi Leonard’s extended absence, the Spurs have managed to a 28-14 record this season, good for third in the Western Conference. LaMarcus Aldridge has rebounded from a poor showing last season, while the likes of Pau Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gay have been key contributors for Popovich’s squad.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Tony Parker — $15,453,126

Names Worth Talking About:

Tony Parker is a free agent at season’s end. Outside of the veteran guard, the Spurs don’t have much in the way of trade assets outside of draft compensation. The Spurs don’t look poised to make any big splashes as the deadline draws near; unless it’s swapping bench pieces, don’t expect much from San Antonio.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Health. If the Spurs want to remain in contention they are going to need to return some players to the starting lineup. Most notably, Leonard, who has played just eight games this season, would be a welcome addition to a team that needs a reliable scoring option outside of Aldridge. The Spurs currently rank 26th in the NBA in points per game, averaging just 101.6 per contest; Leonard’s return would certainly remedy that situation.

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19)

As they seem to be every season, the New Orleans Pelicans are at a crossroads. Despite their talented frontcourt pairing of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, New Orleans sits at just 20-19, good for eighth in the Western Conference; do they forge on ahead or finally hit the button and blow it all up?

Notable Ending Contracts:

DeMarcus Cousins — $18,063,850

Rajon Rondo — $3,300,000

Names Worth Talking About:

While the Pelicans are likely reluctant to trade their second-star, Cousins, it may be in their best interest to do so. Now in his eighth season, Cousins has never been to the playoffs; does he believe the Pelicans — currently the eighth seed in the West — stand a chance to go anywhere against the top teams in the Conference? New Orleans retaining Cousins beyond this season will come down to that, and if they are unable to make any headway out West the team should, at the very least, be taking calls on the All-Star center.

E’Twaun Moore and Rajon Rondo could be interesting pieces as well. Moore is having a career year and could provide a scoring spark to a team either off the bench or in the starting lineup. Rondo, meanwhile, is an experienced veteran, and if his two postseason games against the Boston Celtics are anything to go by, Playoff Rondo can still make a major impact. Both players could be nice chips for the Pelicans should they look to retool or reallocate some assets heading into the deadline.

Solomon Hill, who has missed the entire season to this point with a torn hamstring, is on the verge of returning. He could make an impact for New Orleans as well.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Defense may be the missing ingredient in the recipe that is the Pelicans success.

The Pelicans have the makings of an elite offensive team in place despite bucking the traditional trend and rolling with two star big-men — they currently rank sixth in offensive rating, fourth in points per game and second in assists per game — but New Orleans has been unable to put forth the same effort on the defensive end. That needs to change if they want to stay out of the Western Conference cellar and move up and out of the eighth spot.

Keeping Anthony Davis should be a priority as well, through the deadline and for the remainder of the season.

Dallas Mavericks (14-28)

Another year, another down season for the Dallas Mavericks. But down might be where the Mavericks want to be right about now.

While no franchise wants to be losing games, the fact that the Mavericks are so low in the standings provides them with the prime opportunity to add a major impact talent in the stacked 2018 Draft. For a team lacking talent as much as the Mavericks do, it’s almost the perfect scenario to add to build a core for the future.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Nerlens Noel — $4,187,599

Seth Curry — $3,028,410

Yogi Ferrell — $1,312,611

Names Worth Talking About:

The Mavericks won’t be competing anytime soon, but they certainly have some intriguing pieces they can move for assets; Wesley Matthews, Nerlens Noel, Devin Harris and others, veterans who could surely be made use of by contenders. Matthews is one of the more underrated players in the NBA while Noel is a young talent who has simply fallen out of Rick Carlisle rotation and could do with a change of scenery. Devin Harris could certainly provide some experience and knowledge for a younger team while off the bench as well.

Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell present as two intriguing pieces as well; they certainly are good enough, when healthy, to provide some offense off the bench and could definitely bring in some return should the Mavericks elect to move them.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Mavericks need assets, and they need them badly.

The team has experienced a long fall since its title run in 2011 and numerous on-the-fly retoolings have done little to keep the franchise afloat. As much as Mark Cuban wants Dirk Nowitzki to go out on a winning squad, there isn’t much he can do at this point; the Mavericks are just too lacking in talent. They need to break it all down and build a core through the draft and, while they are certainly on their way with Smith Jr. and Barnes, they still have a long way to go.

Memphis Grizzlies (12-27)

In the absence of Mike Conley, the Memphis Grizzlies have had a horrid stretch. Conley’s absence has coincided with a 5-23 stretch after a promising 6-3 start to the season, and things don’t appear as if they will be turning around in the near future. With Conley on the shelf for an extended period of time, Memphis’ best course may be the one no franchise wants to face; it may be time to cut their losses and rebuild.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Tyreke Evans — $3,290,000

Names Worth Talking About:

Marc Gasol will likely be an oft-mentioned name in the rumor mill, but it will probably take a larger-than-life offer to pry away the face of the franchise.

Rumors have swirled around Gasol for much of the season and they will continue to do so. Memphis’ poor performance certainly hasn’t helped but, with Conley on the shelf, Gasol is the team and that puts the Grizzlies in a terrible position. Memphis truly should consider shipping out Gasol; they desperately need the return he would bring in now in order to jumpstart a rebuild. The longer they wait, the lower the return will be. But what kind of message are they sending to their fan base should they simply admit defeat and subjugate them to potentially multiple years of irrelevancy? It is almost an impossible situation.

Tyreke Evans should be a hot commodity as well, and one much easier to move on from. The Sixth Man of The Year candidate has had the best season of his career and, most importantly, has maintained his health up to this point. Evans will almost certainly net the Grizzlies a first rounder, if not more, from a contender looking to add some scoring punch to their second unit. Signed to a one-year deal in the offseason and playing for a team going nowhere fast, there is no reason for the Grizzlies not to trade Evans.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Like the Mavericks, the Grizzlies need draft assets and they need them badly.

Regardless of their decision on Gasol, Memphis is in a position where they must accumulate some talent through the draft after whiffing on multiple first-rounders in recent years. If the season keeps going as is, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a top-level prospect with their own selection, but every extra pick is just another chance for Memphis to add to their depth and to a talent pool that is looking very thin at the moment.

In the event that they do move Gasol, taking on salary to facilitate some trades and acquire some draft picks certainly wouldn’t be out of the question.

With the trade deadline getting closer with each passing day, rumors will continue to swirl while teams make moves to critique and perfect their rosters.

And Basketball Insiders will be here to break it all down.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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