We’re about a week into the 2020-21 regular season and, while it’s still early, there’s been a number of interesting developments across the league. And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking those developments into account as we set out to rank each team within their respective divisions. Yes, most teams have only played between 4-5 games, but we can make some seriously educated guesses as to how the rest of their season’s might shape up.
We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern Conference — the Atlantic, Central and Southeast Divisions — and now we’ll turn our attention to the Western Conference and, more specifically, the Pacific Division.
Golden State Warriors (2-2)
How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago that the Golden State Warriors were automatically penciled in as the West’s representative in the NBA Finals. Then Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry got hurt, and the Warriors found themselves in the lottery for the first time since 2012.
Despite those setbacks, the team looked healthy and, with James Wiseman in tow, like they were ready to jump right back into the playoff mix. But it wasn’t to be — Thompson suffered a season-ending injury just before the season began. Meanwhile, Draymond Green has yet to play due to a sore foot and Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. have not made near the impact on the court the team hoped they would. Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick, has shown flashes of his talent, but he’s still a rookie adjusting to the NBA game with no summer league and no real preseason or training camp.
Obviously there’s still plenty of time for Warriors to turn this around. With Green’s return, if the team can jell and find a flow on offense, they could even make a run at the postseason. But, as of right now, that would not appear to be in the cards — the Western Conference is too good, with too many teams already vying for a playoff spot.
Sacramento Kings (3-1)
The Sacramento Kings are in an interesting spot. They currently hold the NBA’s longest active streak of missing the playoffs at 14 seasons. They mishandled Bogdan Bogdanovic’s free agency and he ended up leaving for nothing.
But, they did manage to make a huge, long-term move this offseason as they signed De’Aaron Fox to a max contract extension. As their franchise face and a borderline All-Star, it was imperative the Kings’ brass avoid a similar scenario to Bogdanovic’s at all costs. And, this season, Fox has rewarded them for that effort with some outstanding play which, in turn, has fueled a strong start to the season for Sacramento.
In four games, Fox has averaged 20.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, a block and a steal per game. Meanwhile, he’s upped his three-point and free throw percentage by more than 10 points each, as he’s shot 40 percent and 80.8 percent, respectively, to start the season. That strong play (and continued growth) is exactly what the Kings wanted to see from their rising star and, if he can keep on track throughout the season, the Kings may very well find themselves in the postseason hunt as the season winds down.
Of course, there’s more reasons for optimism beyond Fox. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento’s most recent lottery pick, has looked solid in the early goings. Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes, both of whom missed time last season due to injury, appear healthy and more than ready to contribute. In Bagley’s case, it could be his make or break season as he looks to prove himself worthy of being the No. 2 overall pick back in 2018.
Now, with that said, the Kings are still a major question mark. They could easily end up slipping behind the Warriors in the division, or — and this is what management can only hope for — they could just as easily find themselves neck and neck with the Phoenix Suns as one of the West’s newest competitors.
Phoenix Suns (3-1)
The Suns made arguably the best move this offseason, bringing in multi-time All-Star Chris Paul. Last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul showed he was still capable of elite level play and now, for Phoenix, he’ll look to do the same. Not only should Paul make the game so much easier for the Suns two young building blocks, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but he’ll improve the team’s ability to close out games in the fourth quarter and should bring an attitude to the locker room that it has sorely lacked in recent years.
In addition to Paul, both Booker and Ayton looked poised to continue their upward trajectory. Booker has come out firing on all cylinders while Ayton, who put on a strong performance in the NBA Bubble back in July and August, is still getting warmed. Whatever Paul may bring, the Suns’ postseason dreams sit primarily with these two — if they struggle, it this season may not be the franchise turnaround everyone expected after they went 8-0 down in Orlando.
A welcome development for the Suns so far has been the play of Cameron Johnson. A year ago, some questioned his high selection in the draft, which he followed up with a decent, but not great, rookie season. That said, Johnson’s been on fire to start the 2020-21 season, especially from three-point range.
Alongside Paul, the team also added veterans Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twuan Moore, among others. Crowder was instrumental in the Miami HEAT’s NBA Finals bid last season, while Galloway and Moore should help create plenty of space for the offense to operate.
Los Angeles Clippers (3-1)
The Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove. A proverbial favorite to win the title last season, Los Angeles flamed out against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, despite the fact that, at one point, they held a commanding 3-1 series lead. Paul George has since been signed to a max-extension, but Kawhi Leonard could hit free agency as early as the coming summer, should he decline his player option.
It’s entirely possible that this season represents the Clippers best and, more importantly, last shot to win a championship with their current group. And, that said, it hasn’t been the best start to the season.
After an impressive 2-0 start against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nuggets, the Clippers suffered their worst loss as a franchise, a 124-73 drubbing by the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, Leonard took an inadvertent elbow to the face, from his own teammate, mind you, and has yet to play since — not exactly what want to see in an all-0ut bid to win a title.
Still, the majority of Los Angeles’ offseason acquisitions have been positive. Namely, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard have all looked like solid adds, while each of them has added a new dimension to the offense and defense that they just didn’t have last year.
