Continuing with our Basketball Insiders NBA division rankings this week, here’s a look at the Southwest Division.
The Western Conference got even stronger this offseason with the migration of several of the East’s top players via trade or free agency. The Southwest Division, in particular, was home to probably the biggest free agent move of the summer when Chris Paul made his move to the Houston Rockets. The Golden State Warriors are still the team to beat in the West until proven otherwise, but the Southwest presents perhaps the best group of challengers to their throne outside of Cleveland (last season’s record next to team name).
San Antonio Spurs – 61-21
The model of consistency in the NBA the past several years, each time it looks like the Spurs might start to decline a bit, they surprise everyone and keep themselves among the league’s elite. Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate and as long as a team has one of those, their chances of winning a title get a whole lot better.
The Spurs may have lost Jonathon Simmons to the Orlando Magic, but there are a couple of younger guys on the roster who might be able to fill that void. Simmons was one of the top feel good stories of the league and emerged as a dependable reserve who turned his game up a notch when Leonard was injured in the playoffs. Looking to take Simmons’ place will be one of Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes.
Anderson saw his minutes decrease last season (16 to 14.2), but he did improve his three-point shooting with a career best 37.5 percent. He’s a long, versatile wing who does have some point guard ability. Forbes on the other hand, rode the bench most of the season as a rookie. He exploded this summer in Las Vegas, however, showing a deadly three-point shot and an ability to get to the rim. He’s a little undersized for a wing, but with bigger guys like Leonard, Anderson, and Danny Green behind him, it could work.
Veterans Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and Patty Mills are back in the fold and despite a few trade rumors, LaMarcus Aldridge is back too. From top to bottom, the Spurs still have an elite roster. The Warriors are still atop the conference, but if anyone in the West can give them a run for their money, it’s the Spurs.
Projected wins: 56-61
Houston Rockets – 55-27
It’s quite possible that the Houston Rockets end up with the top spot in the division. They finished only a few games behind the Spurs last season and they have an improved roster. They too have a perennial MVP in James Harden, but as their playoff series against the Spurs wore on, it was evident that Harden needed a bit more help. Enter Chris Paul.
Paul has remained one of the best point guards in the NBA. While players such as Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry might be better scorers, Paul’s playmaking ability is what separates him from other top point guards. It just so happens, however, that Harden thrived at the point last season, and both he and Paul are much more dangerous with the ball in their hands. But if there’s any coach in the league that can get two ball dominant guys to work, it’s Mike D’Antoni. In any case, Paul takes some much-needed pressure off Harden in terms of opposing defenses.
The Rockets loaded up on shooters last summer, bringing in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, both of whom had resurgent seasons, in order to spread the floor well for Harden’s drives. This summer, they loaded up on defensive guys who can also shoot the three. P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute are both tough perimeter defenders and they give the Rockets some options against the Warriors.
Despite their new additions, the Rockets are still lacking when it comes to taking on the Warriors. They’ve been rumored to be in the running for Carmelo Anthony, and he’d go a long way to allowing the Rockets to truly compete with Golden State. Unless that happens though, the Rockets still appear to fall short in a potential matchup with the defending champs.
Projected wins: 56-60
Memphis Grizzlies – 43-39
One of the toughest teams in the league the past several years, the Grizzlies have adopted a “Grit and Grind” mentality that’s allowed them to remain one of the better teams in a loaded conference. They did suffer a bit of a blow this summer. Zach Randolph took his talents to the Sacramento Kings and Tony Allen’s status is still up in the air. Vince Carter, a key contributor and part-time starter, also left to the Kings.
The Grizzlies still should have enough talent, however, to remain competitive in the West. Marc Gasol is still patrolling the paint. Mike Conley is still one of the most underrated point guards in the league. The Grizzlies will look to a couple of new acquisitions, as well as a couple of developing young players, to help replace what they lost.
Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore were decent signings. Evans, a former Rookie of the Year, and McLemore, a lottery pick himself, are both looking to reestablish their value in the league. Evans has always been a slasher, but he shot a career-high 43.8 percent from the three-point line in 14 games with the Kings. McLemore has been wildly inconsistent thus far, but he’ll get the opportunity to turn things around in Memphis.
Memphis may have found a gem in undrafted guard Wayne Selden. Last year, after getting a call-up while playing in the NBA’s G-League, he became part of the Grizzlies rotation into the playoffs. He then set the Las Vegas Summer League on fire. He’ll be asked to take on a bigger role in the rotation, as will second-year big man Deyonta Davis. Davis was one of the best big men in Las Vegas and he could emerge as a dependable backup to Gasol.
The biggest question mark for the Grizzlies, however, and what will really determine how good this team can be, is Chandler Parsons. Parsons played in only 34 games last season due to injury after signing one of the biggest contracts of last summer. If he’s healthy, and that’s a big if, the Grizzlies will benefit tremendously from his wing scoring and playmaking ability. With the West getting much stronger overall, the Grizzlies are a team that could make the playoffs, but it also wouldn’t be all that surprising if they didn’t.
Projected wins: 39-43
New Orleans Pelicans – 34-38
Speaking of teams who could go either way, the New Orleans Pelicans have the talent — it’s just a question as to whether the pieces can fit together or not. They made their big splash over All-Star Weekend when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. During the last half of the season, Cousins and Anthony Davis weren’t always in complete sync with one another. Perhaps with a full training camp and season together, they can become the monstrous frontcourt duo they have the potential to be.
The Pelicans also have some question marks in the backcourt. They re-signed Jrue Holiday, whom they couldn’t really afford to lose. Then they went out and got Rajon Rondo, whom they plan to play alongside Holiday in the starting lineup. In the playoffs, Rondo showed the value he still has as a deadly playmaker and scorer when need be. It will be interesting to see how he and Holiday mesh together.
Provided that the starting lineup works itself out, the Pelicans bench is a bit murky. E’Twaun Moore is a solid option off the bench, but they’ll need a few more guys to make some contributions if they want to be in the playoff picture.
If Rondo and Holiday do indeed work together as starters, or if one or both go down with an injury as they have in the not so distant past, they’ll need another point capable of providing quality minutes. Tim Frazier was that guy, but they traded him to the Washington Wizards. That role will likely fall on either Quinn Cook or possibly rookie Frank Jackson, assuming he’s ready to play right away. They’ll also need some production from Cheick Diallo, who should be a better option in the frontcourt than either Alexis Ajinca or Omer Asik.
The Pelicans could stand to use some more outside shooting, and that could possibly come from one of Jordan Crawford, Quincy Pondexter, or Solomon Hill. Hill was a bit of a disappointment after signing his big contract, and Pondexter hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Crawford was a nice surprise towards the end of last season. The talent is definitely there, and it just remains to be seen if all the pieces fit properly.
Projected wins: 37-41
Dallas Mavericks – 33-49
Rounding out the division is the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks are a team in a state of transition. They’ve tried to maintain a level of competitiveness as long as Dirk Nowitzki has been on the roster, but now appear to be doing the right thing and thinking about the future.
The Mavericks just might have found their point guard of the future in Dennis Smith Jr. He had an impressive summer league, showing his ability to score as well as be a playmaker. He could very well be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Sharing minutes with him in the backcourt will be Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry, two hidden gems unearthed by the Mavericks.
It will be interesting to see the continued development of Harrison Barnes as he gets more comfortable with a leading role offensively. His numbers weren’t bad, (19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 46.8 percent shooting) and after struggling to start the season, he settled into to his new role a bit better. He definitely is a key piece in the Mavericks’ rebuilding efforts.
While the status of restricted free agent Nerlens Noel is still up in the air, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be back in a Dallas uniform. The Mavericks can match any offer he receives and most of the money has already dried up. It’s possible he could decide to play for the qualifying offer and test free agency again next summer. It would be in the Mavericks best interest, however, to have him back in the fold. If Smith is the point guard of the future, Noel is their center. Athletic big men with elite defensive potential don’t just grow on trees.
