In a season where there will be plenty of wild cards, Dallas just might be the wildest of them all.
With the long-awaited return of Kristaps Porzingis, no one knows exactly how this season is going to turn out for the Mavericks. If Porzingis is — or will be — back to normal, there may not be words to quantify how high their ceiling could be. If he’s not back to normal, then not only could Dallas be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but this experiment could turn out to be one of the worst backfires ever. Particularly so after the hefty contract they gave the presumed franchise cornerstone this summer.
That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it, however. And even though Porzingis is the key do-or-die piece for the Mavericks, they still have Luka Doncic and his superstar career ahead of him. With all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise leading up to Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, Doncic should help the Mavericks rest easy knowing that the future is indeed promising.
But how promising? Porzingis at full strength definitely makes the future brighter, but the Mavericks need more than only him and Doncic if they want another shot at the title. Outside of them, Dallas’ roster isn’t exactly the prettiest. Because of the duo’s youth, they’ve got time to figure out what the best course is for them. For now, they just have to see where their two main cogs are at, plus who are the best players to put around them.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Mavericks should look dramatically different in 2019-20 than they did last year – mostly due to the presence of a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis will change the entire makeup of the Mavericks as Luka Doncic should complement him beautifully. Head coach Rick Carlisle is known for getting the most out of his players and will undoubtedly continue to develop new additions like Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. The Mavericks don’t have elite talent beyond their two superstars, but they feature enough versatility — Delon Wright and Courtney Lee, for example — to make noise. The Western Conference is brutally tough; but when the dust settles, expect the Mavericks to finish in the top-eight – albeit toward the bottom of the playoff ladder.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Mavericks have one of the more interesting duos in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is a budding star, but the major question mark is what Porzingis will look like as he returns from a major injury. Before he got hurt, Porzingis looked like a potential franchise difference-maker. If he can regain close to that form, Dallas may have hit the jackpot. Provided that Dallas maintains a healthy roster, it isn’t inconceivable that they make a playoff push. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference, however, so it’s still unlikely. What it all really boils down to is what condition Porzingis is in and what kind of on-court production will he bring. The Mavericks season hinges on that.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
To say people are fawning over the future of the Mavericks would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may be one of the most dynamic international one-two punches we’ll see sharing the court in quite some time. However, it depends on the health and production we see out of the latter in his first season playing since 2017-18. Yet outside of those two, nothing about this team jumps out. Delon Wright could very well be the player that does — and the bench looks like it could be just as energetic as it was before — but who else can step up as that tertiary option? Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be the one. Maybe it’ll be Seth Curry.
Here’s the question to ask yourself: Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? They’ll be battling with a ton of teams for that eighth seed. Whether they can snag it or not, we’ll have to wait and see. This writer isn’t counting on it.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Dallas Mavericks’ offseason is one of the hardest ones for me to fully digest and put a final grade on. Dallas made a lot of significant moves, but I just am not sure that collectively they were overall positive moves. I like the sign and trade to bring in Delon Wright on a three-year contract; while signing Seth Curry to a four-year deal worth $32 million seems fair, despite some injury concerns. But giving Dwight Powell a three-year extension at $33 million seems heavy when, seemingly, there wasn’t going to be a similar offer from other teams.
And when you take all of Dallas’ moves together, this offseason seems very similar to the Miami HEAT’s 2017 offseason, in which they signed several mid-tier free agents (e.g., James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) to long-term deals without any path forward to continue significantly upgrading the roster.
Unlike Miami, however, the Mavericks have two franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the second of whom Dallas signed to a five-year, $158 million extension. Dallas has reason to be optimistic moving forward, but it seems like the franchise overpaid on a few of its offseason deals and surrendered future flexibility without having to do so.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
This could finally be the year the Mavericks break out of the lottery cycle and actually win some games. If the talk surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real, he could be poised for a monster MVP-type season. Given how much work Luka Doncic put in this summer himself, the Mavs have their future franchise players set. Add in some solid veterans and a great head coach in Rick Carlise, everything is set up for the Mavericks to be significantly better. The problem is the conference is absolutely loaded and while Dallas could be significantly improved, it’s hard to see them cracking the 40-win mark unless Doncic takes a big jump and Porzingis is everything he can be after a full year recovering from an ACL tear, all of which is very possible.
