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Ranking the NBA’s Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz ranks the Southwest Division headed into next season.

David Yapkowitz

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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

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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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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