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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Shane Rhodes

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As November draws to a close, the NBA has broached the quarter-season mark. Twenty games may not seem like a lot, but there is plenty that can be taken away from the play of any team through this point in the season.

The 2018-19 season has been quite a surprising one so far, even more so for the teams that reside in the Southwest division. Up and down, the Southwest hasn’t played out how anyone expected it to.

So, how have these teams performed to this point in the season?

Memphis Grizzlies – B+

Grit and Grind hasn’t made a comeback, but the Memphis Grizzlies started this season like it was 2013.

While they have come back down from a surprising start, the 12-8 Grizzlies sit at the top of the division and look much improved from the 22-60 squad they ran out onto the court last season. Mike Conley, who has averaged 20.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.2 steals in 20 games, has rebounded after he missed most of last season due to injury, and his return has galvanized his veteran partner in crime, Marc Gasol.

Gasol has boosted his numbers after an underwhelming 2017; the Spaniard is one of five players this season to average at least 18 points, nine rebounds, one steal and one block per game. Meanwhile, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson and Shelvin Mack have proved capable additions as well.

Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has also played at a high level; the former Michigan State Spartan has averaged 12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, one steal and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 34.9 percent on 2.2 three-point attempts per game.

The Grizzlies weren’t expected by many to lead the division at the quarter mark, or maybe any mark, this season. But, with the New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets underperforming to a significant degree, this is where they have found themselves. They may not hold onto that division all season, but they can consider their year a success thus far.

Dallas Mavericks – B

Luka Dončić has been a marvel to watch this season. The rest of the Dallas Mavericks? Not so much.

The Mavericks suffered an uninspiring 3-8 stretch, with losses to the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks to start the season. However, after a torrid November, featuring wins over the Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks find themselves at 10-9 and second in the Southwest Division. The team would seem to be well ahead of schedule if you asked anyone other than Mark Cuban.

Yes, they have their issues. Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t taken the step forward many hoped for in year two; his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are all down. DeAndre Jordan and Harrison Barnes have both taken a production hit as well. As a team, they are middle of the pack in terms of their offensive and defensive production.

But, with Dončić running the show, there is a lot to like here. The Mavericks may not play this well the whole season, but there is a solid foundation here and they are clearly on the path back to contention.

New Orleans Pelicans – D

Is it time for the Anthony Davis rumor mill to start up again? Now may be as appropriate of a time as any.

The Pelicans sit at just 11-11 on the season and ninth in the Western Conference standings. After a promising 4-0 start, New Orleans went on to lose six straight and have just about managed to tread water in their last 10 games (6-4). Davis, meanwhile, has seen some of his best basketball wasted; in the seven losses that he has played in, Davis has averaged 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, four assists, 1.7 steals and 2.7 blocks.

The issues lie on the defensive side of the ball, where the Pelicans have been one of the worst teams in the league this season. While they boast a high-octane offense based around Davis, Julius Randle, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans are just 26th in the NBA in defensive rating (111.6).

Not the best look when you tout two First Team All-NBA Defensive players like Davis and Holiday.

After a dominating sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers and a somewhat competitive series against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors last postseason, the Pelicans have been a big disappointment this season, to say the least. There is plenty of time to right the ship, but the Pelicans will need to move quickly if they want to avoid the Davis-chatter come February.

San Antonio Spurs – C

With the Kawhi Leonard Saga over and done with, most expected the San Antonio Spurs to be a moderately competitive team out in the Western Conference. They added DeMar DeRozan to a roster that managed a 47-35 record last season without Leonard. On paper, at least, the team seemed capable of matching that effort if not improving on it.

Then came the injuries.

San Antonio has already seen and will continue to see Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker miss significant time. Meanwhile Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Derrick White and others have been in and out of the lineup due to injury. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have managed to hold things steady and, while the Spurs sit at an unspectacular 10-11, they sit just five games behind the Los Angeles Clippers, who hold the top spot in the conference.