While the Mavericks have tried to stay afloat, the West is just too tough, especially with all the influx of talent from the East. Another rebuilding year for Dallas will yield another top draft pick to add to their budding collection of young talent.
Projected wins: 25-30
David Fizdale Building Bonds With Kristaps Porzingis and Knicks Young Guards
David Fizdale figured out that winning in the NBA requires deep connections between coach and player.
It barely took David Fizdale a week to take the New York Knicks to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Next time they’re there, though, hopefully they’ll be playing.
In case you missed it, the newly minted head coach for Team Porzingis took Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson to Boston to take in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The stated purpose of the trip, according to Fizdale, was to give his young guards some exposure to the intensity of playoff basketball. Unfortunately, for the Knicks, it’s the closest they’ve been to the playoffs since Carmelo Anthony famously had his fate-sealing dunk thrown back in his face by Roy Hibbert.
Fortunately for the Knicks, though, the field trip itself is indicative of the team having a head coach in place who understands one of the secrets to being successful in the NBA. In this business, personal relationships and bonds will go almost as far toward building a winning program and culture as talent alone.
Even without saying so directly, you can bet that Fizdale’s taking the trio of young Knicks to Boston was him putting actions to words that, at the very least, mean he’s consistent.
At the very most, though, they mean he’s sincere.
Part of what earned Fizdale the Knicks job in the first place was his ability to impress Steve Mills and Scott Perry with his candor and humility, especially as it relates to his famous falling out with Marc Gasol. Fizdale owned the fact that he himself did not try to be enough of a counselor and diffusor of the conflict between the two and sold Mills and Perry on the idea that he has grown from the experience.
Today, Fizdale told them, he understands that the responsibility of the head coach goes beyond drawing up plays.
As soon as he got the opportunity, Fizdale went out of his way to connect with his trio of young guards and reached out to Kristaps Porzingis to let him know that he was excited to coach him and looking forward to visiting him in Spain and Latvia.
Whether you believe that Porzingis is more an invention of the New York hype machine or truly the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, the simple fact is that he is the only thing that the Knicks have going for them right now. What makes his situation a tad bit uncomfortable, however, is the fact that he wasn’t a fan of Phil Jackson and remains close to Carmelo Anthony.
Publicly, Porzingis has been lukewarm toward the Knicks organization and hasn’t committed to signing a rookie extension at first opportunity. Usually, a player coming off of his rookie contract is eager to cash in at his earliest opportunity and, historically, hasn’t often re-signed with his incumbent team after turning down said extension.
At the very least, things between Porzingis—who has let it be known that winning right now is his priority—and the Knicks seem to be at an impasse. And prior to his dismissal, Jeff Hornacek suggested that the franchise was leaning toward not attempting to re-sign Porzingis to an extension this summer and instead allowing him to become a restricted free agent next summer.
The strategy makes a lot of sense for the Knicks. In theory, they could creatively manipulate the salary cap to take advantage of the cap space that they could maintain by tendering Porzingis a one-year qualifying offer next summer and using their cap space to sign an unrestricted free agent prior to re-signing Porzingis. In the alternative, signing Porzingis to an extension this summer would eliminate that possibility.
Again, not signing Porzingis to the extension this summer makes a lot of sense from a team building perspective, but it does also increase the possibility that Porzingis could end up leaving the team in July 2020. If he truly is unhappy with the franchise—and there are many that believe that he is—forgoing the extension, accepting the one-year qualifying offer next summer and then leaving as an unrestricted free agent in 2020 is exactly the course that he would have to take to secure his freedom sooner.
That, obviously, is a nightmare scenario for the Knicks.
Fizdale, though, seems to have been awoken to the possibility.
