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Who’s In Trouble? Western Conference Edition: Week 1

Basketball Insiders continues its “Who’s In Trouble?” series as Shane Rhodes looks at the Western Conference teams that might struggle going forward.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA only just got back, but some people are already on the ropes.

Whether it be a player, head coach or even an entire team, there are plenty that have seen their fair share of bad luck in the new season. And, for some of them, the 2020-21 regular season is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

But who’s had it the worst to start the season? Drew Maresca already took a look at those in the Eastern Conference who’ve seen an inauspicious start to their season and, today, we’ll look at the West.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves haven’t seen much in the way of success since Jimmy Butler blew his way out of town. In the two years since he was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota saw back-to-back seasons at the bottom of the Western Conference, winning 36 and 19 games, respectively.

The 2020-21 season, however, looked like a light in the darkness. Their two cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, were set to take the court together for just the second time as teammates. In fact, with Anthony Edwards, the top selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, also in tow, the Timberwolves’ immediate future looked surprisingly bright. 

So then, of course, they hit the season’s first bump in the road. And it was a big one.

Towns, who went down with an injury in their win over the Utah Jazz, is set to miss an undetermined amount of time with a dislocated left wrist. Their 2-0 record, which had them atop the Western Conference, has dropped to 2-2, with ugly, 20-plus point losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. The immediate schedule doesn’t get easier, either, with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers up next on the docket.

Where does that leave Minnesota? Unsurprisingly, not in the best spot. The Timberwolves have gone a terrible 12-36 without Towns over the last three seasons. Last year, in Russell’s 11 games without Towns (who missed time due to a different wrist injury), the team went 3-8.

Of course, Minnesota’s roster is completely different from the one that took the court over that end-of-season stretch. And the Timberwolves made Edwards the top pick for a reason — their hope, the best case scenario, is that Edwards, with Russell, can do enough to keep the offense afloat while Towns is on the shelf.

But rarely, if ever, does the best case scenario play out. If Towns is out for an extended period, or even longer than expected, Minnesota’s postseason dreams may already be dead in the water.

Memphis Grizzlies

After they disappointed in the NBA Bubble, the Grizzlies faced an uphill battle to start the 2020-21 season.

And the hill just got a lot steeper.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. already on the mend (and expected to miss most of the season), the Grizzlies are now expected to lose sophomore star Ja Morant for up to five weeks with a Grade 2 ankle sprain he suffered in their win over the Nets.

So, where do they go from here? The conference’s basement would seem to be the most logical destination.

Now without their two best players, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Memphis dig themselves a hole that neither Morant’s nor Jackson’s return could dig them out of. Of course, they could surprise — the Grizzlies have some serious depth and could see multiple players step up and into the offense void created by the aforementioned duo’s absence.

But is that realistic? In the East, maybe. Out West? Not a chance.

The Grizzlies went 0-4 without Morant last season — no, even without him and Jackson, they won’t go winless between now and February. But, in a highly competitive Western Conference, Memphis will struggle to stay afloat and, if they can’t keep their heads above water, may have to throw in the towel on the 2020-21 season a bit earlier than they would have liked.

Houston Rockets

Now to address the elephant in the room.

With Daryl Morey and Russell Westbrook already out of town and James Harden pining for a new home, it was never going to be a “good” season for the Rockets. Now, as the Harden situation remains unresolved, an 0-2 start should only get worse. And then, of course, once it is resolved, it’s hard to imagine their situation improving.

COVID-19 hasn’t taken it easy on Houston, either; multiple players, including new Rockets DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, have yet to take the court due to the NBA’s contact tracing policies. As they continue to miss time, Houston’s record should only tumble further, furthering Harden’s discontent and pushing management to find a trade partner sooner rather than later to avoid a toxic locker room.

There have been some bright spots, namely Christian Wood. Short of Harden, Wood has been the Rockets’ best player, averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and 1.5 blocks through two games, and should vastly outperform the three-year, $41 million deal he signed with the team back in November.

Likewise, rookie Jae’Sean Tate has flashed and, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, is an intriguing prospect that should be able to carve out a role in Houston in the post-Harden era.

Beyond those two, however, the Rockets positives are few and far between. And they’ll seemingly stay that way until the cloud that is Hardens impending trade is lifted and, after that, is there really any hope for Houston this season, anyway?

Yes, its early in the season, very early. But theres plenty we can gather from these first few games — and these teams, specifically, have already had a tough go of it. Of course, even in a shortened season, theres time left to turn it around, but can they with the odds seemingly stacked against them?

If they cant turn it around soon, dont bet on it.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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NBA

2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?

With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.

But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like.  In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.

THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME

The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.

Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school.  Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.

The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight.  The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.

Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.

THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON

College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.

The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses.  Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game.  Does he warm up hard?  What is his intensity like as the game approaches?  While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person.  Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.

Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.

POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS

It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like.  Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled –  and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.

Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.

There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.

Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Jan. 18

Basketball Insiders releases our second MVP rankings of the 2020-21 season, with three players seemingly neck-and-neck in their race to the award.

Tristan Tucker

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About a month into the 2020-21 NBA season, fans are really starting to see which players have separated themselves from the pack in the race toward the Most Valuable Player award. It’s still anyone’s game — we’re just a fraction of the way through the season — but there have certainly been some that have impressed significantly more than other’s through their team’s first 10 or so games. Let’s take a look.