Still, while there isn’t much they can do about injuries, the Spurs were just expected to be better. In the face of adversity and with Gregg Popovich at the helm, they always have been. While Murray is a big loss, the team has been mediocre on offense and bad on defense — the Spurs rank 13th (108.7) and 24th (110.9) in offensive and defensive rating this season — despite having their best players, DeRozan and Aldridge, on the floor for every game this season.

The Spurs have been bitten by the injury bug hard. But, barring some drastic turn around, things may not get much better this season.

Houston Rockets – F

If the Pelicans have been a disappointment, the Rockets have been an unmitigated disaster.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Houston has this season. The Carmelo Anthony experiment was a short-lived disappointment. The team has looked awful on both sides of the ball; the Rockets are just 28th in defensive rating (112.6), just 20th in scoring (108.2) and, while they lead the league in three-point attempts per game (42), they are just 24th in three-point percentage (33.8). At 9-11, the Rockets have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the Western Conference, floating just above the lowly Suns.

The Rockets were a game away from the NBA Finals last season. Between Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul, they have enough veteran experience and leadership to turn things around and get back to their winning ways.

But at the season’s quarter mark? It couldn’t get much worse than this.

The NBA regular season is a long one and, at just the quarter mark, there is plenty of time left for every team to either figure things out. Likewise, while the Southwest hasn’t played out as many predicted it to thus far, there is still plenty of time for the standings to shift around.

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2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

The 2019 NBA Free Agent class could be one of the more exciting free agent classes in recent history. Throughout the process, Basketball Insiders will update where players ultimately land and what kind of deals they receive.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2019 NBA Free Agent class could be one of the more exciting free agent classes in recent history. Throughout the process, Basketball Insiders will update where players ultimately land and what kind of deals they receive.

2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

Player Name  Old Team  New Team  Deal Amount
Kawhi Leonard  Toronto Raptors
Kevin Durant  Golden State Warriors
Kyrie Irving  Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker  Charlotte Hornets
Klay Thompson  Golden State Warriors
Jimmy Butler  Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris  Philadelphia 76ers
Khris Middleton  Milwaukee Bucks
Nikola Vucevic  Orlando Magic
D’Angelo Russell  Brooklyn Nets
Malcolm Brogdon  Milwaukee Bucks
JJ Redick  Philadelphia 76ers
DeMarcus Cousins  Golden State Warriors
Al Horford  Boston Celtics
Bojan Bogdanovic  Indiana Pacers
Julius Randle  New Orleans Pelicans
Brook Lopez  Milwaukee Bucks
Paul Millsap  Denver Nuggets
Marc Gasol  Toronto Raptors
DeAndre Jordan  New York Knicks
Harrison Barnes  Sacramento Kings
Marcus Morris  Boston Celtics
Patrick Beverley  Los Angeles Clippers
Nikola Mirotic  Milwaukee Bucks
Thaddeus Young  Indiana Pacers
Terry Rozier  Boston Celtics
Trevor Ariza  Washington Wizards
Jonas Valanciunas  Memphis Grizzlies
Ricky Rubio  Utah Jazz
Kelly Oubre Jr.  Phoenix Suns
Terrence Ross  Orlando Magic
Rudy Gay  San Antonio Spurs
Wesley Matthews  Indiana Pacers
Jeremy Lamb  Charlotte Hornets

The deal values noted here are the reported values of the deals as they have been agreed to. Once the deals are final with the NBA, you can find the exact details on the Basketball Insiders Salary Pages.

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NBA Daily: Free Agency On Deck

The 2019 NBA Free Agency period is upon us, and there are already lots of things in motion. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the notable situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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With the 2019 NBA Draft and its whopping 23 transactions (some still awaiting the new cap year) in the rearview mirror, the 2019 NBA Free Agency period is now on deck.

The NBA moved up some of the normal dates on things related to free agency, such as when teams can schedule meetings and when teams can officially begin talking to players.

Teams can now have contact with agents on June 29th at 6:00 pm EST, specifically for the purpose of scheduling meetings for June 30th.

On June 30th after 6:00 pm, teams may begin meeting and talking with free agents to discuss terms and frameworks of new deals. Those deals cannot become official until Saturday, July 6th, which is the first day contracts and deals can be made.