If anything the Mavericks are going to be fun to watch, and that is a far cry from the last two seasons where things were just awful.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Mavericks had the option of going under the NBA’s $109.1 million salary cap or staying over the cap entirely. They chose the latter, using almost all of their Mid-Level Exception on Seth Curry and rookie Isaiah Roby, plus their Bi-Annual Exception on Boban Marjanovic. The team is also carrying an $11.8 million trade exception until Feb. 7, the remainder from the Harrison Barnes trade after using a portion to acquire Delon Wright via sign and trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Mavericks have a hard cap this season at $138.9 million, triggered multiple ways (the Wright acquisition, use of the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions). With a team salary at roughly $121 million, they’re not close to that figure.
Before November, Dallas needs to pick up team options on Justin Jackson and Luka Doncic.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Luka Doncic
Prepare yourself, because Luka Doncic is going to show up a lot on this list. That shouldn’t shock anyone because Doncic isn’t just the new face of the Dallas Mavericks — he could potentially be the new face of the entire NBA. The young Slovenian sensation exceeded all of the hype that he had coming into his rookie season. With all of the accolades coming from his already advanced IQ on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly the best offensive player on this Mavericks’ squad.
Doncic probably won’t be participating in any Slam Dunk Contests any time soon. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in any three-point contest either. But if you watched this kid at any point last season, you knew just how spectacular he was. Usually, rookies that have the look of a generational talent is because of their athleticism or their efficiency. In this case, his label as a future superstar has come from both his poise and his IQ. The way Doncic handles himself on the court makes him look like his life’s purpose was meant for playing basketball.
All of that came from the bag of tricks he has on the offensive end. His 42/33/71 splits are phenomenally average, but his average of 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists as a 19-year-old for most of the season is jaw-dropping. It should only get better from here on out. If Doncic continues to blow our minds this season, it may not be long before he enters the MVP discussion.
Top Defensive Player: Kristaps Porzingis
Fun fact: Last year, this writer wrote Dallas’ season preview and elected not to put Doncic in any of the top categories for some reason. As stupid as that was in hindsight, joining as an incoming international rookie, no one knew what to expect from him. Porzingis, in a way, is in the same boat as we haven’t seen him play since Feb. 2018. The difference, of course, is that we’ve seen what Porzingis can do when he’s at the top of his game. When he is, Porzingis changes the pace of the game so much — most of that comes from his defense.
Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis has established himself as an excellent rim protector and, since he entered the league, his block average has gone from 1.9 to 2.4. In his final year with the Knicks before his ACL tear, Porzingis’ defense around the rim was elite as opponents only shot 48.7 percent in the post. At the time, such a feat was better than the likes of Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert.
In that time, New York had the league’s 16th-best defensive rating, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions. After he went down for the season, that dropped all the way down to 114 points per 100 possessions, an abysmally-ranked 29th.
The Zinger was making a fair case for an All-Defense selection leading up to his injury. If that Porzingis comes back, then Dallas’ defense — which tied for 17th-best in the league, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions — could make a major jump next season.
Top Playmaker: Luka Doncic
This one should be pretty obvious. Doncic led the team in assists per game (6) and now that Dallas has effectively put him in charge of the offense, that number should climb even higher. At such a young age, the Slovanian has incredible vision. He’s an expert at the pick and roll, pick and pop, alley-oop, behind the back — name it and Doncic’s got it in the arsenal already. He could definitely improve in the turnover department (3.4 per game last season) but the youngsters got some serious handles.
Here’s where Mavericks fans should get more excited about Doncic in the passing department. Over the first month and a half of the season, he only averaged 4.3 assists a game. After Dennis Smith Jr’s injury/trade and JJ Barea’s longterm ailment, Doncic upped that average to 6.6. With those two out of the picture, Doncic’s usage rate went from 25 percent to 31.5.
Now, he runs the whole operation. With that, expect a lot more flare from the up-and-comer.
