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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch – Northwest Division

Someone unexpected may shift the balance of power in the Northwest Division, but who? Douglas Farmer takes a look at the top possibilities.

Douglas Farmer



In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, multiple playoff bids may be determined by presently unexpected or unproven players. Every game matters, particularly as franchises begin counting up the wins and losses headed into the springtime. Superstars can carry a roster, but it’s the breakout that helps them rise above their ceilings. Whether it be through renewed health, a new opportunity or old-fashioned development, a breakout player in the right situation could shift seeding, at the very least.

That may not be truer anywhere than in the Northwest Division, with three bona fide playoff teams, one with faint hopes of reaching the postseason and another that just might have a roster talented enough to play into May if it remains intact past the All-Star break. Today, Basketball Insiders kicks off a week of breakout-related analysis by predicting candidates for each team ahead of the preseason.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

If hype precludes a player from breaking out, then disregard this notice. But the working definition of a breakout player is one who significantly improves. In that respect, Porter has an advantage on the rest of the league, given that he logged exactly zero minutes last season and then didn’t even partake in this past Summer League — the latter circumstance due to a knee sprain suffered in practice.

Still, of course, Porter remains an unknown commodity, yet also the exact piece needed to accelerate the Nuggets’ growth. As a 6-foot-10 wing who can keep up with Jamal Murray in transition and knock down shots from deep to provide proper spacing for Nikola Jokić, Porter’s contributions will show up both on the court and in the box score.

“He’s a really good shooter. He can post up guys. He can go by guys. He’s a really talented player,” Jokić told The Denver Post. “We didn’t have a player like that just size-wise (last year).”

Clearly, Denver is already fanning the flames around Porter’s potential.

Yes, those are in-house highlights released with the explicit purpose of exciting fans, but they are also some of the first glimpses of Porter in action in years. If the reality of Porter compares at all to the theory of him, his breakout could push the Nuggets to the top of the West.

Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers

Collins got lost in some of the shuffle this offseason as the Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore, lauded Anfernee Simmons as their next great backcourt piece and preached patience in awaiting Jusuf Nurkić’s return from injury. Collins’ modest 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year certainly did not much boost notice — well, at least for a little while.

With Nurkić sidelined in the playoffs, though, Collins posted 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He may have been playing only 17.2 minutes per game, but that was still a hefty contribution for a team that reached the Western Conference Finals. Collins’ strong defense remains a key factor and his growth is one of the greatest Portland-related plotlines to consider in 2019-20.

Given the severity of his broken leg, Nurkić may not be himself even if or when he returns this season. In that case, Portland may be better served relying on a youthful upstart in Collins rather than a tenured question mark in Whiteside.

Dante Exum, Utah Jazz

Part of the reason the Jazz are such a popular preseason pick for postseason success is the roster is filled with proven contributors. Of the top-six rotation players, arguably Donovan Mitchell or Bojan Bogdanović is the least established, the former a burgeoning superstar and the latter a six-year veteran. Both Utah and the world know what the peak of that roster brings to the table, with the exception of Exum. His health the last four seasons simply has not allowed him to make an imprint of note.

As much as bringing in Mike Conley and Bogdanović may lessen the scoring and creating workload on Mitchell, neither will fare well against physical point guards. Conley is only 6-foot-1 and Bogdanović is better suited against wings. Neither Portland’s Damian Lillard (6-foot-3) or Denver’s Jamal Murray (6-foot-4) is a towering player, but each will likely find success against Coney and/or Bogdanović.

That may be where Exum factors in. He stands 6-foot-6 and is still only 24. He should be able to handle stretches defending the best guards in the conference if the Jazz need that stopgap. Utah knows where its scoring will come from, and its backline of defense remains the league’s best thanks to Rudy Gobert, but funneling ball handlers into Gobert will still be a priority, and an avenue Exum can take to consistent playing time.

Exum remains a Hall of Fame member of the Sky-High Potential, But Always Hurt team — but it’s tough to leave him off this list nonetheless. Maybe, this year, finally, is Exum’s time to shine and, if so, the Jazz will be that much scarier.

Jake Layman, Minnesota Timberwolves

Of the Timberwolves’ moves this offseason, only one looked beyond the coming year. Minnesota signed Layman to a three-year, $11.2 million deal, the length more pertinent than the amount. Minnesota has intentions of developing the 6-foot-9 forward next to franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, not just bringing Layman in to eat minutes until the next free-agent chase.

Layman’s and Towns’ roles do not overlap, either. If anything, Layman’s best offensive skill should complement Towns’ work from the high post, and even outside the arc, as an underrated passer.

“His ability to cut to the basket is really good,” Minnesota point guard Shabazz Napier said at Media Day. “He’s able to slash, shoot the ball tremendously well. He’s a high-flyer, very athletic. His IQ for the game, he understands what to do and what not to do.”

It was one thing for Napier to offer these compliments, but it was another for forward Jordan Bell to immediately nod vigorously at the mention of Layman’s cuts. Presumably, Bell has fallen victim to a cut or two in preseason workouts.

Layman may not manage much more than 10 or 11 points per game, but that could be a solid fit alongside Towns, something the Wolves are desperate for as they attempt to build the “sustainable” model first-year president Gersson Rosas seeks.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

For all the praise Gilgeous-Alexander deservedly received in his rookie season, he still averaged only 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. Whether or not the Thunder find a way to move Chris Paul and his onerous contract, Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers should skyrocket to such an extent that his initials will no longer be a litmus test to discern an NBA fan’s breadth of basketball intellect.

That will be especially true as a strong season from him will alter public perception of the Paul George trade. Moving a top-tier point guard of the future for what could be only two seasons from an injured wing may not age as well as presumed all offseason. To wit, the Los Angeles Clippers originally wanted to keep Gilgeous-Alexander at all costs, but eventually budged only once two MVP-worthy candidates were on the table.

Oklahoma City’s roster is an utter curiosity at this point, but the one piece head coach Billy Donovan knows is not going anywhere is Gilgeous-Alexander. Pushing him to the forefront of the scheme will help the Thunder both in the short- and the long-term. And with Paul — one of the greatest guards in league history — he’s got the mentor to make things happen as well.

Whichever of these players breaks out, that so-called X-Factor could have an impact on the Western Conference playoff race, particularly the top three possibilities. Naturally, there could be another name altogether unexpected. Perhaps Minnesota starting point guard Jeff Teague suffers another injury and Napier stars in relief, maybe Nerlens Noel will shine in a contract year for Oklahoma City or it could be Mario Hezonja that becomes the third piece of Portland’s backcourt.

The unforeseen keep things entertaining — but if anybody wants to pull away from the pack in the Northwest Division, the breakout watch should be highly entertaining.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer


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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky



In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.


Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.


After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky



It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco



With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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