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Poised To Breakout: Northwest Division

Dennis Chambers examines who the breakout candidates are in the Northwest Division for next season.

Dennis Chambers

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Arguably no division in basketball got a facelift this offseason quite like the Northwest Division. With the addition of superstars Jimmy Butler and Paul George, along with all-star forward Paul Millsap, the division is operating with much more star power than last season even with the departure of Gordon Hayward.

For all of the developed stars in the division — which there is certainly no shortage of — next season also becomes an opportunity for a few individuals to burst onto the scene and let the rest of the division know that they won’t be an afterthought. Every great player, coach, executive and team that is currently dominating the NBA had that first season where they caught everybody’s attention.

The Northwest Division isn’t short on candidates poised for a breakout year next season, so let’s dive in and see who could have the league buzzing come next fall.

Jusuf Nurkic — Portland Trail Blazers

Standing at 7-feet tall and hailing all the way from Bosnia, the Blazers struck gold in a midseason trade that landed them Nurkic.

After the Denver Nuggets’ front court seemed to be a bit crowded with Nurkic and fellow budding big man Nikola Jokic, the Mile High club shipped the 22-year-old Nurkic and a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a second rounder.

Talk about a steal.

In his 20 games with Portland last season, Nurkic played like a man possessed, turning in averages of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. For the last quarter of the season, Nurkic became the true inside presence the Trail Blazers needed to change the dynamic of their ball club.

Now as next season rolls around, with a few games under his belt in Portland and the chemistry to boot, Nurkic should have no problem continuing his ascent as the third leg of the Blazers’ attack behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Expect the Bosnian Beast to be a big part of the Trail Blazers’ success next season.

Gary Harris — Denver Nuggets

Acquired by Denver in the same draft night deal that landed the Nuggets Nurkic as well, Harris still remains in the Mile High and is on the cusp of breaking through to the next level.

Last season Harris really took his game up a notch despite playing in just 57 games.

With the NBA evolving into a league dominated by two-way wing scorers, Harris fits the bill. Last season, the 22-year-old shooting guard connected on 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on his way to averaging 14.9 points per game. Through just three seasons in the NBA, Harris has posted a positive Defensive Win Shares number each time.

As Harris gets more reps under his belt out in Denver and hopefully avoids the injury bug, the Nuggets look to be in possession of a very valuable piece of their core moving forward.

A full season with the efficiency Harris displayed last year should have the rest of the Northwest Division, and the league as a whole, perking their ears up to take notice of the shooting guard in Denver.

Donovan Mitchell — Utah Jazz

Yes, Mitchell is a rookie. Yes, he has no prior track record in the NBA to warrant this year being a “breakout” year. And yes, there’s a chance a team such as the Jazz,  who will be vying for a playoff spot, won’t focus on getting a 20-year-old guard the touches he needs to burst onto the scene.

But I doubt the Louisville product cares about any of that.

Mitchell turned heads this summer for Utah by dominating almost any time he stepped on the court for a summer league game. While most Jazz fans were drying their eyes as Gordon Hayward packed up and moved east, the optimistic fans were taking notice of the 6-foot-3 guard with a 7-foot wingspan and a pretty jumper that their team traded up for on draft night.

At the next level, Mitchell has two quality traits that usually translate to any level of basketball given the player’s’ talent. Those two qualities, shooting and defense, just so happen to be Mitchell’s forte. And he did a lot of both during the summer league.

With Rudy Gobert in the middle and Ricky Rubio running the point out in Salt Lake City, Mitchell should have plenty of opportunities to pick his spots on the wing while opposing defenses are occupied with the 7-foot big man down low.

In a division full of stars, look for this rookie to start lighting it up for Utah as early as next season.

Jamal Murray — Denver Nuggets

After Harris, you don’t have to look too far on the Nuggets’ roster to find another player poised to breakout next season.