It is expected that the final salary cap figures will be released on or about the 29th, in advance of free agency opening.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is that the final 2019-2020 salary cap figures will come in a touch higher than the expected $109 million cap teams have been preparing for. That will have an impact on most of the slotted salary figures such as minimums, cap exceptions and maximum contract levels.

While more than 45 percent of the NBA is set to be a free agent this summer, here are some of the notable situations we’re watching:

The Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers caught this first big fish last summer when LeBron James opted to join the Lakers. Less than a year later, the Lakers landed big fish number two in Anthony Davis, who will officially become a Laker on July 6th.

The Lakers have been fairly active trying to find ways to open more salary cap space, and as our own Eric Pincus chronicled for Bleacher Report, there is a path to a full maximum salary slot that doesn’t include dealing team favorite, Kyle Kuzma.

If the Lakers can find a taker for the contracts for Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones in which they take back no material salary, the Lakers can get to about $32 million in usable cap space. That is just $700,000 shy of the max salary slot needed for free agents like Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler or Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, who many in Laker circles believe are the prime targets as the Lakers third star.

It’s unclear why the Lakers did not include the necessary pieces to ensure a full max slot. The truth of the matter is Wagner and Bonga are nice assets that should be easy enough to move into someone’s cap space. The lack of their inclusion may have more to do with wanting certainty on a big fish before giving away nice assets.

While the Lakers do have eyes for a third star and have been fairly aggressive in the back channel feeling out process with free agents, they are also preparing for Plan B scenarios in which their available space gets used on two second-tier players.

It is not at all uncommon for teams not to put their eggs in one basket, but it’s notable for the Lakers – who have drawn significant criticism for not thinking through all the options – to be working multiple options.

While Butler and Walker seem to be the primary players of interest, there has also been considerable talk about Clippers guard Patrick Beverly, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez.

The Rockets Have Dreams

After a pretty damaging report surfaced at Yahoo Sports suggesting that the relationship between Houston Rockets’ guards Chris Paul and James Harden seems broken beyond repair, the Rockets have been doing damage control for the better part of the last week.

While the Rockets have gone to great lengths to quell that report, they have also been fairly aggressive in trying to open up cap space for a third star.

While the Rockets are hopeful they could move some cap money dangling the ending $14.05 million contract of Eric Gordon and the $16.3 million deal of big man Clint Capela, to get to any real, meaningful space, the Rockets would also have to move PJ Tucker.

Unfortunately for Houston, Paul is slated to earn $38.5 million and Harden is slated for $38.15 million. Even if the Rockets could dump all of their contracts for nothing in return, they could still get to roughly $23.3 million in space, which would be roughly $9.3 million shy of a full max slot for a player like Sixers guard Jimmy Butler.

The Celtics Have Money

The Boston Celtics took a couple blows this offseason with the news that All-Star guard Kyrie Irving is likely walking away to the Brooklyn Nets, and cornerstone big man Al Horford opted out of his final contract year and is now expected to command a four-year deal on the open market.

The Celtics have quietly moved enough things around – in the dumping of Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns – to get within striking distance of a maximum salary slot.

Assuming the Celtics pass or pull the Qualifying Offer for Terry Rozier, his $9.1 million cap hold would come off, putting the Celtics at just at $34 million in usable space.

The Celtics have kicked the tires on Houston big man Clint Capela and Thunder big man Steven Adams, but the player the Celtics seem to covet the most is Charlotte guard Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of the New York Times tweeted as much today, which lines up with the ideal scenario painted by some in Boston circles after the draft.

There has been considerable fan interest in Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell as a replacement for Irving. However, it does not seem the Celtics are as high on the list for Russell as Celtics fans would like.

D’Angelo Russell Watch

As covered above, Brooklyn All-Star D’Angelo Russell seems to be in fairly decent demand. The problem for the Nets is that they cannot create the cap space necessary to sign Celtics guard Kyrie Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant and still hang on to Russell’s cap hold. They have the means to get two, and it seems, for now, Russell is third on the list.

