The cream of the Southwest Division is the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. They will enter the season with expectations of another title run as the Tim Duncan era nears conclusion. The Spurs will be tested all year long in what figures to be a very tightly contested division. Chandler Parsons relocated from one Southwest division contender in the Rockets, to another in Dallas, signing with a veteran Mavericks team. The Rockets brought in Trevor Ariza, who is coming off a fantastic season with the Wizards, to replace the departed Parsons. Both the Rockets and Mavericks anticipate being right back in the thick of the playoff hunt. Parsons wasn’t the only player in the Southwest division to find a new home in the division; Omer Asik went from the Rockets to the Pelicans and Vince Carter bolted from Dallas and signed with the Grizzlies. The addition of Carter should help bolster a sometimes lackluster offensive attack in Memphis. The Grizzlies are coming off a 50-win season, and like the Rockets and Mavs, will be another tough opponent in the division.
Those changes are a few of the more discussed topics throughout the Southwest Division, now let’s take a look six other talking points inside the division that you should be aware of before the season kicks off.
Dallas will open the season with Jameer Nelson as their starting point guard
The Mavericks have three capable veteran point guards on their roster in Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton and Devin Harris. All three have been starters during their time in the NBA and have proven that they can succeed in that role. The talent level is relatively similar among each player, with no one really jumping off the page as that much better than the next. Unless Coach Rick Carlisle changes his tune in the next few weeks it looks like Nelson will get the first crack at the starting gig. Carlisle shared what he hopes to see from his new point guard earlier this week.
“Get comfortable and give us the right balance of penetration, scoring off pick-and-rolls, scoring off spot-ups and he’s got to give us tough defense,” Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com. “He’s very capable of all those things.”
One of the challenges for Nelson will be adjusting to a new system. Having another veteran point guard who is familiar with the schemes Coach Carlisle runs, in Devin Harris, should make his transition from Orlando a bit easier. Nelson will be under considerably more pressure than he has been in the past few years playing on a rebuilding Magic team. His ability to pick up the offense quickly will be crucial in the deep Western Conference, where the Mavs just can’t afford to dig themselves an early season hole.
Donatas Motiejunas will be counted on off the Rockets’ bench
The 24 year old Lithuanian will have the chance to be important piece for the Rockets off the bench this season. With Omer Asik off to New Orleans, the Rockets lost their best big men off the bench. This season they will rely on Motiejunas to take the next step. He will need to be a consistent contributor and key member of the second unit. In his first two years with the Rockets Motiejunas has been limited to smaller role, playing, on average, just 14.1 minutes per game. The combination of his inexperience and the talent in front of him made it difficult for Motiejunas to break into the Rockets’ regular rotation.
One aspect of his game that will be counted on is his shooting. He has struggled to knock the three ball with regularity and was only a 26.9 percent shooter from distance in his first two NBA seasons. Despite his lack of success from deep thus far Motiejunas is a more than capable shooter from deep. He excelled playing for the Rockets’ summer league team this past July. Motiejunas averaged 16.8 points per game while shooting a very impressive 59.3 percent from the field in eight games. The Rockets will need Motiejunas build off his solid summer league; his shooting and ability to score will be important off the bench
Five players are battling for two starting wing spots in Memphis
The Grizzlies have a nice mix of wing players with a variety of skills. Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen are both elite defenders but really struggle to score ball. Courtney Lee, Quincy Pondexter and Vince Carter, on the other hand, are players that excel on the offensive end but aren’t as gifted defenders as Allen and Prince. The challenge for coach Dave Joerger will be to find the right combination between the five players at his disposal, that together, can make an impact on both ends of the floor. This preseason Joerger has started Lee, Pondexter, Allen and Prince on separate occasions to get a feel of who works best together. The Grizzlies will rely on the rest of their starting line-up, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to lead the team, but will need production from the their wings.
Prince still feels that he can play extended minutes.
“I just have to be more of an offensive threat on the floor,” Prince said to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I can’t be an offensive threat just spacing out and waiting for jump shots. That’s not really what I’ve done in this league before. I just want to be more creative.”
If Joerger and the Grizzlies can get consistent play from his two starting wings it will go a long way in helping the Grizzlies get back to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see which players step up and take command of those roles as the season progresses.
Points in the paint will be tough to come by against the Pelicans
The Pelicans were able to acquire one of the more underrated centers in the league this summer when they added Omer Asik. Asik comes to New Orleans from the Rockets where he spent the majority of last season backing up Dwight Howard. Asik was eager to get another chance to start, and he will get that chance in New Orleans. He will be paired alongside a budding superstar, Anthony Davis, to form potentially, one of the top defensive duos in the NBA.
The pair should complement each other very nicely as each brings a different set of skills to the table. Asik is a strong and physical player who does a great job using his body to get in position defensively and haul in rebounds. In the one season where Asik started in all 82 games (2012-13 with the Rockets) he averaged 11.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Davis is still developing physically, though he has made great strides since entering the league, and uses on his incredible length and mobility to send shots back. Davis led the league blocks per game this past season swatting away an average of 2.8 shots per game. The two will give the Pelicans the ability to match up with just about any opposing big men they may face. If they can stay out of foul trouble, and more importantly stay healthy, Davis and Asik will give the Pelicans two outstanding defenders down low.
Gregg Popovich is excited to add Ettore Messina to his staff
It’s hard to imagine the Spurs coaching staff getting much better than it already is, however, this summer they managed to add another top basketball mind to the group in Coach Ettore Messina. Messina joins the Spurs after a long and extraordinarily successful coaching career in Europe. During his time in Europe Messina won four Euroleague titles, was a seven time Italian Cup champion, a five time Russian League Champion and twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year. His long list of accomplishments speaks for itself. The Spurs and Coach Popovich showing they are never content, despite their great run of success.
“That’s just Pop,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said to Fran Blinbury of NBA.com. “He’s open and he’s always hungry and searching for new things to discover about the game and different ways to coach it.”
Messina will offer the Spurs a different perspective on the game, a perspective Popovich will surely try to glean elements from to help improve the defending champs. The Spurs, who already utilize more of a European style of play than most NBA teams, will look to add wrinkles from the knowledge that Messina brings. Popovich has a great respect for Messina and what he has done throughout his career.
“He’s a smart guy, a helluva good coach and a very interesting man,” Popovich said. “Why wouldn’t you want somebody like Ettore to be around your team?”
There is strong frontcourt play throughout the division
The Southwest boasts some of the top frontcourt pairings in the entire league. Memphis will again be one of the most physical teams in the paint behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The two have been dominant together and been the driving forces behind Grizzlies’ success in recent years. In San Antonio, you have future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who seems to be only be getting better with age, and Tiago Splitter, who has developed into a tough defender and has continued to improve his touch around the rim. Dwight Howard leads the way in Houston, but Terrance Jones can’t be overlooked. He played great last season, averaging 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. The Mavs have a future Hall of Famer of their own in Dirk Nowitzki, who like Duncan, hasn’t slowed down much in the latter stages of his career, and Tyson Chandler, who will be a physical defensive presence at center. The Pelicans, as we touched on earlier, will pair a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis, with the big bodied Omer Asik. With so many talented big men in the division there will be battles in the paint on a nightly basis. Whichever frontcourt can consistently win those battles will greatly improve their team’s chances to win games within the division.
The Southwest is loaded with talent and is one of the few divisions where every team has a chance to be competitive this season. At the top you have the Spurs, who will look to make another title run, all the way down to the Pelicans, who continue to make strides behind one of the best young players in the game in Davis. No division win will come easy, expect to see each team jockeying for playoff position right up until the final game of the season.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.