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Set Up Well For The Future: Western Conference

Benny Nadeau looks at three Western Conference teams with some of the league’s brightest futures.

Ben Nadeau

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At this point in the year, every NBA franchise is now firmly separated into one of two camps: pushing for the playoffs or looking toward the lottery. And unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, who are neither here nor there and do not own their own likely No. 1 overall selection, then your favorite team falls into one of these categories. While most of the Western Conference is captivated by a three-way battle for MVP between Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (joined by LeBron James from the East), there are a few teams that have set themselves up for a bright future even without the playoffs on the near horizon.

For those on the outside looking in, which teams in the Western Conference might be ready to take the next step in 2017-18?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coming into this season, there was no franchise more hyped than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by the maturing talents of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, anchored by the once-in-a-generation Karl-Anthony Towns and coached by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, many were predicting a playoff berth for one of the league’s youngest teams.

Of course, the torn ACL for LaVine quickly complicated things, but the Timberwolves struggled defensively against their elite competition for much of the season. The Wolves’ current defensive rating of 108.3 slots them in at the 7th-worst mark in the league, and they kept their opponents under 100 points just six times before January 1. For all the team’s potential, Minnesota has posted a poor 7-17 record against the current playoff field out West.

Even with their playoff hopes fading by the day (6.5 games back, 9 games remaining), the Timberwolves won’t end the season far from their predicted 8th seed. Which is to say, all in all, there’s plenty of room to grow in Minnesota.

The combined age of their starting lineup is just 23.6 (Gorgui Dieng leads the way at a ripe 27 years old) and Kris Dunn, perhaps this year’s most disappointing rookie, has loads of basketball ahead of him. As of today, the Timberwolves have a 72.5 percent chance of landing the No. 8 overall pick in a stacked class and can add another top prospect to the puzzle. Should they draft a stretch forward like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen? Or could they target an eventual Ricky Rubio replacement in North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.?

For the Wolves, their drafting options will be endless.

Still, they’ll need to improve defensively, but there’s no better place to start than with Thibadeau. The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls was a dream fit for this athletic but untrained Timberwolves team. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010-11, and his Bulls ranked in the top five in DRtg in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). While those teams were led by stalwart stoppers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, there’s no reason to think Thibodeau can’t mold Wiggins and Towns into similar-like defenders. Defensively, Rubio and Dieng are already above average contributors at their position, so a healthy season and fleshed out bench should help Minnesota reach some of their unfulfilled potential.

So yes, this season was ultimately a disappointment for the Timberwolves, but their window is truly just opening. With a core set for the immediate future and the addition of another top ten pick this June, this Thibodeau-led franchise will start making playoff appearances sooner rather than later.

Phoenix Suns

After the Phoenix Suns landed forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender last summer, the franchise found themselves in an interesting position. Even with a healthy Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the Suns were always anticipated to fall short of the playoffs this season, but could anyone have predicted this? Now they’re now neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 2 overall selection, winners of just four games since the All-Star break.

In fleeting moments, these Suns were as electric as advertised, in part thanks to their budding core of youngsters. Chriss has shown real potential as a forward able to run the floor on one end then spot up for a three-pointer during the next possession. And, of course, there’s Booker, the sweet sharpshooter that dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last week, and his continued growth, upping his points per game average to 21.6 from his rookie season mark of 13.8.

Those two alone get the Suns in the conversation automatically, but strong periods of play from Alan Williams and Tyler Ulis have helped as well. Ulis has come on strong over the last month and, in March alone, he’s tossed seven or more assists in eight of the Suns’ 15 games. The best month of his professional career was highlighted by his 20-point, 5-assist and game-winning effort against the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. As for Williams, the Suns’ backup center has quietly loaded up on minutes since the All-Star break. In his second NBA season, Williams has provided some quality minutes for Phoenix off the bench, racking up double-doubles in all but five of the games he’s played in March.

Admittedly, Bender has been a slow burn at times, but he’s a match for the new prototypical NBA big man as a stretch forward that’s agile enough to keep up with most opponents defensively. Although he’s been out since February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Bender is just 19 years old and should pair nicely with Chriss for many years to come.

If the Suns decide to part ways with Bledsoe, 27, or Knight, who is in the second season of a 5 year, $70 million deal, then they’ll hope to use their pick on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, three guards that sit at the top of this class. Pairing Booker with one of those NBA-ready talents could be the key to an all-out onslaught on the Western Conference for years to come.

However, if the Suns don’t wind up with their choice guard, they could easily hold onto Bledsoe’s remarkably reasonable contract at $29.5 million over the final two years of his deal. With just T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. taking up time at the small forward position, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum would certainly be fantastic options there as well.

Long story short, the Suns already have Chriss, Bender and Booker locked in and the rest of the roster is (nearly) lean and flexible. We’ll just have to wait for the ping-pong balls to fall before the Suns decide how to proceed next.

Los Angeles Lakers

Finally, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant last season, the Lakers quickly got to work and identified Luke Walton as the head coach of the future, snagging him away from the 73-win Golden State Warriors. After a solid 10-10 start through November, the wins started slipping away, so Walton trimmed the rotation and handed the reins to his younger players, a move that former head coach Byron Scott notoriously refused to make.

Elsewhere, after one of the strangest sagas in NBA history, franchise legend Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations in February. While there’s little evidence to believe that Johnson will be immediately successful in his first front office opportunity, the fit is a relatively perfect one and he’s got a wide margin of error for now.

In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell pairs with Jordan Clarkson to form a dynamic, offensively-inclined duo. Although Russell’s numbers have nominally risen to 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game during his sophomore season, Clarkson has replicated his strong output from 2015-16. While both need to improve defensively, it’s a good start to keep pace with the NBA’s guard-focused, offensively powered league.

Even in this weak rookie class, the lengthy Brandon Ingram struggled to leave his mark for much of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from a full offseason in Los Angeles, but he’s shown promise as a two-way player in the second half of this season. From October to January, Ingram scored in double figures just eight times, but following the New Year, the small forward has racked up 10 or more points in 22 of the Lakers’ 36 games. The No. 2 overall selection has a long way to go before reaching his lofty Duke expectations, but he’ll only be 20 years old in September, so there’s plenty of room to build from here.

And then there’s Larry Nance Jr., a former late first rounder that has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. An injury forced Nance Jr. out for a month in December, but he’s been a consistent member of the rotation since then, supplying just a little bit of everything on the statistical end. The walking one-man highlight reel is averaging 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on a solid 53.7 percent mark from the floor.

Other than the odd signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, moves that’ll cost the Lakers about $34 million per year until 2020, it’s safe to say that the new era of basketball in Los Angeles is off to a solid start with Walton at the helm. Now losers in 15 of their last 16 games, the Lakers have made a legitimate push for the NBA’s second-worst record along with the previously mentioned Suns.

Adding another top prospect in June — whether that’s Ball, Fultz or Jackson, it hardly matters — is the next step for Los Angeles this offseason. They’ll be sweating the draft lottery to ensure they retain a pick with which to do so.

While an NBA Championship is still far out of reach for these three franchises, there’s plenty to be excited about in Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles. From high draft picks to blooming stars, these teams have the structure, coaches and potential to make some serious strides toward reaching the postseason once again.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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