During an up and down rookie season, Murray showed flashes of the potential that got him drafted seventh overall. Following the All-Star break, Murray saw his scoring average jump to 12.1 points per game in 25 minutes of play. Along with the scoring bump, his true shooting percentage registered at 53 percent.

While the Nuggets seem to have a bevy of scoring guards on the roster, none possess the raw potential of Murray, who, by the way, is still just 20 years old.

Asking a teenage lottery pick to put up lights out numbers in their rookie year is usually an unfair request. And in Murray’s case, he struggled as most rookies do. But with the wealth of talent around him and the big man duo of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, the Canadian, who still isn’t even legally allowed to drink, should be sitting pretty next season in terms of ramping up his production.

Kentucky Wildcat guards have a pretty good track record in the NBA. Expect Murray to carve his name into that list next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Ok, so technically this isn’t one particular individual. But after the offseason the Wolves just had, along with the players they already had on the roster, plus the fact that they’ve won a Northwest Division title just ONE time, it would be irresponsible to leave them off of this list.

Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague. 80 percent of Minnesota’s starting lineup consists of high-caliber players. Two of which have already been All-Stars, while the other two are sitting on probably 10 All-Star appearances a piece by the time they call it quits.

Tom Thibodeau made the moves this offseason to put the best players possible around his two budding young stars in order for them to take that next step. Bringing in Butler allows Wiggins to not have to assume such a vocal leadership role, letting him focus on getting buckets and playing defense. A proven point guard like Teague who can actually shoot the ball opens up the floor for the wing players, as well as creates space down low for Towns.

All in all, this Timberwolves team has the makings of the best club the town has seen since Kevin Garnett was roaming the floor back in his prime.

If there is anyone poised to breakout in the Northwest Division, it’s the entire Minnesota ball club. And by midseason, the rest of the league will be realizing this as well.

Sam Presti — Oklahoma City Thunder

How exactly can a guy who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and traded for Paul George be in a position for a “breakout” year? Well, because up until now, two of those guys are gone, while the future of the other two hangs heavily in the balance for Presti and the Thunder.

But this year is where Presti turns the corner in his ability to actually keep elite talent in Oklahoma City.

By pairing last season’s MVP with George, Presti gives Westbrook another star and a reason to believe in his abilities to make the Thunder a legitimate contender. On the flip side, giving George a taste of what it’s like to play alongside one of the league’s best players for the first time in his career could get him to throw all of his Los Angeles dreams away and ink up for a long-term deal with the Thunder.

Bringing stars to a team is one thing. And Presti has been extremely successful in identifying and acquiring talents such as those. But keeping them around is a whole different ball game, and until now, Presti’s batting average in that category doesn’t look too hot.

If the Thunder can compete with the big dogs of the league, Presti just may be to sprinkle some of his magic on Westbrook and George, effectively keeping two top-10 players in Thunder uniforms once again.

As the upcoming NBA season gets closer by the day, more and more interest is paid to the Northwest Division. With a healthy amount of star power and developing storylines oozing throughout that realm of the league, all eyes will be closely fixated on how things play out for these particular players, executives, and teams.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA

NBA AM: Most Likely All-Star Snubs

Damian Lillard seems to top the All-Star snub list every season. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

Joel Brigham

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This year the NBA has famously decided to mix up the way the All-Star rosters work, while rather infamously deciding against televising the draft that will organize those players into teams, but even as some things change, some things remain the same.

Just like every year, there will be snubs when the All-Star reserves are announced on Tuesday night. Oh, there will be snubs.

The starters already have been selected, chosen by a combination of fan votes, media votes and player votes, the latter of which were taken so seriously that Summer League legend Jack Cooley even earned a single nomination from one especially ornery player voter.

For those that missed the starters, they include LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid from the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and James Harden from the Western Conference.

