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NBA Training Camp Questions: Northwest Division

Nate Duncan looks at the key training camp questions for the Northwest Division.

Nate Duncan

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With training camps just around the corner, NBA teams have key questions to answer as camp gets underway that could determine much of their outcome for this season. In a continuing series, we look at the training camp questions for the Northwest Division.

Utah Jazz

How long does it take for the Jazz to pick up Quin Snyder’s system?

New coach Quin Synder was a key part of the Atlanta Hawks’ shift to a more free-flowing, ball-movement based offensive system last year. He will attempt to institute that this year with the Jazz, but these young players are not used to playing that way. The Jazz also lack the kind of ball skills and shooting at the big positions that Atlanta used so effectively a year ago with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Rudy Gobert as Utah’s first three bigs. While they may get it eventually, it is going to take time and could lead to some ugly ball early in the season.

How ready is Dante Exum?

Exum remains an excellent long-term prospect, but it is unlikely he can contribute to winning basketball right away. The Jazz have little at backup point guard behind Trey Burke, so it seems likely that Exum (who considers himself a point guard first) will get those minutes. Whether he can really break into the rotation and merit minutes alongside Burke is an open question given the deficiencies in his floor game and lack of high-level experience. While he showed some flashes, his limitations were on display in Summer League and in his stint with the Australian National Team, for which he was basically out of the rotation by the latter stages of the World Cup.

Will Alec Burks and Enes Kanter ink rookie extensions?

We will cover the topic of rookie extensions in greater depth before the season starts, but the chances of a deal getting done with either player are complicated by uncertainty of how much the cap will rise in future years, as well as league-wide trends regarding the utility of bigs who don’t protect the rim or shoot threes (Kanter) and the high value placed on quality wings (Burks).

Who is in the big rotation?

Whether Kanter is signed to an extension could affect the big rotation. If he is signed to big money, it is almost certain he will start and get the second-most minutes among the bigs, even if he starts slowly. Kanter has suffered from a knee injury through the summer that required platelet rich plasma therapy in June, and no reports indicate he has been cleared yet.  Thus, it is possible though unlikely that either Gobert or Trevor Booker could establish themselves ahead of him. Gobert is coming off fantastic summer league and national team runs in which he dominated the paint, but it is unclear whether he can start with Favors on offense due to their limited skill levels. Booker started capably as a fill-in for Washington, and even finished some games in the playoffs. However, it seems unlikely Utah would demote the long-term potential of Kanter to start a limited-upside player of Booker’s ilk.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Who starts at center?

In some ways, this is almost an existential question for Oklahoma City, an organization that is both a model and a magnet for criticism for its perceived stubbornness. The positives are obvious–this has been a top-three franchise in the NBA since 2010. But that success has shed light on a number of controversial decisions, like the refusal to go into the luxury tax, the trade of James Harden, eschewing the full mid-level exception the last three years, and of course continuing to start Kendrick Perkins.

Let’s not forget that Perkins used to be a very solid player prior to tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals. In rewatching the Celtics’ classic series against the Bulls in 2009, it was remarkable how spry he looked. But that was also five years ago.

Perkins has been under fire since at least the Spurs series in 2012. He contributes almost nothing offensively aside from setting screens, and he lacks the athleticism to really defend the pick and roll and the basket effectively either. Yet he has always retained his starting position, both for cultural reasons and due to the lack of a true center waiting in the wings. Those days are now over, as Steven Adams appears ready to assume the mantle as a superior player. Will he sufficiently outplay Perkins in camp to force Scott Brooks’ hand despite the political difficulties in playing a 20-year-old over the long-term starter and locker room leader?

Are Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones ready to contribute?

Lamb started the 2013-14 season well and was in the rotation until the arrival of Caron Butler in another veteran-favoring move. By the playoffs, Lamb barely played and was not a contributor in his few minutes during the Spurs series. But he is the only hope on the roster for a two-way wing who could allow OKC to play its terrifying small lineup with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka at the big positions and avoid giving up too much defensively. To get on the floor, he will have to greatly improve his focus defensively, as he is still quite prone to losing his man or failing to provide the appropriate help when required.

Will the offense become more complex?

