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NBA Daily: ICYMI Pacific Division

Next up in our ICYMI series, David Yapkowitz takes a look at the Pacific Division.

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Just over a month into the 2020-2021 season, there have been some interesting storylines that have developed across the league. And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a division-by-division look at some of those developments that might have gone unnoticed to the general eye.

So far, the Pacific Division has shaped up a little bit as expected; the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers have risen to the top of both the division and league standings, the Sacramento Kings are still a head-scratching mess and both the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, even without Klay Thompson, have either improved or, at the very least, been competitive. That isn’t to say the division has seen its fair share of surprises, however. But what, or who, has surprised, exactly? Let’s take a look.

The Clippers Veteran Depth

There’s no question that the Clippers are one of the deepest teams in the league. They’ve got their two superstars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, while their versatile roster has given them the ability to play multiple different styles.

But what’s really stood out through the first month of the season are the contributions coming from the non-star veterans, specifically Reggie Jackson and Patrick Patterson. Neither player figured to be a regular in the team’s rotation to start the year and, for the most part, that’s held true. But a few recent injuries have opened up opportunities for both and they’ve taken full advantage.

Patrick Beverley, the Clippers starting point guard, is currently out with a knee injury. In his absence, Jackson has stepped in and provided the team with a huge boost. On Jan. 22, Jackson received a DNP against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s since been inserted into the starting lineup and has not only provided a steadying presence at the point guard position, but has been a consistent three-point shooter and solid defender as well. Jackson is currently shooting 39.1 percent from distance, the third-highest mark of his career.

Patterson figured to be even less involved for Clippers and, again, that’s mostly held true; Patterson has played in just eight games this season. But, when on the floor, he has flashed some solid production. After five-straight DNP’s, Patterson came off the bench on Jan. 17 in a win over the Indiana Pacers and contributed 10 points on 50 percent shooting from downtown. Later, in a start in the absence of Nicolas Batum on Jan. 31, Patterson chipped in 13 points on 5-5 from the field, including 3-3 from three-point range, in a win over the New York Knicks.

As the season progresses and rotations tighten, neither Jackson nor Patterson should figure to be a major cog in the rotation. But the fact that these two veteran are ready for whenever their name might be called would bode well for the Clippers come the postseason.

Richaun Holmes Impressing in Sacramento

Inconsistency has marred the Kings this season. At times, they’ve looked like a team ready to turn the corner and fight for a playoff spot. Others, they’ve looked like a team ready to continue the league’s longest active postseason-less streak.

With that in mind, it’s been easy to miss some of their bright spots, including Richaun Holmes. In his time with the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns, Holmes quietly established himself as one of the best backup centers in the NBA. But, this year, Holmes has emerged as a full-time starter for the Kings — and his production has soared.

Holmes is averaging a career-high in points (12.9), assists (2.0), blocked shots (1.8), field goal percentage (67.3 percent) and free-throw percentage (79.6 percent), while his 7.9 rebounds per game are also the second-best of his career. He’s become one of the best pick and roll bigs in the league and he’s a workhorse on the glass. Defensively, he’s been very effective as both a mobile big and rim protector.

And the Kings, who signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal back in July 2019, have him on a bargain of a deal for the rest of this season.

If he can keep up his current level of play, Holmes will be in line for a solid payday this offseason.

Cameron Johnson Earning his Keep

When the Suns took Cameron Johnson in the 2019 draft, there were questions as to whether they had made another boneheaded draft decision. Many considered Johnson little more than a shooter with relatively low upside, certainly not the lottery talent akin to where Phoenix had selected him.

But, as we fast-forward to this season, those critics couldn’t have been more wrong.

In his sophomore season, Johnson has emerged as a crucial part of an improved Suns squad with legitimate postseason aspirations. He started the season as a sparkplug off the bench but, on Jan. 18 against the Memphis Grizzlies, he entered Phoenix’s starting lineup and hasn’t looked back. Since, Johnson has averaged 9.7 points per game.

Johnson has certainly lived up to his college reputation as a shooter, but what’s truly been impressive is his willingness to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. It’s not his best mode of attack, but Johnson has improved tremendously on the drive and, at times, has even looked like a seasoned veteran attacking the paint.

In any case, he’s become an overall dependable player for the Suns, the kind of player they’ll need to get back to the postseason for the first time since the 2009-10 season and be any sort of contender once they get there.

As it stands, these guys have been flying under the radar a little bit to too much for the fans at large, but they certainly have been noticed by their teams. But they won’t be the only ones; as the season progresses, more and more players or storylines should pop up and surprise us. Make sure to keep an eye out for them.

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Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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