That leaves seven more reserves from each conference and way more deserving players than that from which to choose. These will be selected by the coaches, per tradition, but it’s anybody’s guess who ends up making the team. There absolutely are going to be some massive snubs this year, so let’s take a quick look at the most likely candidates to earn roster spots this winter, as well as who that might leave out of this year’s event in Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference

Let’s start with the “sure things,” which almost certainly will include with Indian Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Not only is he putting up a career-best 24/5/4 line, but he’s also averaging two steals per night for an Indiana team that currently lives in the playoff picture despite dismal expectations. That’s almost entirely because of Oladipo.

In the frontcourt, there was plenty of healthy debate when Embiid was voted the starter over Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, so there’s a very good chance that those two guys find their way to the roster, as well.

Kevin Love, who also is having a monster statistical season, seems like the most obvious third frontcourt guy, but his defense stinks and the Cavs haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of two All-Stars. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris both are having borderline All-Star seasons for a borderline playoff team, but they are the closest contenders to stealing away that third frontcourt reserve slot from Love.

Beyond that, Bradley Beal or John Wall likely will be the “other” guard reserve, but choosing which one is dicey. Wall’s the four-time All-Star, but Beal arguably is having the better year and has been snubbed for this event entirely too many times already. It doesn’t seem likely that both guys will make the team.

The wild cards could be that “other” Wizards guard among Beal and Wall, one of those two Pistons players, Miami’s Goran Dragic (they are fourth in the conference, rather surprisingly), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, or Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.

What seems most probable is that Oladipo and Beal earn the Eastern Conference reserve slots, with Horford, Porzingis and Love earning the backup frontcourt positions. Lowry and Wall feel most likely as reserves.

That means the most likely Eastern Conference snubs will be: Goran Dragic, Ben Simmons, Andre Drummod, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.

The level of controversy with this group feels fairly low, though if Dragic or Drummond were to make the team over Wall or Love, the conversation would be a lot feistier.

The Western Conference

Choosing the reserve guards in the Western Conference is a no-brainer. It will be MVP candidates Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, which immediately means that if Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Paul George are not named as Wild Card players, they will be left off of the team. That’s about as “yikes” as “yikes” gets.

The battle for the frontcourt spots are going to be no less brutal, even with Kawhi Leonard effectively out of consideration having missed so much time at the beginning of the season. The Spurs will have an All-Star anyway, though, which makes LaMarcus Aldridge all but a lock.

Towns, who is averaging a 20/12 with over two assists and 1.5 blocks per game on one of the West’s top teams, also feels likely to get in. That means Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are the two guys expected to battle over that last frontcourt spot, and both deserve real consideration. Green’s importance is less obvious to this Warriors team with Durant on the roster, but he’s no less essential even if his offensive numbers are down. Jokic, meanwhile, has kept Denver in the playoff hunt even without Paul Millsap, and is the best passing big man in the game.

The most likely scenario in terms of Western Conference reserves has Butler and Westbrook getting voted in at guard, Aldridge, Towns and Green voted in as frontcourt players, and Thompson and Lillard voted in as the wild cards.

That means the most likely Western Conference snubs will be: Chris Paul, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic.

Paul has missed 17 games this season, which is just too many when there are so many other great guards from which to choose, and George’s usage has dropped massively in Oklahoma City. As for Jokic, somebody has to get snubbed, and the other reasonable possibility is that he be named a wild card player at the expense of Lillard, and no NBA fan should have to see that happen yet again.

The 2018 NBA All-Star Reserves will be announced at 7:00 p.m. EST on January 23 on TNT.

Tune in Tuesday night to see which players will make the team, and which will inevitably be snubbed.

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NBA Daily: Rockets Might Be Formidable Challenge For Warriors

If nothing else, the Rockets gave everyone, including the Warriors, something to think about by beating the champs.

Moke Hamilton

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For those that had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of the Houston Rockets, Saturday afternoon’s win over the Golden State Warriors should serve as a bit of a wakeup call.

Sure, championships aren’t won in mid-January, but by virtue of the win, the Rockets won their season series against the Warriors, 2-1.

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season—the year the Warriors won the first of three consecutive Western Conference Finals—they’ve lost a season series to just one other team: the San Antonio Spurs.