Count Coach Scott Brooks’ offense as another perceived example of the Thunder’s stubbornness. Brooks has long been criticized for a lack of imagination on offense, although there is a legitimate argument that a dearth of quality decision-makers aside from Durant and Russell Westbrook makes concentrating the ball in their hands a necessity. Nonetheless, it appears that the Thunder are too easily shut down in crunch time during the playoffs. Will Brooks take steps to improve the ball movement in camp by installing more complex schemes?

Denver Nuggets

Who starts at center?

With no indications JaVale McGee will be healthy when camp opens, the battle comes down to J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov. Hickson may have hurt his own chances with a five-game suspension for the start of the year, so it seems certain Mozgov will at least start the year at center. Hickson has always struggled defensively at either big position due in large part to his lack of awareness, and last year was no exception. Mozgov is the only established plus interior defender on the team, and the easiest path to improvement for Denver is boosting the league’s 21st-ranked defense a year ago.

Does Kenneth Faried sign a new deal?

We will look at his value in more depth in the weeks to come, but in short this will be a fascinating extension negotiation. Faried was prominent in trade talks a year ago and seemed like more of a backup due to his inability to space the floor, but a solid end to the season (he really improved as a postup threat) and a breakout World Cup has boosted his profile. Of particular note this summer was his defensive performance. Despite being a solid athlete at the four, Faried has never been a good defender even out on the floor, much less in the post. That changed at the World Cup, and the hope is it can carry over to the regular season.

Of course, the massive uncertainty regarding the future salary landscape also plays a role here. With new TV contracts reportedly close to agreement, perhaps teams and agents will have a better understanding of the cap going forward by the October 31 deadline for extension.

How are the injuries progressing?

Denver was riddled with injuries a season ago, with McGee, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson the most prominent victims. McGee’s status remains unclear, while Gallinari is still recovering from ACL surgery last winter after what he believes was a botched initial procedure at Colorado’s Steadman Clinic in 2013.  Robinson hopes to be ready for training camp, which would be a swift recovery after his own January ACL surgery.

Portland Trail Blazers

Can C.J. McCollum become a rotation player?

The Blazers have few camp questions coming in since their rotation appears pretty much set. But a key this year will be the development of the second-year combo guard (and Basketball Insiders contributor) from Lehigh. After missing half the season due to a second broken foot, McCollum never really got going and was out of the rotation almost entirely by the playoffs until Mo Williams was injured. With Williams now departed to Minnesota and Steve Blake more of a caretaker type at the point, the Blazers have no established scorers off the bench. If McCollum or Will Barton cannot fill that role, the second unit could have major issues. Those would be exacerbated if the Blazers have worse health than a year ago, when their starting lineup was together for all but two games.

What is the plan to improve the defense?

The slack in Portland is clearly the defense, which struggled mightily in the playoffs against Houston and San Antonio and ranked only 16th in the league during the regular season–low for a 54-win team. Coach Terry Stotts has never really presided over a quality defensive team as a head coach.

The key for Portland will be individual improvement. Damian Lillard must improve at the point of attack getting over screens. This is a key because Robin Lopez usually hangs back in the paint due to his lack of mobility. Nicolas Batum is another player who has great physical tools defensively who has never translated them into above-average defensive play.

Minnesota Timberwolves

How does Andrew Wiggins look?

This is the paramount question for Minnesota going forward. Wiggins has great physical tools, but has exhibited a general lack of scoring feel. Flip Saunders will want to see at least occasional flashes from Wiggins of an ability to put the ball on the floor and finish strong at the basket as the first indication that he can fulfill his physical potential and become a superstar.

Can Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng play together?

With the acquisition of Thaddeus Young, these two will not start together. But they both merit large enough roles that the Wolves will at least try them as a pairing. Dieng will have to play the four on both ends to make it work, as Pekovic is completely devoid of shooting range and can’t really close out on anyone away from the basket. But Dieng himself is more of a center. The odds seem against this pairing working, especially with Ricky Rubio and likely Wiggins as relative non-shooters on the perimeter, but the two are talented enough that it is worth a try.

Will anyone remember Anthony Bennett is on this team?

The 2013 No. 1 overall pick had the most disappointing rookie season for such a draftee in recent memory. The acquisition of Young in the same trade that brought Bennett to Minnesota was not exactly a vote of confidence for the rookie, and there appears little chance for him to play his way into a role larger than fourth big man this season. But the Wolves’ previously discussed lack of shooting will provide a role for Bennett if he can make enough jumpers, something he has not come close to so far in his career.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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