Top Clutch Player: Luka Doncic
This one is not as obvious as some of the other top categories that Doncic fits under, but it’s still all the same. Doncic’s clutch stats aren’t great, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s really his fault. In the 46 games in which circumstances were considered “clutch,” Dallas went 20-26 with a net rating of minus-6.5 — slotting them in at 24th and just plus-0.1 better than the Bulls, who won 11 fewer games.
In that frame, Doncic played in 38 of those games and posted a net rating of minus-4.5. Maybe that had more to do with who was surrounding him than inadequacy himself. During those contests, he had a respectable effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and an impressive assist percentage of 40.4. The only players who topped him in that department were Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley Jr. That’s not bad company by any stretch.
More importantly, the phenom definitely is not afraid of the moment. Case and point: Remember that insane buzzer-beater he had against Portland back in December? In all honesty, that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Unheralded Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Finally, one that doesn’t have the name “Luka Doncic” in it. Anyway, Hardaway Jr. gets overlooked because of the ridiculous contract that Dallas agreed to swallow as a sweetener for prying Porzingis away from New York. Nobody is arguing against how overpaid Hardaway is — but it’s just unfortunate that his contract has overshadowed how productive he can be.
After Doncic and Porzingis, Hardaway is slated to be both Dallas’ third scorer and, arguably, their third-best player. He’s not the ideal third banana, but his scoring abilities could come in handy for Dallas. Since his ship came in, Hardaway’s scoring numbers have gone up from 14.5 to 18.1. He’s being paid to score — so it’s not like he’s taken the money and run. He tries. Unfortunately, his field goal percentage in that span went from 45.4 to 39.3, which is not ideal for someone being paid $20 million.
He could see a more efficient season now that he’s third in the pecking order. Hardaway probably won’t have the same scoring average and, in so doing, won’t justify the money he’s getting paid — still, he could play a crucial role in Dallas’ hopeful successes.
Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis
Look, technically, Porzingis was added in February, but since Dallas understandably preserved him to be 100 percent by the start of this season, he should still fit under this umbrella rather easily.
It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of adding Porzingis to a team that already carries one of the league’s most promising young players in Doncic. Porzingis gives the point-everything a running mate that can run a rich, deep variety of plays together. KP can post up, he can roll out for three and he can finish alley-oops — imagine all that with Doncic on the other end of the string. He’s even shown flashes of being a fluid passer, so there’s really not much he can’t do. With Doncic coming off of a phenomenal rookie season, there’s always the chance of a sophomore slump. Hence, Kristaps’ presence alone could negate a fair amount of that.
Ultimately, there may not have been a more perfect second-in-command to put next to Doncic than Porzingis. Because of both of their youth and ceiling, they could usher in an era more golden than the days of Dirk. As long as Porzingis is every bit as good as he was before he tore his ACL, this should be the start of something beautiful.
– Matt John
WHO WE LIKE
1. Delon Wright
If Porzingis didn’t count as Dallas’ best new addition, then Delon Wright could certainly make a case for himself. Wright’s coming off of the most productive play of his career — at least after he arrived in Memphis. His three-point shot left a lot to be desired — 25.6 percent on three attempts a game — but he’s slated to be in the secondary playmaker role which could be just right for him.
When given extended minutes, Wright proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife-type and put up career-highs in points (12.2), assists (5.3), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.6). The Grizzlies didn’t exactly have many other players to turn to — and it’s not like they won a ton of games in that time period — but Wright did his job. Now that he’s paired next to Doncic, we could see even more efficient play from him.
What’s most encouraging is that the guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gradually increased as his career has progressed. His rookie year, the ratio was 1.9. During his 26-game stint with Memphis, that number rose to 3.5. For what Dallas is paying him, Wright is a solid pickup.
2. The Other Youngster
If it weren’t for the fact that Doncic proved himself to be really, really good almost immediately last season, more attention would have been given to Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ recent second-round steal. Having just turned 23 years old, it was hard to imagine Brunson with that high of a ceiling. But for where he was selected, he gave the Mavericks some pretty outstanding value.
