We continue our latest series, “First Quarter Grades,” at Basketball Insiders with the Northwest Division.
The Northwest Division has shaped up to be one of the stronger divisions in the Western Conference. The Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Oklahoma City Thunder have all gotten off to good starts. The Minnesota Timberwolves have seemingly turned things around following the Jimmy Butler deal and now find themselves only a half game out of the playoff picture. Only the Utah Jazz have been a true disappointment.
With that said, here’s a breakdown of each team’s grades as we hit the first quarter mark of the 2018-19 NBA season.
Denver Nuggets – A
If the season were to end today, the Denver Nuggets would have surpassed all expectations. This was a team that barely missed the playoffs last season. They’ve not only turned that around and entrenched themselves firmly in the playoff race, but they’ve also been a consistent top-four team in the West.
Their defense is largely improved from last year. They had been a middle of the pack defensive team, but this season they are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’ve also been getting key contributions off the bench from guys like Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, and Malik Beasley, guys who weren’t rotation regulars last season. And they’ve yet to incorporate Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. into the lineup.
Nikola Jokic and Garry Harris are looking like true stars, and after a brief rough patch recently, the Nuggets have picked it back up and are only a half-game back of the top spot in the conference. It’s been a strong start for the Nuggets indeed.
Minnesota Timberwolves – C
The Jimmy Butler saga put a damper on the Timberwolves to begin the season, and had their poor start continued, their first quarter grade would likely be lower. This was a group that had aspirations of moving up in the West when Tom Thibodeau took over.
However, their new additions of Robert Covington and Dario Saric have transitioned seamlessly into the rotation. Derrick Rose is experiencing a career resurgence. Karl-Anthony Towns is Karl-Anthony Towns. Questions remain about Andrew Wiggins, and it’s likely that if he was playing at a higher level, this team would be doing much better and their first-quarter grade would be higher.
But as it stands, they’ve seemingly righted the ship and have themselves right back in the mix of things. Although they sit at 10-11, they’re right there in terms of the playoff picture. It’s a testament to how tough the West has been this year.
Oklahoma City Thunder – B
The Thunder got off to a rough start this season. At one point, they were the only winless team in the NBA. They’ve also managed to turn their season around and they find themselves emerging as one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City is one of the best defensive teams in the league. It’s a welcoming sign considering their defense suffered mightily last season when Andre Roberson was injured. He suffered a setback and has yet to make his season debut, but the defense has remained strong in his absence. Dennis Schroder has fit in well with the team, and he’s given the team a guard dynamic they haven’t had since Reggie Jackson was in OKC.
Three-point shooting, however, remains a sore spot for the Thunder. Jerami Grant has emerged as one of their top outside threats, but they’re still going to need a little bit more if they want to be competitive in the postseason. A more consistent Patrick Patterson would help, but perhaps swinging a trade for another shooter at the deadline would help.
Portland Trail Blazers – A
The Trail Blazers have been right up there with the Nuggets as one of the best teams not only in the division but in the conference overall. They’ve lost three games in a row recently, and have slipped a bit in the standings, but it’s a testament to how much parity there is in the conference that they still aren’t too far off from the top spot.
They lost key bench contributors from last season in Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier. But they’ve managed to replace them with other players. Seth Curry has bounced back nicely from his injury and has provided Portland with another ball-handler and shooter off the bench. Nik Stauskas has been a revelation. And Zach Collins is looking like his billing as a lottery pick.
There may have been some questions in the past about the roster that Neil Oshey has constructed, but the past two seasons, the Blazers have been exceeding expectations. They finished last season with a top-four seed in the West and they’re on pace to do the same this season.
Utah Jazz – F
It’s been pretty solid grades so far for the Northwest Division, but the Utah Jazz are the notable exception. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Jazz were thought by many to be the best team in the division. They were coming off a season that saw them win a playoff series against the Thunder in impressive fashion while Donovan Mitchell became an emerging star. They’ve taken a major step back, however.
Outside shooting has been one of the primary issues of concern for the Jazz since the beginning of the season. They have one consistent perimeter shooting threat in Joe Ingles. That is going to need to change if they want to turn things around. Defense was another area of concern, and they’ve somewhat turned that around, but it still isn’t where it should be. Playmaking has been another issue, and that may be contributing to their lack of success from the three-point line.
The Jazz have the coaching and talent to get back on the right track, but the West has been tough this season. While it’s still early, there have been a good number of teams that have surprised out West. The postseason picture is going to be a dogfight. Time could run out quickly on the Jazz.
As we’ve seen in the past, things can change quickly in the NBA. These teams could slip or fall as the season goes on. Injuries could always change things. But as it stands, these are the early first quarter grades these teams deserve. As the season progresses and the playoff picture becomes much clearer, it will be interesting to see where these teams fall.
The X-Factors: Dallas
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.
The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked the news.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.
But back to the NBA’s return…
The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.
We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.
The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup. But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).
But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset? Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.
First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.
While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.
But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.
Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.
“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”
And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.
“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”
Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.
Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.
And that’s all anyone can ask for.
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.