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Six Things To Know: NBA’s Southwest Division

Six of the underrated story lines to pay attention to in the Southwest Division this season.

John Zitzler

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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.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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