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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the five teams in the Southwest.

Jordan Hicks

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Throughout the week, Basketball Insiders has released post-deadline rankings on teams in various divisions around the NBA, and next up is the Southwest Division.

The Southwest is incredibly diverse this season. It features a team that is gunning for the NBA Finals, teams that can’t decide to what extent they want to tank and everything in between.

Regardless of where the teams stand, there was plenty of movement throughout. Let’s take a look at what changes occurred and how it will affect their respective team’s record through the end of the season.

Houston Rockets (33-24)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Iman Shumpert from the Kings

The Rockets are certainly in a different place compared to where they were at this point last season. They still have a winning record, they still appear to be headed to the playoffs and James Harden is still playing ball at a historical level – yet they have about 10 less wins.

Harden is in the midst of one of the greatest offensive stretches of all time. He’s now notched 30 or more points for 30 straight games, joining an elite list featuring himself and Wilt Chamberlain. Despite his heroic efforts, injuries to key players Chris Paul and Clint Capela – coupled with the offseason departure of key players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – have severely limited any success the Rockets were due.

The Rockets were able to acquire Kenneth Faried in the buyout market a few weeks before the trade deadline and his presence has helped the hobbled Rockets to a 7-5 record over the period. He’s playing the best basketball of his career, likely a result of being on the same court as Harden.

Adding Shumpert via trade allowed the Rockets to get below the luxury tax as well as bolster their defensive presence on the wing. Losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute severely hurt the Rockets’ defensive abilities, so adding Shumpert will certainly hamper the bleeding on that end of the court. With Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul healthy, the Rockets are quite productive on offense, so Iman will certainly help Houston get key stops on the defensive end of the court.

While Shumpert doesn’t totally improve the Rocket’s chances of a repeat to the Western Conference Finals, his acquisition definitely doesn’t hurt.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

San Antonio Spurs (33-26)

Deadline Moves: N/A

The Spurs decided to stand pat this trade deadline – just like they have the last few years. This wasn’t necessarily a bad move as they would’ve likely needed to make some major moves to essentially move the needle, and that just wasn’t going to happen.

Pau Gasol has fallen out of the rotation, but he’s getting too old to garner any serious interest in the trade market. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were both likely off the table due to the fact that they are the main reasons the Spurs are even still in the playoff race. And if the Spurs keep up their play, their first-round pick in 2019 will likely not be that prized as it would essentially unfold in the latter half of the upcoming draft.

With the sudden departure of Kawhi Leonard, most Spurs followers were probably expecting to miss the playoffs in the stacked West. Lo and behold, they are in the thick of the playoff race and don’t appear to be dropping out anytime soon.

In order to get back to championship contention, San Antonio will likely need to retool their roster. Aldridge and DeRozan are both leaving their primes, and their only significant young piece to build off of is Dejounte Murray, who was sidelined the entire season to an ACL tear.

The Spurs clearly have a lot of questions to tackle this offseason, so not wasting resources for a potential first-round exit was likely a smart move.

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Dallas Mavericks (26-31)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. from the Knicks and Justin Jackson from the Kings

The Mavericks likely made the biggest splash during the trade deadline and were certainly responsible for the first major domino falling.

They essentially traded their entire starting five – sans Wonderboy Luka Doncic – and added valuable assets for the future. Porzingis will likely not suit up this season as he continues to rehab his knee from an ACL tear last season at this time. But pairing him with a shoo-in Rookie of the Year winner in Doncic can definitely lead to a fun dynasty in Dallas.

Taking on Hardaway’s contract was definitely part of the deal, but Hardaway at least adds a decent amount of value on the offensive end.

Shedding Harrison Barnes salary in a trade with Sacramento can very well open up a max slot this summer, and Dallas is banking on bringing in a third star to pair with the future Porzingis-Doncic duo.

The trade was definitely not made to bolster their chances of the playoffs this season – if anything it made the odds of them making it much worse – but Dallas is in a good a place as any team in the league moving forward.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Memphis Grizzlies (23-36)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Jonas Valanciunas from the Raptors and Avery Bradley from the Clippers

This was a very strange deadline for the Grizzlies. Both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the two players essential to the aging Grit-and-Grind era, were made heavily available in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Memphis ended up sending Gasol to Toronto, but for whatever reason couldn’t find a home for Conley – despite heavy interest from a handful of teams.

Conley, who isn’t getting any younger, is now stuck on a team that isn’t quite sure what direction they want to go in. It seemed very apparent that he was going to be traded – you could see it in his face during his last couple of interviews as a Grizzly – but for whatever reason, Memphis decided that no team was willing to offer their specific asking price.

There is still a chance that Conley is moved over the summer, but it’s obvious Memphis will not get nearly the same haul they were asking for this past deadline.

Keeping Conley on the roster will certainly not improve their chances of a higher draft pick, so it will be interesting to see how Memphis uses him through the rest of the season.

As for new additions to the team, Wright has an opportunity to get more minutes at point guard than what he was getting in Toronto. Valanciunas will automatically be plugged into the starting center role, and if you look at his numbers so far this season, he’ll likely provide the same punch Gasol did on offense.

Avery Bradley is an ideal fit for Memphis, but are the Grizzlies still trying to win? Only time will tell.

Projected Finish: 4th Place

New Orleans Pelicans (25-33)

Deadline Moves: N/A

While the Pelicans didn’t make any moves, one could argue that keeping Anthony Davis in and of itself was an acquisition. After he demanded a trade, it felt almost imminent that he would be sent elsewhere. We know that the Lakers actually offered multiple deals, and other teams showed a legitimate interest, but at the end of the day, general manager Dell Demps decided to hold onto Davis until at least the summer.

They ended up sending Nikola Mirotic off for four second-round picks but weren’t able to find homes for Julius Randle or Davis – players they were actively shopping.

Reports are surfacing that the Pelicans wanted to sit Davis out the entire rest of the season, but that NBA did not want them to do that. This makes things even more difficult for a franchise that for some reason couldn’t find success with arguably a top-five player on their roster.

New Orleans would be better off losing a handful of games as the season continues in hopes of landing a higher draft pick in the summer. But being forced to play Davis could certainly complicate things. Look for a few teams to call the Pelicans in the summer about both Davis and Jrue Holiday – each has at least one year left on their contracts and will likely want to play for teams competing for a championship.

They probably could have gotten decent offers for both Holiday and Randle before the deadline, but by not pulling the trigger, it’s obvious they are hoping for some better offers after the season.

Projected Finish: 5th Place

Like mentioned previously, this division is diverse with both win-now and build-now teams. A lot can change in a short time, as the Pelicans were likely penciled in as the second best team in the Southwest to start the season. The future didn’t look all that bright in Dallas at the end of last season, but after drafting a future perennial All-Star in Doncic and pulling multiple savvy moves before the deadline, their future is gleaming.

While none of these teams appear ready to make a championship run this postseason, let’s not forget that the Rockets were only one game – some may say one hamstring – away from dethroning the Golden State Warriors in the West last year. They are clearly a less talented team than last season, but their mainstays are still there. If healthy, they could definitely make noise a second year in a row.

As for the rest of the conference, no one really made any “win-now” acquisitions. As such, the remaining four teams will look to develop their current rosters over the break. That, coupled with any surprise free agent signings, could easily have just about every one of them back in the postseason next year.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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