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The Underrated Players: Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes continues The Underrated series on Basketball Insiders with the Southwest Division.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA, as are most major sports, is a star-driven. LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, etc. carry the day in regards to popularity, production and success, whether on the court or otherwise.

That said, and despite what some may say to the contrary, no one man can take home the Larry O’Brien trophy alone. That star may carry the day, but even the best need a team around them to win at the highest level — players that do the dirty work and raise their team without recognition for their effort and, more often than not, the pleasure of the spotlight.

So, we at Basketball Insiders have done our best to acknowledge some of those players, to give them the recognition they truly deserve. We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Northwest, Pacific and Southeast — we even tabbed some executives that deserve further credit. Today, we look at the Southwest.

Derrick Favors — New Orleans Pelicans

Favors, from the shadow of Rudy Gobert into the frenzy that was Zion Williamson-mania, has gone underappreciated for much of his NBA career.

Never a stalwart on offense, Favors has faded into the background of a league driven by it. A modest 9.2 points on just under seven shots per game in his first season with New Orleans — albeit on an impressive 62 percent clip — was never going to jump out of the boxscore. And, unfortunately, it has caused so many to overlook the massive impact Favors has had on the glass and on defense.

Favors, for a number of reasons, spent the first quarter of the season in and out of the lineup. Once he was restored to a regular role, however, his presence proved more than noticeable: one of the worst defensive groups in the early going, the Pelicans have since improved to eighth in both defensive points allowed per 100-possessions and effective field goal percentage allowed.

A major deterrent in the paint, Favors’ return has forced the opposition, who were already avoiding plus-defenders Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball on the perimeter, to rethink their strategy against the Pelicans. Combined with his work on the glass — 9.9 rebounds per game — and Favors has proven steadying presence at a position that, beyond rookie Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans just has no high-upside depth at, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

And that isn’t to say Favors is only an impact on defense, either. His 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, good for eighth in the NBA, is also a major reason as to why the Pelicans are third in second-chance points.

Dejounte Murray — San Antonio Spurs

Murray’s case is similar to that of Favors. The fourth-year guard made a name for himself on the defensive end, earning an All-Defense nod as a 21-year-old sophomore.

But Murray’s offense? Let’s just say it lagged behind.

There’s a reason Murray made a name for himself on defense — there just wasn’t much of anything for him to work with on offense. Murray not only struggled as a shooter in his first two seasons, but rarely created for his teammates, facts that were only pronounced by his limited touches.

That said, Murray took a massive step forward as an offensive threat this season. Unfortunately, amidst the league shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, his growth seems to have been overlooked.

In 58 games, after a year lost to a right ACL tear nonetheless, Murray has set multiple career-highs, including points (10.7), rebounds (5.8), assists (4.1) and field goal attempts (9.3) per game, field goal percentage (47.5%) and three-point field goal percentage (37.8), among others. 

As the team has continued to evolve in the post-Tim Duncan era, the fact that head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have asked Murray to be a key cog, a primary contributor on offense and defense is no small honor, either.

And, clearly, Murray has responded, thriving under the weight of greater responsibility. And, only 23-years-old, that’s likely only the start.

Jonas Valanciunas — Memphis Grizzlies

Valanciunas is old school, a throwback to the center-dominated, pre-three point boom NBA. But, while that may leave him forgotten when talking about the league’s best at the five-spot — look up “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might find Valanciunas’ picture — it certainly hasn’t made him any less valuable to the Grizzlies.

Like Favors with Williamson, Valanciunas has flown under the radar playing alongside rookie phenom Ja Morant. But, despite the amount of time he’s spent on the court without the ball, Valanciunas has managed a career year: 14.9 points per game, second only to the 15.6 he averaged a season ago, to go along with 11.2 rebounds, a career-high and good for sixth in the NBA, 1.1 blocks and an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 percent, also a career-high. Valanciunas also posted 33 double-doubles, good for 12th best in the NBA.

And he’s managed it just over 26 minutes per game. Not just anyone could put up those numbers, fewer in so few minutes.

Valanciunas even began to expand his range: while he only attempted 1.3 shots per game from beyond the arc, he managed to knock them down from distance at a solid 36.7 percent clip. Only 27, Valanciunas going the way of Brook Lopez, old school big turned three-point marksman, certainly isn’t out of the question.

But, even if he doesn’t go that route, Valanciunas certainly deserves some vindication for his play. Before the season was put on pause, the Grizzlies were in position to make the postseason for the first time in three seasons.

He may not flash like some, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to mention Valanciunas in the same breath as the perceived best centers in basketball.

P.J. Tucker — Houston Rockets

With the Golden State Warriors no longer in their way, the Rockets saw their chance. In a major move toward an NBA Finals bid, Daryl Morey dropped Chirs Paul and brought the James Harden-Russell Westbrook act to Houston.

But, while they’ve proven the show’s main players, P.J. Tucker has played as important a role as any.

Tucker, a hard-nosed, do-the-dirty-work type, would be valuable, if not underappreciated, by any team. But, as Mike D’Antoni and Co. have shifted further toward positionless “small-ball,” Tucker has become central to their identity: defense, switching, forced turnovers, etc.

And, while they struggled in the season’s early going, the 6-foot-5 “center” had anchored one of the NBA’s better defenses in recent weeks.

While his 7.1 points per game aren’t exactly game-breaking, Tucker’s 37 percent three-point shot certainly can be with Harden and Westbrook, two of the NBA’s most gifted passers, patroling the backcourt as well.

By the nature of his game, Tucker will forever be hard-pressed to stand out amongst his teammates. But, should Houston prove successful in their bid for a Finals appearance, let alone in their quest for the Larry O’Brien trophy, know that Tucker will have played a not-so-insignificant part in that success.

Tim Hardaway Jr. — Dallas Mavericks

Could any player average more than 15 points per game, shoot more than 40 percent from three and somehow still be regarded as underrated?

Just ask Tim Hardaway Jr.

Of course, playing with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, it would be hard for anyone to steal the spotlight in Dallas. But, as the team’s third-leading scorer, Hardaway has proven a critical piece to the team’s success and is deserving of some recognition. 

No longer burdened with the weight of a primary option, Hardaway has flourished offensively — while his scoring averaged has dipped a bit compared to his 18.1 points per game from last season, his shooting percentages are up across the board, including a career-high 40.7 percent from three. Meanwhile, there’s something to be said about the fact that Hardaway’s success in his own role has further enabled Doncic and Porzingis in their own play and success.

But there’s more. Defensively, Hardaway has been trusted to defend the opposition’s top option on more than one occasion; like Murray with Popovich, that type of trust coming from a coach as respected as Rick Carlisle means something special.

So yes, the NBA may be a star-driven league. But remember, behind every last one of them resides plenty of other players that deserve to be recognized as well. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out the rest of our Underrated series, and keep on the lookout for more from us here at Basketball Insiders.

And, more importantly, stay healthy and safe!

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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