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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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