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ICYMI: Southwest Division

Basketball Insiders continues our ICYMI series with Zach Dupont looking at some storylines out of the Southwest Division that you may have missed.

Zach Dupont

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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.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads

Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.

A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.

  • They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
  • They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
  • They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.

Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.

The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.

He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.

There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?

To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.

It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.

Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…

And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.

For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.

Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.

An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.

So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.

At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.

Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.

So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.

Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.

At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.

That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.

But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.

Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.

And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.

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