If the Nets can land both Irving and Durant, the belief is Russell will hit unrestricted free agency and open up bidding.

For weeks, Russell has been pegged as the favorite of the Indiana Pacers, but it seems more likely that the Pacers are going to pivot to Jazz free agent Ricky Rubio, with Russell appearing not to be as high on Indiana as they are on him.

The New York Knicks are said to have serious interest in Russell should they miss on Irving, which looks likely. Knicks leadership has said repeatedly they were not going to blow their cap flexibility on second tier guys. However, Knicks sources said recently that they do not view a 23-year old obtainable All-Star as second-tier.

There are several other teams supposedly in the hunt on Russell including the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. However, the Suns no longer have a max salary slot after their trades around the draft.

There is a dark horse suitor for Russell, and that’s the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves don’t have cap space to sign Russell outright, but they do at least appear open to trying to take away some salary to land Russell if he indeed becomes unrestricted.

If the Wolves can find a home for Andrew Wiggins and his $27.5 million salary, the Wolves could get awfully close to a max salary slot for Russell.

As we do every year at this time, Basketball Insiders will be tracking the minute by minute activities around the 2019 NBA Free Agency period with our annual Free Agency Diary. The Diary is live now and will be updated throughout the day as rumors and deals start to leak out.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Storylines To Watch For In 2020

Just 10 days into the offseason, Matt John takes a look at what storylines have been created from all that’s happened so far.

Matt John

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If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – the NBA is a year-round sport. Even though the season lasts up to nine months, we never seem to get a break from professional basketball. Honestly though, that’s probably because we don’t want one.

The offseason gives us so much drama that it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off our phone. Woj and Shams “bombs” are like a shot of adrenaline, and we as the audience are basketball junkies anxiously waiting for our next score.

We’re not even two weeks past the NBA finals, and the drama has already started. And it started with a bang. Anthony Davis and LeBron can stake a claim as the league’s fiercest duo. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a Western Conference contender. New Orleans is now a league pass team. The sky is suddenly falling in Boston and Houston. All that New York had hoped for is blowing up in its face. So, just another Tuesday for Knicks fans.

We haven’t even entered the main course of the NBA offseason and we already have some storylines to keep our eyes on for next season. There are going to be plenty more once free agency starts, but let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on when it comes to next season.

Is Lonzo Ball good?

Now we’ve been asking ourselves this question since he came into the league. Lonzo is the most polarizing young player in the league. Some of it comes from the bias, both positive and negative, that he’s had to face in the last two years. Some of it comes from the limited sample sizes we’ve had to watch. Some of it has come from playing for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

There’s no doubt that what Lonzo does well, he does spectacularly. At 6-foot-6, he brings so many rare qualities to the court. He has excellent handles, boasts a court vision that not many others in the league has and can get after the rebound. He’s even shown that he can make life hell for anyone who tries to take him one-on-one.

But his holes are clear as day. His funky shooting form has not held up well since transitioning to the NBA. He hasn’t shown much of a scoring instinct. He can’t seem to stay on the floor. Still, he was the second overall pick for a reason.

Now here comes perhaps the real test for him. New Orleans could be the perfect team for him. Now that he’s no longer in LeBron’s shadow, Ball should have the ball in his hands more often than not. Alvin Gentry has a reputation for having his teams run the floor – the Pelicans tied for second in pace last season (103.3) – which should make Lonzo feel right at home. Jrue Holiday, one of the better all-around point guards in the league, should be the perfect complement to him as a playmaker, shooter and defender.

Oh, and you’ve probably already fantasized about how beautiful those Lonzo-to-Zion alley-oops are going to look four months from now.

There will be challenges up ahead, like how Lonzo is going to do now that he’ll be a more featured player for his team. New Orleans needs more three-point shooting, as it was ranked 24th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 21st in attempts on average (10.3). Lonzo’s a career 31.5 percent shooter from three, and even with the haul they got from the Lakers, not a whole lot of the new guys space the floor, which could hurt Lonzo’s ability to space the floor.

Now that Lonzo no longer has the pressure to contribute to a winner right away, time is now on his side. Progress may come quickly or it may come slow, but as long as he avoids the injury bug, we can finally see what the guy is made out of this season.