A review of the tape suggests that those that believe that Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are truly the team that has the best shot of beating the Warriors is founded in some fact. In the last three seasons, the Warriors have lost a total of 39 games.

In total, during that span, seven teams have failed to beat the Warriors even once, while 12 teams have beaten them one time. Four teams have beaten the Warriors twice and only the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them thrice.

The Spurs, though, have managed to beat the Warriors five times, with Popovich leading his team to a 2-1 regular season series win over the Warriors during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

It’s safe to say that they have been the only team worthy of calling themselves anything near a worthy adversary to Stephen Curry and company.

At least, that was the case until Saturday night.

* * * * * *

With all due respect to Michael Jordan, if the Warriors win the NBA Finals this season, they can legitimately claim to be the best team in NBA history.

Two titles in three years is nothing to sneeze at, but the claim holds no weight whatsoever without ever having won two in a row, especially when scores of other teams have been able to accomplish the feat.

Aside from the two championships, the Warriors can claim the best regular season record in the league’s history and the distinction of being the only team to ever win 67 or more games for three consecutive seasons.

It is true that the Warriors have been almost invincible since the 2014-15 season, but things have changed now that Chris Paul has joined forces with James Harden.

This season, the Mike D’Antoni coached team ranks 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over last season’s rank of 18th.

With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute, they have four defensive stalwarts, one of whom (Ariza) who wasn’t able to suit up due to being suspended.

At the end of the day, beating a team in the regular season doesn’t really count for much, especially when you consider the greatest irony: in each of the seasons the Spurs beat the Warriors in their season series, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The obvious asterisk there is that the Warriors didn’t play the Spurs in the 2015 NBA Playoffs and only managed to sweep them once the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard in 2017.

Still, beating the defending champs in any game, much less a season series, has got to feel good. Whether they want to admit it or not, Saturday’s game against the Warriors was one that the Rockets wanted to get, that’s probably why Mike D’Antoni opted to reinsert James Harden into the game after he surpassed his 30-minute playing restriction.

In the end, Harden logged 35 minutes and ended up making what was the game’s clinching three-pointer.

Poetic, indeed.

* * * * * *

With the season a little more than halfway over, the Warriors still appear to be head and shoulders above those competing for their throne. Of the other contenders, the Rockets and Boston Celtics, at least for now, appear most formidable.

At the end of the day, what the Warriors have to fear more than anything is their own arrogance. As a unit, the team believes that it’s the best at playing small ball and that no other team can beat them as their own game. While that may be true, there have been a few instances over the past few years where that belief has ended up costing them.

What the Warriors seem to struggle with is understanding that not every possession can be played the same way, and as some possessions become more and more valuable, it would be wise for the team to play more conservatively and traditionally.

For example, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving made one of the most incredible shots we’ve ever seen, but it was Stephen Curry who helped leave the door open for the Cavs with a pitiful final five minutes of the game.

Among the worst atrocities he committed was an ill-advised turnover that came as a result of an off target behind the back pass to Klay Thompson. In such a situation, any second grader could have and would have known that a simple bounce pass to the flashing Thompson would have sufficed.

Steve Kerr’s message to his team, though, is to play like themselves and not overthink their execution.

While that’s fair, it does at least leave room to wonder if the Warriors will have the humility to play conservatively when the game is on the line.

Curry himself admitted to playing too aggressively and making poor reads and decisions down the stretch versus the Rockets. The team passed up wide-open two-point shots for three-pointers that didn’t fall, and those botched opportunities played a direct role in causing the loss.

Fortunately, for the Warriors, not much was at stake, but their performance and decision-making in those tight minutes leave us to wonder what will happen if and when they find themselves in another tight moment or two…

And by virtue of the Rockets becoming just the second team to take a season series from the Warriors since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, we can also fairly wonder whether they truly have what it takes to take down the Golden Goliath.

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NBA

G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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