Since his introductory press conference, Fizdale has extolled the virtues of the Latvian big man. Fizdale called Porzingis “the future of the NBA” and let it be known that he is planning on making multiple trips to Europe this summer to check up on Porzingis and his rehabilitation. He called Porzingis an MVP-caliber player and, apparently, has all the belief in the world that he can help the Knicks return to prominence in the Eastern Conference.
This past week, Porzingis confirmed that he and Fizdale had spoken. Porzingis said the two had a “great conversation” and that he was “excited” to begin the next chapter.
Although it was the first time Porzingis made any public comments about Fizdale, the tweet may have actually said more about Fizdale than it did about Kristaps.
At the most basic level, a unionized workforce is generally an interaction between “employees” and “management,” which can be difficult to navigate as a member of either class.
In professional sports, a head coach is the nexus between the front office—whom most players look at as managers who are divorced from the day-to-day workings of the locker room—and the player personnel.
Put more simply, the coach is someone who is expected to wear two hats. He’s more a member of management than he is a player. He needs to have the trust and ear of his front office, assist in making important player personnel decisions and, simultaneously, convince the members of the team to trust him, listen to him and play for him.
From a relationship standpoint, walking that tightrope isn’t easy to do. Most former players who become head coaches have an inside track when it comes to endearing themselves to their locker rooms, but the difficult dynamic and serving as a confidant of both the front office and the locker room is something that many coaches have difficulty managing.
In a perfect world, we’d like to believe that the only thing that matters is the result. Once upon a time, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were able to take the Phoenix Suns to levels the franchise hadn’t seen, despite their being polar opposites in terms of personality and values. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had much greater success despite their lack of personal affinity for one another.
Today, however, we’ve seen the opposite. With the superstar of today having learned that he can control his own future and wield power and influence over his franchise, it has become apparent that they’ll want to find themselves playing with players they like and for coaches they have bonds with.
Fizdale learned that the hard way.
And now, with the Knicks, his attempt to become a personable leader of men will begin anew.
It started with a simple field trip and continued by picking up the phone to make a long distance call to Latvia.
At least to this point, Fizdale has traveled the extra mile.
When he sat across the table from Perry and Mills, he told them that he understood it necessary to form personal relationships and bonds with his players and how that can go a long way toward building a winning culture.
Sure, the Knicks have a long journey ahead of them, but even with the tiniest of actions, Fizdale has already begun charting the course.
Wendell Carter Jr. — The Future at the Five
Duke’s Wendell Carter could be the future of the center position in the NBA, writes Shane Rhodes.
The future of the NBA center resides in the 2018 NBA Draft. Only it may not be who you think.
The incoming class has more than a few standouts bigs: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and others all have flashed dominance throughout their time at school. Ayton has the body to thrive in the NBA, Bagley is an uber-athlete who is constantly working and Bamba has the skills to be an elite defender at the next level.
However, as versatility grows in prominence and importance throughout the modern NBA, there may be no one more prepared than Wendell Carter Jr.
While he hasn’t seen the same hype that envelops the aforementioned trio, Carter, standing at 6-foot-10, has the tools to be one of the next great NBA big men. By virtue of playing with Bagley, Carter’s stat line — 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and two assists — doesn’t exactly jump off the page. However, while some excelled in one specific area, Carter did a little bit of everything during his lone season at Duke.
“I knew what I could do, I knew how I could affect the game without necessarily scoring the ball,” Carter told Basketball Insiders. “So I did those things. I did those things exceptionally and I just found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”
Carter, with his combination of size and high basketball IQ, has what it takes to be a multifaceted threat on the offensive side of the ball. Not only can he post or face up on the block and back down his opponents, but Carter has soft hands, can finish near the basket with both his left and right with finesse and has a multitude of moves he can turn to should he find trouble. He is also smart enough to recognize and know where he should be on the floor and when, whether he be cutting to the basket, setting the screen for another ball handler, or otherwise.
