This week, our team at Basketball Insiders has launched the series of six things to know about each division in the league. We’ve already covered the Southeast, Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively. Today, we are going to take a look at what you need to know about the Northwest Division.
There are several story lines that could shape not only the division but also the league as a whole in the Northwest this year. The main one is the recent foot injury to Kevin Durant and how the team will handle his absence. The Portland Trail Blazers, fresh off an overachieving season, would like to use this opportunity to gain some momentum early to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder if they struggle to maintain afloat. There’s also been some player movement of note that will impact the teams involved, with the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arron Afflalo returning to the Denver Nuggets. The influx of youth for the Timberwolves will play a significant part in the expectations for the team as they look at the long-term picture. Speaking of youth, the Utah Jazz are in a similar spot, but their core young pieces have played together for a few years now and, with new head coach Quin Snyder, are looking to take the next step and start capitalizing on their potential. The Nuggets, coming off a very disappointing injury marred season last year, are looking to turn things around this year during Brain Shaw’s second year at the helm. Once again the Nuggets come into the season with some health concerns that could have a significant impact on their season. The top spot for the division will likely be decided between the Thunder and the Blazers. How that plays out may alter the playoff landscape and give the victor a significant advantage when the regular season ends.
1. The Thunder will be tested with Durant out.
Six to eight weeks. That equates to approximately 19 regular season games missed. That’s the initial recovery prognosis that was given when it was discovered that the discomfort franchise superstar Kevin Durant was experiencing on his right foot turned out to be a Jones fracture and would require surgery. The Thunder have not played without their franchise cornerstone for an extended period of time like this before. This will be a big test not only for the team but also for Russell Westbrook. The All-Star point guard has long been the second option, with Durant leading the charge as the team’s primary offensive weapon. A scoring guard by nature who’s averaged over 21 points per game for the last four seasons, Westbrook is no stranger to getting buckets. That being said, he’s also been heavily criticized in the media over the years for not deferring enough to his teammates and trying to take over games. With Durant out and scoring needed, this will be his opportunity to truly be the man and run the show. How he blends his scoring with his playmaking will determine how well the team will play in Durant’s absence.
When put on the spot about how what he will do now that Durant is out with injury, Westbrook had some choice words for Royce Young of ESPN earlier this week saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do.”
This time will be an opportunity for other players to step up their game. Nobody can replace arguably the best player in the league. However, one advantage the Thunder do have is the team is deep. Serge Ibaka has improved every single year he’s been in the league and although he’s best known to be a force on the defensive end, his scoring has been a welcomed part of his progression as a player. As a rookie five seasons ago he averaged a paltry 6.3 points per game and last year he averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game. He’s expanded his range and his teammates have shown confidence in his offensive skills. Reggie Jackson, who’s also coming off a career high 13.1 points per game, has been chomping at the bit to prove that he is more than just a backup point guard. He’s also looking to receive a big payday and has been in talks with the team about a contract extension. Thunder GM Sam Presti has gone on record to say that he envisions Jackson with the team for a long time regardless of whether they come to a contract extension agreement by October 31 or wait until next offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent. Look for Jackson to try and build his value during this time to give Presti something to think about.
And let’s not forget about the young guys. Steven Adams turned some heads last year with his aggressive play as a rookie and has a little better than advertised offensive game coming out of college with Pittsburgh. Through five preseason games, he’s averaged 15.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are guys that have a lot of potential and were highly regarded first round draft picks who have not had much of a chance to show what they are capable of playing on a stacked title contending team in the Western Conference. Look for both of them to get some increased playing time and get an opportunity to see if they can contribute.
2. The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to show last season was not a fluke.
We’ve all seen the three-pointer that Damion Lillard drilled at the buzzer to advance to the second round past the Houston Rockets last season. It was amazing basketball and the culmination of a great feel good story for the Blazers’ season. Why is that a big deal? Because the last time the team made it past the first round in the playoffs was back in the year 2000 when the roster featured the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. That year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. The city has been yearning for a long time for their team to return as a contender in the league. Their fans got their hopes up when they saw flashes of potential with the duo of LaMarcus Adridge and Brandon Roy showing promise and bringing the team to respectability. A few years of first round exits and Roy’s early retirement due to his knees have made it a tough road to climb back to prominence. So what’s changed? They have talented pieces that fit and they hit a home run when they drafted Lillard.