Can Donovan Mitchell be relied on in the playoffs?

Spida has been exceeding expectations from the moment he entered the league. It’s not every day you see a late lottery pick be the leader of a pseudo-contender in the first two years of his pro career.

You can’t honestly complain about what he’s been able to do for Utah since the team has had to endure through losing Gordon Hayward. What can you do is point out his flaws, and he’s got a few.

Mitchell can definitely put the ball in the bucket, as he’s averaged 22 points in his brief career so far. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best shooting percentages, as he’s put up splits of 43/35/80 over his last two years. Those numbers only get worse in the playoffs. While his scoring average is slightly better at 23.4 points a game, his shooting falls off a cliff, shooting 39/23/89 splits.

Utah has shown that it can’t afford to have its young franchise cornerstone struggle on the game’s biggest stage, as they’ve been eliminated two consecutive times in gentleman’s sweeps at the hands of the Rockets. Not that it’s entirely on his shoulders, but if Donovan struggles, so do the Jazz.

Jazz fans will point out without a second’s hesitation that his low efficiency is because the team does not have another scoring threat to take the pressure off of him. Definitely a valid point. Utah has not had a secondary scoring threat to ease the burden put on Mitchell. No help in that department would make life hard for anyone in the league. That won’t be a problem anymore Utah now that they made their summer splash with Mike Conley.

Conley should be exactly what the doctor ordered. An experienced vet who’s scoring and playmaking abilities should do wonders both for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Technically, he has no All-Star appearances to his name – and probably won’t now that his prime will most likely end in the West – but anyone who’s watched him knows how much this should improve the Jazz.

Now that Conley has arrived, we’re finally going to see how Donovan will do now that he won’t have to take the entire scoring burden by himself. The Jazz still have some issues to take care of such as their now desperate need for a stretch-four, but with Conley on board, we’ll at least see what Mitchell’s true ceiling is now.

What is Danny Ainge going to do with his newfound cap space?

Once upon a time, the Boston Celtics had the most promising future in the NBA. Now, what’s happened to them is indescribable.

Losing Kyrie Irving was always in the back of Celtics fans’ mind that by the time reports started circulating that he wasn’t coming back, they were okay with it. Al Horford’s departure was the real gut punch. There was never any drama that came with Horford, and he did all he could for Boston. Seeing him gone is going to hurt both on and off the court.

Silver lining: Horford and Irving’s departures, along with the recent Aron Baynes trade to Phoenix, opens up a lot of cap room for Boston. In fact, if the Celtics renounce Terry Rozier’s cap hold – $9+ million – they will have enough room to add a player with a max contract.

How Danny Ainge uses it is something people should watch out for. The Celtics now have a gaping hole at center with both Horford and Baynes gone, so odds are they may use it on a center. Combine buzz said that the Celtics were looking at Clint Capela, which could still be in play this summer if Houston really wants cap relief.

They could also look to take Steven Adams off the Thunder’s hands or pay up for Nikola Vucevic. Knowing Ainge, it’s very possible what he does is mess with other teams who have guys they can’t afford to lose but don’t want to pay top dollar for.

Brooklyn did this for two years when they gave rich offer sheets to Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter so that their teams would have to pay up for them. Ainge doesn’t have a history of doing that, but he does have a history of ripping off other teams.

For example, take the Milwaukee Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon will be on the open market this summer, and the Bucks cannot afford to lose him. Should Ainge give him a max contract, the Bucks would have no choice but to match it since they want to stay a contender with Giannis. There are plenty of scenarios like this. He could do this with Khris Middleton. He could do this with Vucevic. He could do this to anyone who is valuable to get paid a lot, but not enough that he would deserve a max.

The Celtics are going through pretty much their worst nightmare right now, but losing their star players is more of a setback than a doomsday scenario. If there’s one man who has shown that he can rebuild as quickly as possible, it’s Danny Ainge. They’re not going to get a star this summer, but counting out the Celtics is ill-advised because, like always, they usually have something up their sleeve.

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