An exceptional shooter for his size, Carter posted an effective field goal percentage of 59.1 percent while netting 41.3 percent of his shots from three and 73.8 percent from the free throw line. And while he wasn’t given many opportunities to show it, Carter can be a force in the pick-and-roll as well, both as a pick-and-pop shooter or as a big man rolling to the basket.
In a non-scoring capacity, Carter is a capable passer as well. His high IQ allows for quick reads when he has the ball and, more often than not, he makes the right pass accurately and on time. While he averaged just two assists during the season, his passing ability will be a more than helpful at the next level and, with higher skilled shooters, Carter could net a few assists every game. Carter did well boxing out his man and going for the rebound as well. He averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds per game 13.5 total rebounds per 40 minutes.
Again, because of Bagley and other talented scorers, Carter took on more of a secondary role offensively. He believes, however, that it was a boon for his NBA prospects and prepared him for the next level.
“I think it did wonders for me,” Carter said. “I think it showed that I’m able to play with good players and still maintain my own.”
Defensively, Carter provides switchability as well as versatility at the next level. Playing either the power forward or center positions, he has both the size to bang down low with the bigs as well as the quickness to keep up and defend when switched on to smaller guards.
With a wingspan stretching 7 feet 4.5 inches, Carter has the length to protect the rim but is light enough on his feet to close out on and contest shooters around the perimeter. He rotates well and will rarely give up on plays. He will continuously fight for position if players attack him in the post. His hands are always active as well, with good timing on both blocks and steals. Across 37 games with the Blue Devils, Carter posted a defensive rating of 92.8.
While he is not a prospect without faults, Carter is more prepared than most for the NBA. With some seasoning at the next level, he could be a force to go up against as a player who can attack you, both offensively and defensively, from multiple different angles.
Carter has already met with multiple teams, both in and outside the lottery, including the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Regardless of where he lands, however, Carter knows he’ll be ready.
“You’re not just playing the game, you’re playing for a business,” Carter said. “And I’m ready for it.”
NBA Daily: With No Regrets, Hamidou Diallo Is Primed For Next Step
Hamidou Diallo spoke at the NBA Draft Combine about his decision to return to school, what he learned and the advice he’s given to his teammates.
When potential first-rounders return to collegiate basketball, it’s typically about raising their stock. Every year, somebody goes back to school and, more often than not, that player goes higher in the draft the following year. It’s a nice story, sure, but it doesn’t always end up that way. Not everybody goes back to school and dominates. Not everybody goes from a fringe first-rounder to a no-brainer lottery pick.
In some instances — even despite receiving real, tangible on-court experience — they fall even lower.
For Hamidou Diallo, that’s exactly what happened — still, he’s not sweating it at all.
“Everybody’s different — let me just start off by saying that,” Diallo said at the NBA Draft Combine last week. “Everybody’s a different player, everybody has different needs. Everybody has a different family base. Everybody’s put in different situations. I’m just happy I was put in a situation I could make either or decision — go back to school or come out.
“I feel like I made the right decision and if I had to do it again, I’m doing the same thing — I’m going back to school and playing a year at Kentucky and trying to make it work.”
Coming out of high school, Diallo was ranked as the No. 11 prospect back in the class of 2017, a five-star athlete sought after by not just Kentucky, but many of Division-I’s annual royalty — Connecticut, Syracuse, Kansas, Arizona and Indiana — as well. During his senior season at Putnam Science Academy, Diallo averaged 19 points, six rebounds and three assists per game and his ability to play above the rim rightfully anointed him as a can’t-miss teenager.
Shortly after enrolling early at Kentucky in January, Diallo redshirted that spring semester in order to practice and lift with the Wildcats without sacrificing potential NBA stock or losing a year of eligibility. The plan was to learn the playbook, adjust to life at the collegiate level and prepare for the 2017-18 season. Of course, that decision did leave an interesting wrinkle in the mix. If he wanted to, Diallo could’ve gone pro without ever playing a game for Kentucky — and he almost did.