It was not too long ago that there were murmurs about Aldridge looking to do exactly what Kevin Love just did and make a fresh start with a new team. Now, 54 wins later and with a new All-Star point guard sidekick who’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential (averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in only his second year in the league), his outlook has changed.
“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge said over the summer to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian “This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”
The Blazers were not expected to make a jump like this by many experts last year before the season began. Now that the expectations are high and with some opportunities to make some noise in the division, look for the team to show that last year was not just a one hit wonder and that they are a team on the rise. Aldridge wants to win badly and he wants to stay with the team now that things have been going well but they will need to keep showing him that the future looks bright in Portland.
3. The Utah Jazz could be a sleeper team this year.
There are many factors that can be looked at when a team overachieves their projected win total. The Utah Jazz can make a case they have several of these factors going for them heading into this year. Similar to the Phoenix Suns of last year, the Jazz have a new head coach, a new up-tempo offense that plays more to the young team’s strengths, and young players who are more likely to show increased improvement as they mature. While all these things are nice to talk about, they still have to put it together on the basketball court. That’s where things get interesting.
So far through five preseason games, the Jazz are 4-1. They’ve beaten the Blazers (twice), Clippers and Lakers. Their only loss came on their second matchup with the Clippers that was very tightly contested to the very end until a scuffle between Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin sparked the Clippers to a narrow win. Does this mean the Jazz are guaranteed to exceed expectations? No. This is just a small sample size. The Jazz were one of the youngest teams in the league last year with an average age of less than 25 years old. The new additions of 19-year-old Aussie lottery pick Dante Exum and 21-year-old draftee Rodney Hood out of Duke aren’t going to help in that regard. Young teams struggle with consistency as they learn to perform at a high level each and every night.
The Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season, finishing with a lowly record of 25-57. One of the things that didn’t help the team get things started on the right track was a broken finger injury that sidelined rookie point guard Trey Burke early in the season. The Jazz should be at full strength to start out the season this year and Burke has shown nice strides, averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and one steal per game so far in preseason. Alec Burks has only played in two games so far, but is expected to return to action soon. Exum continues to show flashes of why he was drafted fifth overall in June. Derrick Favors looks more assertive on the offensive end and has continued to display his elite defensive potential on the other end. The re-signing of Gordon Hayward was huge for the Jazz’s continuity as he is a jack of all trades and really helps facilitate the offense. The new weapons on the team have seemed to take some of the pressure off him and he’s playing confidently with his shooting percentages so far in preseason, shooting up to an impressive 61 percent from three point range and 52 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points per game. If the Jazz can continue to assimilate to Snyder’s free-flowing, pass-laden offense and generate chemistry as a team, look for them to take teams by surprise. They may still not make the playoffs in a tough conference, but they may give us a reason to take notice of their improvement with a leap in their win total this year.
4. The Timberwolves are young in the post Kevin Love Era.
The drama of whether Kevin Love will stay or go is over. The trade that sent the aforementioned franchise star to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete. What now for the Wolves? In return for Love, they received some key players who will be part of the future. The first being none other than Andrew Wiggins. No longer will the young Canadian-born player be under the heavy shadow of LeBron James with the Cavs; instead, he will be able to play his natural position of small forward, which should be better for his development. He now has the opportunity to play plenty of minutes and show why he went number one overall this year. Everything that we’ve heard from him since the trade is that he has a chip on his shoulder and intends to do exactly just that.
Another fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett, joins Wiggins in his move to Minnesota. To say Bennett’s NBA career started out in dire straits is an understatement. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory for a number one overall pick last year for the Cavaliers. He had shoulder surgery before the season started, wasn’t able to get into the type of shape coach Mike Brown was looking for, looked lost on both ends of the floor and never really found his stride rarely seeing the floor by averaging 12.8 minutes and only 4.2 points per game. With all that said, I don’t believe Bennett is the bust many have already prematurely pegged him to be. With the shoulder no longer being a concern and his conditioning much improved, when he’s played he’s averaged nearly a double-double on the floor with 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Look for him to show he has more to his game than he showed last season if given an opportunity. He has stiff competition in a packed frontcourt with Nikola Pekovic, new addition Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng.
