Basketball Insiders just launched our new ICYMI series, detailing some of the happenings around the league that may be going under the radar. Today, Zach Dupont will be taking a deeper look at the Southwest Division
The NBA’s Southwest Division has quietly been full of exciting storylines, both good and bad. The Southwest has exciting young talent like Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, all three of which are having wildly different levels of success in 2020-21.
Plenty is going under the radar in this division, so here are a few storylines you may have missed from the Southwest.
The Spurs are back!
Coming into the season, the talk around the San Antonio Spurs was not about their playoff aspirations, but rather if they could still trade DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge for positive value before the trade deadline. Now, more than a quarter through the season, the Spurs sit atop the Southwest Division with an 11-8 record.
DeRozan is having an impressive season for the Spurs and, despite being in his 12th NBA season, he has taken a significant step forward as a three-point shooter. DeRozan currently has his highest three-point percentage of his career at 36.4 percent, while attempting nearly two per game. DeRozan’s improved shooting has him leading San Antonio in scoring, averaging over 20 points per game.
San Antonio has also gotten substantial improvement from a pair of youngsters, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson. Both Murray and Johnson are averaging career highs in points per game, with Murray putting up 15 points per game and Johnson tallying 14.6. Murray has also done a bit of everything for the Spurs, averaging a team-high in assists per game (5.2) and steals per game (1.3). Additionally, Johnson is leading the Spurs in rebounding, averaging 7.5 per game.
Even further down the roster, San Antonio has many exciting young talents not often discussed as much as others around the league. Devin Vassell, a rookie out of Florida State, is having a very solid season, averaging 5.7 points per game while shooting over 40 percent from three, while tied for the team lead in steals per game at 1.3. Lonnie Walker IV is also putting together a nice year, averaging 12.1 points per game on 41.6/38.9/78.8 shooting.
The Spurs, who are currently sitting fourth in the Western Conference, still even have room to improve, with stud youngster Derrick White waiting in the wings, having played only one game due to a toe injury. White’s return will only enhance San Antonio’s efforts as they will soon be adding a player who averaged 11.3 points per game last year and served as one of the best on-ball defenders on the team.
Time to panic in New Orleans?
Contrary to San Antonio’s success, the New Orleans Pelicans came into 2020-21 with high expectations and have yet to capitalize on the talent many said they have. New Orleans is currently 6-10, good for last in the Southwest and second to last in the Western Conference.
Unlike the Spurs’ youngsters, who have all seemingly taken a step forward, the Pelicans’ highly-touted youth have stagnated. Zion Williamson, the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was expected to step forward into the superstar conversation but instead, he has struggled. Defensively, Williamson has been nothing short of a disaster, acting as a constant liability while not showing the same effort and agility he showed at Duke.
Williamson’s on/off-court stats are shocking and when on the court, opposing offenses are putting up an offensive rating of 116.9, and when off the court, that drops to 106.1, a 10.8 point difference. Offensively, Williamson’s upside is still unreal. He’s currently averaging 23.8 points per game on nearly 60 percent from the field, but shooting continues to be an issue as Williamson’s free throw percentage hasn’t taken a jump, while his three-point percentage is hovering around 15 percent.
Lonzo Ball’s play has warranted some concern as his shooting improvement from last year seems to have been a fluke. Ball has struggled shooting everywhere on the floor this season, posting a woeful shooting split of 38.8/30.1/58.3 and only averaging 4.6 assists per game, down seven last season. His alarming three-point percentage isn’t helped by the fact that Ball is shooting 7.6 attempts from deep per game, the highest total on the team by 1.5 attempts.
It’s not all doom and gloom in New Orleans though as the ultra-young team still has plenty of reason for optimism. Brandon Ingram is having another excellent season, putting up 24.1 points per game to lead the way. A fully healthy and slightly skinnier, Williamson is still a player to be feared in the NBA as he continues to develop. The Pelicans also have guys like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis Jr. all on the roster and improving by the day. So, while the Pelicans 2020-21 season may be in serious jeopardy, their future remains as bright as ever.
Houston’s Island of Misfit Toys Rising
The Houston Rockets have assembled a roster of castoffs after sending James Harden to Brooklyn earlier this month, but their crew of misfits has shown to be competitive. The Rockets have won four games in a row to push their record to 8-9 and just one game back of the eight seed Portland Trail Blazers.
Christian Wood has been a revelation for the Rockets, putting together an All-Star level season in his first season in Houston. Wood leads the Rockets in both points and rebounds per game, averaging a 23.4/10.8 double-double. The Rockets’ new core is also led in part by John Wall and Victor Oladipo, two guards who have struggled with injuries over the last few seasons. Oladipo had an excellent first five games for the Rockets, putting up 22.4 points and 4.8 assists per game while crucially providing high-level defense that the team was missing before the Harden trade. Wall has had quite the career renaissance himself, putting together 18.1 points and 5.5 assists in his first season since 2018-19.
The Rockets’ rotation players also contain a nice group of guys who have had unconventional paths in the NBA. DeMarcus Cousins is far from the player he was during his All-NBA years with the Kings, but he has proven to be a solid piece off Houston’s bench to back up Wood, especially when you consider Cousins has played just 30 NBA games since 2018. David Nwaba is on his fifth team in five seasons – but through 16 games, he’s shown himself to be a serviceable rotation wing, especially on the defensive end.
Another solid defensive piece for Houston is rookie Jae’Sean Tate, who is playing 25.7 minutes per game to go along with his sevens starts. Tate went undrafted in 2018 out of Ohio State, then spent the last two seasons abroad playing in Belgium and Australia before getting his shot with the Rockets. Even further down the roster, Mason Jones, an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas, has shown some serious flashes of skill in limited play this year, putting up 8.6 points per game while shooting 58.3 percent from three-point range over his nine contests this season.
The Rockets are more than just a likable story of many players getting a chance of redemption or their first shot at all in the NBA. Better, they’re a competitive basketball team fighting for a playoff spot. While Houston might not be a title contender in 2021, they have a lot of pieces to build off of moving forward.
Much like Houston, the entire Southwest Division is full of weird and exciting stories going under the radar in a spectacular 2020-21 season. Between early season struggles and unexpected leaps, there are loads of storylines to pay attention to as the campaign evolves.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.