Over 73 games, Brunson averaged 9.3 points on 47/35/72 splits while averaging 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds in a tick under 22 minutes. In March, he put up the best numbers in his young career, averaging 15.1 points on 53/34/80 splits. From those statistics alone, Brunson established himself as a capable off-guard to put next to Doncic in the backcourt. The problem is: With Wright, Hardaway, Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Devin Harris and, potentially, Courtney Lee, who knows how many minutes Brunson will see?
Rick Carlisle knows to put his best men out there — so, if Brunson takes his game to another level, it’ll be difficult to keep him on the sideline.
3. Courtney Lee’s Contract
With Doncic’s sophomore year approaching and Porzingis itching to prove he’s still the same unicorn we adored in New York, Dallas will use any asset it can to improve its chances. The trade with the Knicks depleted the Mavericks a fair amount in that department, but Lee’s expiring deal could fetch something on the open market. Not star-level good, but a sizable upgrade-level good.
Lee has done what he can since signing that luxurious deal with the Knicks three years ago, but he’ll be 34 when the season starts and the Mavericks have plenty of guards to go through. Dallas could definitely use some wing depth that specializes on the defensive end and there could be a few on the market that Lee’s contract matches with — Andre Iguodala, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson come to mind.
No matter what the Mavericks decide to do, they’re one of the few teams in the NBA who are aiming to reach the playoffs with expendable expiring contracts to shed.
4. Dallas’ Favorite Castoffs
It seems that Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgia has rubbed off on the Mavericks. It all started with the Jason Kidd trade 11 years ago. After being the face of the franchise back in the 90’s, the Mavericks brought back Kidd from the Nets to aid the franchise’s quest to win its first title. The main piece that was given away in that deal, Devin Harris, was then brought back five years after that.
It didn’t stop there. Three years after being the defensive anchor for the team’s first championship, Tyson Chandler was brought back yet again as a one-year rental. It was that same year that they brought back another valuable player from that team, JJ Barea. Five years after being brought back to the team, Dallas then traded Devin Harris to the Nuggets, from which, he then came back for a third go-round.
And now, Seth Curry, after being off the team for just one year, is back for his second tenure. It certainly seems like the Mavericks just can’t let go of the players who left after buying into their system.
It’d be unfair to say that the Mavericks don’t have much to boast besides Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Are we forgetting that Rick Carlisle still coaches this team? And that the 2011 Mavericks won the title because they had one mega-star and a ton of contributors who knew exactly what their roles were and thrived in them? Right now, the Mavericks aren’t contenders — as far as we know — but with the big-time talent, amount of depth on their roster and Carlisle’s reputation of getting the most out of his players, the Mavericks just might sneak up on everyone this season.
Outside of the aforementioned duo, the roster really isn’t all that special. That could be a problem if one of them goes down. In fact, it could be a problem even if those two stay on the floor. Now that there’s more footage of Doncic, defenses will be more prepared for him when the season starts. If teams figure out how to limit his play on the court, who steps up? Besides the presumably-healthy Porzingis, who can’t play all 48 minutes, who can take that next step? Never doubt Carlisle, but working around his two young stars will be a tough assignment even for someone like him.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Other than the budding cornerstones, who else from this roster is a keeper?
With both Doncic and Porzingis both on the team for the foreseeable future, Dallas has time to figure out who they want beside them. This season should serve as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. In that time, the Mavericks can better surround them as they plot for bigger and better things over the next couple of years. As of now, it appears the only ones who are slated to be on the team long-term are Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Wright, Curry and Brunson.
Those are all fine complementary players — but they’re not making any All-Star teams though. If Dallas is serious about this new chapter in the franchise, they’ll need to bring in more upscale talent. Still, doing so means sacrificing assets that have proven they work in Carlisle’s system. But, in order to be great, you have to sacrifice something valuable. Brooklyn did this when the franchise essentially exchanged D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To a lesser extent, Utah did this when it traded Derrick Favors to make room for Bojan Bogdanovic.
It may not be long before Dallas has to make a similar sacrifice.
Whether or not the Mavericks make a serious postseason run just yet, however, should not change their longterm plans. Play Doncic, Porzingis and go from there — it really is that simple.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.