Diallo could only watch as De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo took Kentucky all the way to the Elite Eight — but that didn’t stop the high-flyer from joining the three future lottery picks at the NBA Draft Combine last spring. Among other impressive physical measurements, Diallo took down a combine-best 44.5-inch vertical leap and left many franchises wondering if the then-18-year-old could be an intriguing first-round option..
Just minutes before the pre-set midnight deadline for collegiate returners, Diallo took his name out of the draft pool. While Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Diallo didn’t receive a guarantee high enough to keep him in the draft — it still ultimately made sense to stick his original plan.
So, he went back to Kentucky.
Diallo would start all 37 games for the Wildcats this season, averaging 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per game. Admittedly, it was not the breakout year most had anticipated from Diallo, but he played an important role for a Kentucky squad that won 26 contests before reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. But according to Diallo — now one year stronger, wiser and better prepared — his on-court action wasn’t the only big step he’s taken in this extensive process.
“I learned how to face adversity — I was put in points throughout the whole year where I had to face adversity, where I had to see what type of person I am,” Diallo said. “So I learned how to fight myself, and the biggest thing Coach Cal told me was how to fight myself. How to conquer yourself — that was the quote we heard a lot, each and every day.
“Conquer yourself — that’s one thing I learned how to do pretty well. When things aren’t going my way, I learned how to play through it and I learned how to play for the team — it was a great year for me.”
Still, presumably, Diallo will be drafted at a lower position than he would have a year ago — for better or for worse. In the grand scheme of things, Diallo looks like he has no regrets about trading a little money for a full season of collegiate basketball, gaining experiences and routines that will ideally shape a long, successful professional career. Currently, Diallo is projected all over the map — from No. 42 in Basketball Insiders’ 60-pick mock draft to No. 55 in NBADraft.net’s most recent edition.
Even with his draft fate soundly undecided at this time, Diallo still offered support for fellow prospective draftee Anfernee Simons, a 6-foot-3 guard that spent the year training at IMG Academy instead of in Division-I.
“100%, I support him, I’m all for him,” Diallo said. “Coming out, some guys are just not into college as much. Some guys want to go on to be a pro, it’s been his dream ever since he was young. He sees himself as one of the best players in the draft and for him to make the jump.
“I’m happy for him, maybe it becomes a trend, maybe it doesn’t — but for a guy to be chasing a dream, I can’t be nothing but happy for him.”
Diallo himself signed with an agent in April, which means he can’t return to Kentucky for another season — there’s no turning back now. Once again, Diallo measured well at the NBA Draft Combine, but he still declined to participate in the 5-on-5 portion, opting to leave some mystery in the tank ahead of his private workouts. Although Diallo could’ve certainly used the boost from a stellar scrimmage performance in Chicago, he’s always stuck to his plan — no reason to change his mind now.
Wherever Diallo ends up being selected in June, he’ll know that it’s just the next step in a particularly unusual road to the NBA. And whoever drafts Diallo will gain a hyper-athletic 19-year-old with all the physical tools to become a tenacious defender and a talented scorer. Detractors may point to his below average rate from three-point range last season (33.8 percent), but he also notched plenty of impressive individual outings along the way — like his 22-point, eight-rebound, one-steal and two-block effort in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
For those that continue to sleep on Diallo, he’ll be as ready as ever to prove them wrong for the indefinite future — now, he just needs his chance. But when Diallo was asked about any advice he had imparted on P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, two of Kentucky’s water-testing youngsters, he offered up something that’s clearly driven him since he went back to school.
“For P.J. and Jarred, I went through the process last year, I mean, just make the right decision for you and your family,” Diallo said. “Nobody can tell you what’s right, you’re going to be the one that’s gonna have to live it. So, if you feel like it’s right for you to leave, then so be it. If you feel like it’s right for you to go back to school, then go back to school.
“But don’t let anyone dictate that decision for you, just have you and your family sit down and make the right decision.”
At long last, that career-changing decision is about to finally pay off for Hamidou Diallo.