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.
NBA Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return
Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.
The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.
Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.
“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”
The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.
Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.
Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.
To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played). Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.
“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.
“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”
Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.
The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.
Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.
“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”
In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.
Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman
Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?
Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.
Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.
BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?
Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.
BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?
Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.
BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?
Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.
Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.
BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?
Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.
I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.
BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?
Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.
That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.
BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?
Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.
BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?
Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.
BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?
Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.
BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?
Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.
BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?
Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.
The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.
BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.
Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.
BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?
Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.
I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.
BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?
Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.
BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?
Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.
BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?
Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.
Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.
James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture
James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.
James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.
“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”
Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).
Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.
“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”
After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?
“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”
Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.
“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”
While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?
“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”
Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.
Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.