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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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NBA Daily: Grading the Offseason – New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA offseason is dramatically different than it was as recently as a decade ago. In the past, the offseason began following the conclusion of the NBA Finals. And save for a few exciting happenings (e.g., the NBA Draft), the sports world moved on to other items of interest.

But presently, the first half of the summer is still very much the NBA’s. Until mid-July, that is. With the NBA finally ready to enter a lull in activity, we can safely begin assessing teams’ offseason moves. And with that, Basketball Insiders continues its “Grading the Offseason” series.

Spencer Davies kicked things off by assessing the Cleveland Cavaliers and David Yapkowitz graded the moves made by the Chicago Bulls. Next up is possibly the most polarizing team in the league – the New York Knicks.

Overview

The Knicks entered 2018-19seaason with low expectations. However, there was hope for the future with 7’3” unicorn-esque center (Kristaps Porzingis), their three rookies (Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier) and a boatload of projected cap space on the books.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2019 and the Knicks are in a surprising spot relative to last year. Their assumed core of the future was dealt a blow when it became clear that Porzingis wanted out of New York, resulting in a trade to Dallas. And while they failed to land a major free agent – despite freeing up the cap space for two max free agents – there is actually reason for optimism for the Knicks.

Offseason

Despite finishing the 2018-19 season with the worst record in the NBA, the new lottery structure led to the Knicks landing the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Fortunately, the third pick in the draft was a no-brainer regardless of who was making the selection. RJ Barrett – guard/forward from Duke – is a talented scorer and playmaker who will instantly become the best Knick at drawing fouls and creating off the dribble. Barrett can struggle with his efficiency and other aspects of his game, but he will show flashes of greatness throughout the upcoming season.

But that’s not all the Knicks did on draft night. As I discussed last week, the Knicks traded up in the second round to select Ignas Brazdeikis, a forward from Michigan. Brazdeikis entered NBA Summer League with a lot of questions around him, most notably his lack of foot speed and athleticism, and he answered them in a big way.

Brazdeikis proved he can contribute to an NBA team immediately. His shot-making, shooting ability, strength and motor all shined through in many of the team’s Summer League games. The Knicks may have hit another home run in the second-round, which makes them two-for-two in as many years (Mitchell Robinson was selected by the Knicks with the 36thoverall pick in 2018).

Speaking of Robinson, he flashed his potential throughout Summer League, too. He demonstrated good progress, posting 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 25 minutes per game — and winning first-team All-Summer League honors. Robinson has a lot to prove this season, as expectations have changed dramatically for the 21-year-old, but at least the Knicks have their center of the future.

Free agency didn’t go quite as well for the Knicks. Many experts felt that the team had a good chance at signing Kevin Durant and a second major free agent. But the Knicks struck out on superstar free agent signings.

And what’s more, the Knicks signed a number of players shortly after the start of free agency, which prevented them from absorbing unwanted salary in exchange for future picks (e.g., the Los Angeles Clippers received a future first-round pick for taking back Maurice Harkless from the Portland Trail Blazers). The narrative quickly became that the Knicks failed at free agency.

But perception and reality are not always one and the same. Ultimately, the Knicks were able to attach a second-year team option and/or signed free agents to one-year deals for six of their seven free agent acquisitions (with the seventh free agent being Randle, for whom the Knicks own a third-year option).

This means that very little – if any salary – is guaranteed beyond 2019-20, making all of the aforementioned players attractive additions to contenders come the trade deadline – many were likely attractive as of June 30, but most contenders didn’t have the requisite cap space to sign players like Portis, Payton or Morris after making major investments in superstars.

All of the Knicks free agent additions can contribute at a relatively high level – save for Bullock, whose health is still in question following a recent back surgery — for both the Knicks as well as a contending team down the line. And the Knicks can liquidate most of their roster and free up significant cap space to chase the likes of Anthony Davis and others in 2020 if so desired – and they may even get themselves additional assets in the process. So the Knicks’ 2019 free agency period could be viewed very differently at this time next year (or 2021), depending on if they are able to convince a star player or two to join their young core.

PLAYERS IN: RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris

PLAYERS OUT: Kadeem Allen, Mario Hejonza, Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Emmanuel Mudiay, DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Henry Ellenson and Billy Garrett

What’s Next?

The Knicks’ offseason is probably over considering they added nine players and will return six – with one exception being potentially working on a reunion with the recently-waived Lance Thomas.

The Knicks signed seven quality free agents who can all hypothetically be traded for assets or waived following the 2019-20 season. They also added two NBA-quality rookies, both of whom should carve out a role on the team. The team’s challenge will be picking a direction. Scott Perry recently scoffed at the notion that Knicks will tank in 2019-20. Thus, they may hang onto most of their signees for the entire season in hopes of getting their young nucleus playoff experience.

While playoff experience is great for any young player, it will be challenging for David Fizdale and the rest of the coaching staff to carve out a rotation that features all of the team’s young players. The Knicks will have to create lineups very deliberately, pairing youth with veterans so they don’t experience too much falloff when shifting from one lineup to another.

Another unresolved item remains: Frank Ntilikina. Rumors circulated in the lead up the 2019 NBA Draft that the Knicks were going to trade their former lottery pick, but Ntilikina remains with the team. Ntilikina’s time in New York might be nearing an end unless he shows significant improvement early this season. It is worth mentioning that Ntilikina showed up earlier in the offseason on social media sporting a smoother and more natural-looking shooting form.

One final improvement the Knicks will look to build on is their leadership. Credibility trickles down from the very top of an organization. While James Dolan has made questionable decisions over the years, the rest of the Knicks’ management is operating more thoughtfully than it has in years.

