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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Pacific Division

Jesse Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Pacific Division.

Jesse Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders started off this week by giving the Central Division teams grades for their respective performances through the first quarter of the NBA season. We continue the grading by taking a look at the Pacific Division, which features a few teams that are beating early-season expectations, including the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings. While some teams have earned high marks early this season, the Pacific Division and the NBA still belongs to the Golden State Warriors, who have run into some drama this season but still have the best overall talent.

With all of this in mind, let’s get to the grades:

Los Angeles Clippers – A

It is almost December and the Clippers hold the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. There was a small group of people who had guarded optimism about the Clippers before the start of the 2018-19 season but no one predicted that the Clippers would stand atop the Western Conference standings at this point in the season. Considering this, it’s hard to argue that the Clippers have earned anything less than an A through the first quarter of the season.

Beyond the fact that the Clippers are winning at a high rate, this team is almost a complete contrast to the “Lob City” era, which came to an end last season. Unlike the Clippers teams led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, this team has no elite star player and the players clearly enjoy playing with one another.

Tobias Harris is having a career-year thus far and is lining himself up for a nice payday when he hits the free agent market after the offseason. Danilo Gallinari has been healthy for the most part and is knocking down three-pointers and getting to the line frequently. Gilgeous-Alexander has been arguably the most consistent guard in spite of the fact that he plays alongside proven veterans like Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley. Lou Williams continues to be an offensive force off the bench. Additionally, Montrezl Harrell has been a force on both ends of the court so far this season. He has become a lethal offensive weapon as a rolling big man out of the pick and roll and has become an effective defender and shot blocker as well despite being an undersized center.

The Clippers have defeated some of the best teams in the league, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Clippers may come down to earth at some point this season but for now they have done more than enough to earn an A.

Los Angeles Lakers – B

Signing LeBron James was an amazing step forward for the Lakers. But the subsequent signings of Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley left many to wonder whether the Lakers would make the playoffs this season – even with James leading the charge. We knew there would be an adjustment period for this team early on, but the Lakers’ defense was hemorrhaging points in the first few weeks of the season and James stated he was losing his patience.

Fortunately for the Lakers, Tyson Chandler and the Phoenix Suns agreed to a buyout, which made it possible for him to sign with L.A. Chandler isn’t putting up impressive box score statistics but his presence on the court is making a positive impact for the Lakers. The Lakers are holding teams to 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 10th in the NBA. That is a massive leap forward from where the Lakers were just a few weeks ago. Though that may have something to do with the fact that they have faced some teams with less-than-stellar offenses in their last few matchups. Chandler is limited at this point in his career but it’s clear that he is providing a level of defensive competency at center that the team had been missing.

The Lakers will likely continue to have ups and downs throughout the season considering how many new rotation players they have and continue to integrate this season. However, after a conqueringly rocky start, it’s fair to say the Lakers have stabilized the ship and earned a solid B.

 Sacramento Kings – A

The Kings have failed to make the playoffs since the 2005-06 season (when players like Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Shareef Abdur-Rahim were still in the NBA). Between this long playoff drought and several avoidable missteps along the way, it was fair to not expect much from this year’s team. However, Sacramento has been of the surprise stories so far this season, posting a 10-10 record and holding the eighth seed in the deep Western Conference.

The Kings have managed this behind the efforts of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica and Marvin Bagley, whom the Kings drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. Fox has been pushing the pace for the Kings, who are ranked second in overall pace so far this season, trailing only the Atlanta Hawks. The Kings’ offense isn’t setting the league on fire as it ranks just 19th in efficiency (per 100 possessions), but on any given night they can put a significant amount of pressure on their opponents with speed and shooting. On that front, Buddy Hield has been hitting 45.1 percent of his 5.7 three-point attempts per game, while Nemanja Bjelica has knocked down 50.7 percent of his 3.4 three-point attempts per game.

Simply put, several of the Kings’ young players have taken a step forward and are contributing at a higher level than anticipated entering this season. Sacramento has stumbled a bit of late, losing six of their last eight games, but several of those losses came against tough opponents like the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans.

Don’t expect the Kings to make the postseason but let’s give them credit for taking a big step forward so far this season and beating everyone’s expectations so far.

Phoenix Suns – D-

The Suns are currently dead last in the Western Conference with a 4-15 record. Considering how young the Suns’ key players are, it’s not surprising that they are already effectively eliminated from playoff contention. The problem is, however, that Phoenix made moves to be competitive this season, such as signing Trevor Ariza to a one-year $15 million deal and acquiring veteran sharpshooter Ryan Anderson. Despite these moves, the Suns currently rank 28th in offensive and defensive efficiency and have been an easy win for most of their opponents thus far this season. Additionally, the Suns have thus far failed to address their glaring hole at point guard and have not let Devin Booker take over as the team’s lead playmaker.

The good news is that their core players, like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, have posted solid numbers thus far. Booker’s shooting percentages are concerning (32.3 percent from beyond the arc), but he is posting 24.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Additionally, Ayton has looked solid on both ends of the court and is posting 16.9 points, 10.4 rebound, 2.8 assists, 0.6 assists and 0.7 blocks per game.

All things considered, it’s hard to have much optimism for the Suns’ performance so far this season. This is especially true when there was so much optimism about the offensive and defensive system head coach Igor Kokoskov was putting in place this season.

Golden State Warriors – C+

The Warriors currently hold the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 15-7 record. Golden State is also posting some of the best offensive numbers in the league, while struggling defensively, especially in the recent absence of Draymond Green. So why are we giving the Warriors a C+? Because of the locker room drama that became public in the Warriors’ recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in which Green berated Kevin Durant for a variety of issues, including his impending free agency. These issues have calmed a bit but there are reports that the issue has not gone away completely and may not until there is more clarity regarding Durant’s free agency.

The other issue goes back to the team’s defense. The Warriors have mostly been known as an offensive powerhouse during their recent run. However, Golden State has also been a juggernaut defensively, with Green anchoring the team, often times at center. Green hasn’t been quite as effective this season in that role and no other player has stepped up to fill in for that loss. It could be the case that Green will bounce back when he returns from his recent injury, but that isn’t clear at this point. Green has also fallen off as a three-point threat this season, shooting just 22.2 percent on 2.1 attempts per game. Green may recover on this front once Steph Curry is healthy and able to create the space and time for Green to get his shot off from distance, which has been missing during his absence.

The Warriors still have far and away the league’s best roster and is maintaining the No. 2 seed while struggling with injuries and locker room drama, so we aren’t sounding the alarms yet. But as far as assessing a grade through the first quarter of the season, we think a C+ is appropriate.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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