The Western Conference could have much more relative parity than expected next season, and the Southwest Division is a perfect microcosm.
Each team in the division has a real case for offseason improvement, save perhaps the 67-win juggernaut that still retains two All-Stars on the court and Gregg Popovich behind the bench. Even the most pessimistic observer would have a hard time arguing more than a minor drop-off at the very worst for teams like New Orleans and Dallas, and it’s even tougher to look at Houston or especially Memphis and see anything but more talent and better roster fits. The division saw four teams in the playoffs last season; it’s no stretch to imagine a repeat.
In reality, health and a few bounces here or there could determine the eventual order in the Southwest. Let’s attempt to parse significant roster turnover and see which teams are best positioned to succeed.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
It’s moderately difficult to even figure out whether the Pelicans improved over the summer.
Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and draftee Buddy Hield all add talent, and at least two of the first three should provide more reliable two-way play than major departures Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
At the same time, though, it feels a bit like trading quarters for a slightly shinier collection of nickels and dimes. Two-way play only gets you so far when the guys in question have pretty limited skill sets. Hill was a hot item this summer, but his track record as much more than a solid bench piece who does most things well but few things at an elite level doesn’t really exist. Moore has some craftiness to his game and has done well defensively in limited time, but his 45 percent explosion from three last year (on just 104 attempts) is hard to trust after four years in the mid-30s prior to it.
Galloway plateaued after a nice rookie year in New York; he’s too small to check non-point guards or play much of a versatile role, and at 25 just a month into next season it’s unlikely he’ll develop much more skill-wise. Hield has a long way to go to prove he’s anything but a spot-up shooter with a lot to learn defensively.
Even if Hill and Moore offer more versatility and defensive prowess, replacing Anderson and Gordon – half the team’s above-average offensive talent – seems like a very tall ask.
No, this team’s improvement will come through renewed health for principals already on the roster. It was never clear if Anthony Davis was 100 percent in the 61 games he did play last year; an end-of-year shutdown and surgery suggest he wasn’t. Jrue Holiday was quietly excellent until he, too, was shut down late in the year, and his productivity when healthy was muted by a curious decision from Alvin Gentry to bring him off the bench for a big chunk of the year even after his minutes restriction was lifted. Tyreke Evans shouldn’t have much trouble topping the 25 games in which he suited up last year.
Whether better injury luck would be enough to get them back on track is the big question, and Davis is likely the crux point here. If last year’s leap to among the game’s two or three best players never came as a result of poor health and a revolving door of players around him, his impact alone alongside a steadier supporting cast could put them back in the playoff picture in a hurry. If his defensive regression and a few cracks around the edges persist, or if injuries rear their heads again, it could be a very different story.
There are a lot of ifs here. This could very easily be a playoff team, but it feels like the group in the Southwest with the most questions to answer before that happens.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Forecasting that true bottom-out from the Mavs has made countless talking heads look dumb over the years, and this isn’t that. At the same time, though, it’s never been so easy to take a glass-half-empty view in Dallas.
Their projected starting five has a ton of name value – and nearly just as many question marks. Deron Williams has declined over the years, settling in as roughly a league average point guard who seems to lose one or two small parts of his game with each passing season and is a lock to miss 10 or 15 games a year. Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are our first chance to see key Warriors cogs outside the Bay; Barnes has often struggled in his expected secondary ball-handler role, and while Bogut has been a revelation for Australia in Rio these last couple weeks, the rigors of the NBA schedule have taken their toll on his ability to bring that level every night. Wesley Matthews is the surest thing on this roster outside of Dirk Nowitzki, and even the big German has shown cracks around the edges the last couple years.
Even if one is willing to take a semi-risky bet on that group outplaying most other sets of starters, depth is a major concern. A big leap from Justin Anderson seems like the only thing standing in the way of Dwight Powell, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris functioning as Dallas’ primary bench pieces. Any Bogut absence leaves them completely devoid of rim protection unless they’re comfortable trusting Salah Mejri or draftee A.J. Hammons, and it would force a ton of pressure onto Anderson and Harris if Barnes or Matthews missed any time.
Rick Carlisle could make a ham sandwich into a half-decent rotation player, though, and Dirk has forced us to assume he’ll stay Dirk until he proves otherwise. This group gets a pass as expected contenders in the back half of the West playoffs, even if a few worrying warning lights are present.
3. Houston Rockets
Has any presumed contender ever overloaded this transparently on one side of the ball? A group that narrowly missed out on a bottom-10 defense last season added Mike D’Antoni behind the bench, doubled down by jettisoning Dwight Howard (not his former self, but still their best defensive player), then pushed all their chips plus their wallet and keys onto the felt by acquiring Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon as presumed rotation pieces.
Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza are still around to absorb a lot of the damage, but the real pressure is on Clint Capela. Entering his third season and first as a primary starter at center, Capela offers the only rim protection on this roster (sorry, Nene) and will be called upon to erase plenty on the interior. He played just 47 percent of his minutes last season against starter-heavy lineups, per Nylon Calculus, and whether his production can sustain with a much larger share could be the largest individual factor in how well this team defends. Last year proved pretty emphatically that Ariza and Beverley alone aren’t enough, and the cast around them got even worse defensively in the offseason.
There’s no doubting the Rockets will be an offensive powerhouse with D’Antoni at the helm, but his ability to balance lineups and emphasize both sides of the ball could determine their overall ceiling. There are lots of cooks in this kitchen now: D’Antoni will have to weed through Gordon, Ariza, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Michael Beasley and even possibly Sam Dekker on the wing behind (or alongside) James Harden, plus figure out whether Nene and Capela can play together.
Anderson needs at least two plus defenders on the court to keep the Rockets from drowning – and remember, they only have three on the roster. D’Antoni, an offensive savant never known for attention to detail or high levels of in-game prowess, will have to make the right choices.
More than anything, though, he’ll have to reach Harden. The Rockets’ star returned to his embarrassing defensive ways last year after a brief spat of respectable effort, and on the surface, nothing has happened in Houston this summer to suggest he’ll bounce back. Could a renewed culture and Howard’s absence be enough to get his mind in the right place? He’ll thrive in D’Antoni’s offensive system, of course, but so will several key guys on this team – the bigger questions are all on the other end, both for the team and their superstar.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Everyone rightfully remembers the awful injury luck that hit the Grizzlies in the back half of the season last year, but fewer recall that they were historically lucky to even be in position for such a big letdown in the first place. Memphis nearly blew a massive cushion for a playoff spot out West, one they only had by virtue of ridiculous success in close games that drowned out negative indicators typically reserved for lottery teams. By year’s end, the Grizz were one of just three teams in league history to finish with an SRS rating (a measure of point differential with a strength of schedule factor included) so low and still win at least half their games.
It’s easy to blame the injuries, but these realities were present before Mike Conley or even Marc Gasol went down.
Of course, the Grizzlies didn’t sit still over the summer. Chandler Parsons was the biggest talent-need match in free agency outside Golden State, the wing scorer this franchise seems to have lacked for a half decade consecutively. He brings knockdown shooting and enough playmaking from the perimeter to lessen the burden on Conley and Gasol, with the size to maintain Grit and Grind’s defensive philosophy.
Incoming coach David Fizdale replaces Dave Joerger after a couple years of offseason weirdness, and the pressure is on from the jump. One could pretty easily argue Joerger was at the heart of the team’s defensive identity, as well as their consistent success in high-leverage minutes down the stretch of close games. Does Fizdale, a highly-touted assistant from Erik Spoelstra’s staff in Miami, have the same impact?
This group sets their own baseline at this point, though. The larger questions surround depth and, quite honestly, the true talent level of the team. Conley is a borderline All-Star still in his prime years, but Gasol and fellow franchise anchor Zach Randolph have both shown serious signs of decline. Brandan Wright and Tony Allen are solid depth pieces, but is anyone confident in saying the same about Vince Carter, Troy Daniels and James Ennis at this point?
If they can keep the primaries healthy, this is a playoff team with a reasonable ceiling pending Parsons’ fit and Fizdale’s job on the sideline. The margin for error might be smaller than some think, though.
1. San Antonio Spurs
There are real reasons to expect a regression from the Spurs, even beyond the fact that just two teams who won 67 games did so again the following season. But even still, there just isn’t quite enough here to knock them from their perch atop the Southwest.
They still have the most talented core in the division, and they still have Pop. They still have excellent depth, even if there are justifiable questions about fit for offseason acquisitions Pau Gasol and David Lee. They still have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the two best players in the division outside Davis in New Orleans.
Whether they still have a culture that laps the league is ostensibly up for debate with cornerstone Tim Duncan gone, but it’d be a weaker culture than we assumed if that single loss dismantled it entirely. Leonard has been ready for this mantle for at least a couple years, and Aldridge is well overqualified as a number-two option talent-wise. Pop is… well, Pop. Frankly, it’s a safe bet Duncan’s absence will cost them more on the court than in any intangible area.
None of this is a hedge on last week’s prediction that we’ll see more of a decline than expected from San Antonio. Really, it’s more of a nod to the question marks that dot the other four teams in the division. The Spurs have so much cushion that even a 10- or 12-game fall might not be enough to keep them out of first in the Southwest, even if it would put them closer to the West’s middle than the top.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.