The trade aftermath also further puts the focus on Ricky Rubio to show that he can indeed lead this team. Results on him so far have been mixed. Currently in the middle of active negotiations with the team on a contract extension, rumor has it he’s looking to get paid. Nobody has questioned he’s a gifted passer and can make the game easier for his teammates as he averaged nearly 8.6 assists per game last year. However, as it stands his team has yet to reach the playoffs during his tenure. His shooting percentages continue to leave plenty to be desired three years into his NBA career at a dismal 32 percent from three point range and 38 percent from the field. I love watching him play but he has plenty to prove this season and I expect the Wolves brass to keep a close eye on his development to see where his future stands with the team.
5. Health issues with Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari can sway the Nuggets’ season.
Last season was a brutal one for the Denver Nuggets. It was an injury marred season with a win total of 36 games, and it was disappointing to say the least considering the year prior the team achieved 57 wins under the helm of the fired George Karl. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw will be looking to put his stamp on the team in his second season but he is very mindful that health will be crucial. It’s without question that Ty Lawson is the spark that drives this team. The former Tar Heel has become a fixture on the team and they’ll only go as far as he takes them. He played in 62 games last year and was a big part of why it was hard for the team to get in sync with a lack of playmakers on the roster. Hamstring issues were the primary culprit for the missed time last season for him. What’s concerning is that he missed the end of last season with an ankle injury that did not allow him to train and do his conditioning to the level that he’s used to this offseason. We’ve seen how issues like this can somewhat derail a season for teams that rely heavily on their floor general from the point guard spot (see Brooklyn Nets PG Deron Williams). Coach Shaw is trying to do what he can as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post pointed out.
“There is some concern,” Shaw said. “I haven’t really been killing him in practice or even in games. I’m cognizant of that. But once again, it’s something that he’s going to have to work himself through.”
Lawson will already be wearing a brace on his ankle throughout the season as a precaution, and during his most recent preseason contest against the Celtics he was not able to finish the game due to hamstring concerns. It will be something to keep an eye on this year.
Another potential impact player for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. He’ll be eager to make his return this season after two knee surgeries over the course of the last year and be shaking some rust off slowly to regain his form. So far in limited minutes, he’s looked solid in the preseason showing the all–around play that makes him such a versatile player for the team. He’s stated he hasn’t experienced any knee soreness since he’s been thrust back into action so far, which is a good sign. However the NBA season is a long 82-game grind and we will need to watch how his knee holds up. If both Gallinari and Lawson can remain relatively healthy throughout the season, the team can improve from a disappointing season. If health issues arise once again, look for a repeat of last season.
6. The division crown will be a battle between the Blazers and the Thunder.
The Thunder have firmly secured the top spot in the Northwest Division for the last four season in a row. They have been dominant and regardless of the Kevin Durant injury, it will difficult to knock them out of that spot again this year. The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise, and will see a chink in the armor for the Thunder and look to exploit it. The Thunder will have their work cut out for them and will have plenty of adjustments to make in order to keep the ship on track to have division title number five.
The Blazers enter the season without many health concerns and have added some pieces in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to solidify their second unit. In addition their prize rookie last year C.J. McCollum (a Basketball Insiders contributor) looked phenomenal during summer league play, averaging 20.2 points and for the most part has looked solid during preseason play as well. The Blazers look to have continuity and health on their side, so look for the head to head match-ups between these teams to be fiercely contested. In the end, I expect the Thunder to have enough talent to maintain within striking distance long enough for Durant to return to action and lead the way for another division title, but it will come down to the wire and the Blazers will give them a run for their money.
The X-Factors: Dallas
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.
The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked the news.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.
But back to the NBA’s return…
The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.
We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.
The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup. But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).
But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset? Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.
First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.
While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.
But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.
Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.
“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”
And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.
“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”
Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.
Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.
And that’s all anyone can ask for.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.