1. LeBron James (Previous: 6)

James’ MVP campaign has been quiet but extremely effective through the first month of the season, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers firmly in front of the Western Conference with an 11-3 record.

With fellow MVP candidate Anthony Davis, James and the Lakers have continued to prove themselves the best in the West; they’ve won five straight, including a back-to-back against the Houston Rockets. And, with games against the bottom of the Eastern Conference on the horizon, their lead in the West — and James’ lead in the race —  should only grow.

James himself is in the midst of another strong year. He’s averaged 24.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists through Los Angeles’ first 14 games and has put on one of the best shooting performances of his career. Never characterized as an elite shooter, James’ 38.2 percent on what would be a career-high 6.4 threes per game are among the best in the league. He’s extended his range significantly and has gotten out in front of any other potential weaknesses to his game to dismantle them.

James has continued to age like a fine wine and, with the Lakers dominating the competition once again, expect him to stay on top of this list, or at least close to it, for the foreseeable future.

2. Nikola Jokic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Jokic wasn’t on the ladder in our previous listing but he is having an outstanding season thus far, averaging a triple-double on the year. Through 13 games, he’s managed 25 points, 11.4 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.9 steals per contest.

“The Joker” has always been an excellent passer but one facet to his game that has stood out the most in recent games is how he’s improved as an on ball defender that can make some fantastic passing game reads on both defense and offense; his 1.9 steals and 10.3 assists per game would be career highs by far for the Denver Nuggets star. But not only is Jokic leading the league in assists, but he’s put himself in elite company, having joined Oscar Robertson as one of two players to average 20 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds through a team’s first 10 games. He’s also doing that while shooting 57.3 percent from the floor.

In fact, the only thing seemingly holding Jokic back in these rankings is the performance of the Nuggets. Denver is currently 6-7, 11th in the Western Conference. They’ve faced a tough slate to start the season, but two early losses to the Sacramento Kings and other, close losses to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns just can’t happen if they expect to reach the top of the conference.

If the Nuggets turn it around, however, look for Jokic to grab the top spot.

3. Kevin Durant (Previous: NR)

Like Jokic, Durant also missed out on our initial ranking. That said, he’s played his way into the race and with some ridiculous boxscores in recent days. The simple fact that Durant has maintained a certain level of consistency from pre- to post-Achillies injury might boost his place on this list even further as we continue through the season.

For one, Durant’s shooting has been off the charts: 54.8 percent from the floor, 48.3 percent from deep (on six attempts per game) and 86.7 percent from the charity stripe. But none of that can even touch the fact that he’s second in the NBA in scoring per game at 30.7 points per contest, while he’s also posted 6.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1 block per game.

It’s clear Durant is healthy enough to compete for the award. But, the fact that he’ll now be sharing the ball with two of the best scorers in the NBA, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, may keep him from ever reaching the top spot this season. That said, Durant seemed to have little issue scoring 42 points in his first outing with Harden, who also put up a 30-point triple-double — we’ll just have to wait and see what the three of them look like together.

4. Joel Embiid (Previous: 4)

Embiid is having a fantastic season, posting some of the best per-game numbers of his career on, by far, his most efficient shooting yet. The Philadelphia 76ers are 9-5 and look reminiscent of the contender they were in 2018-19, rather than the disappointment they were a season ago, with Embiid at full strength.

Embiid has averaged 25 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists on what would be a career-best 53.6 percent clip from the floor and 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The 7-foot center recently posted a 45-point, 16-rebound game against the Miami HEAT in a win that also saw him scoop up 5 steals, 4 assists and a block.

Of course, Embiid will only climb this ladder if he can maintain some consistency game-to-game. And he’s hasn’t quite done that yet; he followed up that performance with just nine points on 37.5 percent shooting, albeit in a blowout win against the HEAT.

5. Paul George (Previous: Not Ranked)

George is having a fantastic regular season for the Los Angeles Clippers and is averaging career-best numbers at the age of 30. The Clippers, meanwhile, have the second-best record in the NBA at 10-4 and George has played an integral role in their early-season success.

George has also shot an absurdly high 51 percent on eight attempts per game from downtown. And, while that number is likely to dip with more games, George’s ridiculous efficiency pairs well with averages of 24.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game and places him firmly in the MVP race.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 1)

Antentokounmpo’s teammates, Khris Middleton in particular, are a huge reason for his success thus far, especially considering Middleton has scored 21.8 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting from deep.

However, that isn’t to say that he isn’t having a fantastic season himself. Antentokounmpo has pushed the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 9-4. And while he’s posted his lowest scoring numbers since the 2016-17 season, the Bucks, with him at the helm, look to be in a groove and, arguably, a bigger threat to push for an NBA Finals appearance than ever before.

If his per-game stats continue to be lower than last season’s, even by a small margin, it’s hard to see Antentokounmpo winning the award for a third-straight year. Voter fatigue is real, as Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are the only players in NBA history to have won the award in three straight seasons.

At the end of the day, and in light of Harden’s blockbuster trade to the Brooklyn Nets, there’s potential for anyone to crash the MVP race and maybe even come away with the win. S0 stay tuned for our next edition of the MVP ladder!

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