The team’s leadership and coaching staff remained entirely intact for the first time in what feels like decades – the Knicks have had five coaches (six tenures) and three Presidents (four tenures) in the past eight seasons. And while players win games, they are attracted to situations that appear stable and supportive. The Knicks and Scott Perry, Steve Mills, and David Fizdale began laying the foundation for this type of situation. They now need to demonstrate progress on the court to take the next step and possibly start to build themselves up as a free agent destination (outside of simply being the Knicks). Lastly, they need Dolan and the team to remain out of the news for negative reasons as much as possible, such as being in the news for a lawsuit against the City of Inglewood around contractual issues pertaining a new Clippers arena.

This wasn’t the offseason that Knicks fans were hoping for, but it wasn’t the disaster some portray it as either. The Knicks have the means to take a positive step forward this season and set the stage for bigger things in the future.

Offseason Grade: B-

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For Chris Paul

Left in the lurch, there are few feasible options for Chris Paul headed into the 2019-20 season, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official, we have hit the dog days of the NBA offseason.

What began at such a frenetic pace has inevitably sputtered and slowed, as deals have been made, unmade and some of the biggest names in the NBA have moved house. Everything that could have happened seems to have and now, with Summer League over, basketball is left with almost nothing to occupy the seemingly infinite amount of time between today and training camp.

And, unfortunately for Chris Paul, it may feel even longer than that.

Despite the Houston Rockets’ declaration to the contrary, Paul has since been traded, stranded on an Oklahoma City roster that has no business competing in a stacked Western Conference next season.

Between his contract – more than $124 million over the next three seasons – and his regression a season ago, Paul’s removal from the Rockets’ roster was a necessity; it’s a business, and the point guard was a hinderance to Houston’s championship aspirations.

But the situation hasn’t changed for Paul – he is still unwanted, a (very) pricy veteran miscast on his current roster.

So, where does that leave him? There are but a few teams that could afford to take on the massive amount of money owed to Paul and even fewer that would want to. There is no doubt that, given a clean bill of health, Paul could recapture some of his prior form next season but, still, would it be worth his price tag?

Probably not. And that should only limit Paul’s options further.

The Thunder reportedly want to get a deal done “as soon as they can” according to Adrian Wojnarowski, but discussions are “parked” for now. They could always opt to retain him; who better to serve as a mentor for the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than the Point God himself?

But would Paul want to serve in that role? There would be a clear opportunity to rebuild some value and open up potential landing spots. But, Paul, 34, is a soon-to-be 15-year veteran with a single Conference Finals appearance to his name. Surely, if he were to step back into a secondary role, he would rather do so for a contender.

And, of course, the money would be an issue as the Thunder, despite the recent roster reconstruction, are still expected to pay a heavy luxury tax penalty next season. Given their current situation, it should be obvious that keeping Paul on his current deal isn’t the best move.

The Lakers serve as another potential destination — don’t forget, Los Angeles tried to acquire Paul back in 2011, but the deal was subsequently nixed by then-commissioner David Stern.

While there is almost no connection between that iteration of the Lakers and the current one, it is still an interesting option. Los Angeles is an obvious fit because, for lack of a better option, the Lakers are set to start LeBron James at point guard next season. With Paul in the fold, James could serve in his normal role and reduce his workload with time off the ball.

The prior relationship between James and Paul could also serve to benefit the Lakers’ chemistry and may allow for an easier roster transition.

But, again, Paul’s contract looms large. The Lakers opened a max-slot in their salary cap earlier this summer, hoping to land recently-minted champion Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard spurned them for their in-house neighbor, the Clippers, they made use of that space to fill out the rest of the roster with complementary players.

Now, a buyout would be necessary to facilitate any deal before the start of the season. Otherwise, the Lakers would have to wait until December, when those players that signed new contracts would become eligible to be traded.

And then, of course, there are the HEAT. Miami is almost always mentioned when a big-name is available, whether as a free agent or via trade, and the rumors proved true this offseason in the case of Jimmy Butler.

Despite the awkward fit in Philadelphia alongside other stars such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, Butler proved his worth and, at times, looked like the 76ers’ best player during the postseason.

Now in Miami, Butler should almost certainly bolster their future outlook, but they are far from done with the roster. Without a subsequent move, they aren’t a championship contender — could Paul be the one to take them a step further?

The reported mutual interest, according to Brian Windhorst, should only fuel the flames, but a deal involving Paul could be as much of a necessity for Miami as it was for Houston.

The HEAT were the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago and Butler is a major upgrade, but the rest of the roster is underwhelming at best. While Butler and Paul could prove an awkward fit basketball-wise, there is no doubt that the two of them together would significantly elevate the HEAT’s ceiling above that level. Miami, unlike many of his other potential suitors, would also have the salary to match Paul’s incoming deal.

But a dispute over draft compensation seems to have tabled discussions until further notice.

Beyond those scenarios, it’s hard to imagine Paul anywhere else next season.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Paul is anywhere other than Oklahoma City to start next season, barring a change of heart (either from Paul regarding a buyout or the HEAT and Thunder regarding potential compensation), anyway.

And so, the long wait for Paul will continue. It would be foolish to doubt him now, after 14 seasons in the NBA, but it’s hard to imagine that Paul will come close to providing adequate value relative to his contract. Ultimately, a potential move may be out of his hands, left up to the teams to determine whether or not Paul is an asset worth acquiring.

So far, it would seem the NBA has deemed him not worth it.

But, it is the NBA and if the offseason thus far is anything to go by, anything could happen.

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