And, despite those early season mishaps, the Clippers still present the biggest challenge to the Lakers coming out of the West again. Their defense remains a strength, while Tyronn Lue has moved away from the isolation heavy offense Doc Rivers ran last season. And, save for the Dallas game, it has done the trick. If they can keep it up on that end, and get Leonard back on the floor, Los Angeles may very well prove the favorite everyone expected them to be a season ago.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-2)
Somehow, the 29 other teams let the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers get even better. Not only did they upgrade the frontcourt, replacing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrel (also hurting the Clippers in the process), but the backcourt additions of Dennis Schroeder and Wes Matthews should give the lineup a bit more energy than Danny Green and Rajon Rondo were able to bring, even if Matthews hasn’t gotten going yet.
In the early going, Gasol’s playmaking at the center position has enabled LeBron James to play even more off ball. Meanwhile, Harrell has picked up where he left off before the bubble as one of the NBA’s top reserves. Schroder’s offensive punch is something the Lakers severely lacked at either guard spot, while he has been the same, if not better, defensively than what they got from the position a season ago.
Health would seem the only major obstacle that could keep Los Angeles from another Finals berth. Anthony Davis tweaked his ankle in their Christmas Day win over the Mavericks and later sat out of their contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves and looked limited against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Laker loss. James, while he has yet to miss any time, has also looked slightly hobbled with an ankle injury.
Still, as of now, the Pacific is the Lakers to lose. Barring something drastic, expect them to once again make a deep run into the postseason.
The Pacific Division is home to arguably the two best teams in the NBA in the Lakers and Clippers. Meanwhile, the Suns and Kings are much improved, both looking to climb back into the postseason for the first time in a long time. And, despite their tough start, it’s still far too early to write off the Warriors, as well. The West is going to be tough this year and the Pacific is going to be a good reflection of that.
Point-Counter Point: Where Should The NBA Expand?
For the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion. The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the topic of NBA expansion, which for the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion,
The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?
The most popular candidate among cities that haven’t been home to an NBA franchise previously is Las Vegas, whihc makes a ton of sense and has to be a heavy favorite if the NBA does expand.
The market and potential for revenue have long made sense from a financial perspective, but the stigma around ‘Sin City’ was an issue. Things have changed quickly, though, and professional sports and the public, in general, are much more accepting of sports gambling than in previous years.
The NHL was the first professional league to enter the market with the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. The team won the Stanley Cup in their first year as an expansion team and have quickly become a popular team in the league.
The WNBA and NFL have since joined the NHL in Las Vegas with the Aces (WNBA) and LAs Vegas Raiders (NFL). The NBA could soon be joining them. Vegas is the 28th most populous city in the U.S. and generates a ton of traffic from all over the world. It just makes too much sense.
Another reason it’s only a matter of time is the NBA’s already established in the city as a league. For years the NBA Summer League has been held in the area and it has become quite a popular event. Many from the industry attend, from media to players.
Finally, Vegas has a home stadium ready to go in T-Mobile Arena.
London could be a huge move for the league and sports in general, but the timing isn’t right. Given the current circumstances in the world, London doesn’t seem as likely as other cities. That’s unfortunate, as it makes a ton of sense from the league’s perspective. Not only would it be the first NBA franchise to be based in Europe, but it would also beat the other major U.S. sports leagues in getting there.
The timing would be great too, as the league has a number of up-and-coming players from Europe. That’s caused an increase in popularity worldwide, so surely fans would be excited to get a team of their own.
Given the things that would have to be worked out to have a team playing so far from most of the league, it’s hard to imagine the NBA going through those obstacles on top of the global situation as of today. Patience will be key for London, but it’s one of the best options if things were different right now.
The last two cities that come to mind in terms of contending cities are Mexico City and Louisville. While the NBA would be wise to wait to expand overseas, Mexico City could be a great option. There’s an untapped market south of the U.S. border and it would be much easier to add to the league in short order than somewhere in Europe.
Louisville makes sense as well as a city that offers a market not being maximized by the league. It’s a great basketball city for college hoops, as is the state of Kentucky in general. Residents would buy in right away and it may offer the most loyal fanbase the NBA can establish in little time.
– Garrett Brook
The city that immediately comes to mind when thinking of expansion in the NBA Is Seattle. Home to the SuperSonics from 1967-2008, the team was a staple of the city before being bought in 2006 and subsequently moved to Oklahoma City two years later.
The SuperSonics had a lot of success in Seattle during their 41-year stint, making the playoffs 22 times, the NBA Finals three times and taking home one NBA Championship in 1979. The SuperSonics have maintained national relevance since their departure.
In a poll done by the Herald Net at the beginning of the year, 48 percent of responders said it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back to Seattle. In a Twitter poll done by a journalist at the same newspaper, 77 percent of respondents said that it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back. And, because the NHL is expanding to Seattle, the city is currently building a brand new $930 million stadium.
One of the primary reasons the team pulled out of Seattle in the first place was because the team wanted a new stadium, and the city refused to invest the money necessary to build one. All of this packaged together with Seattle’s rapid growth as a city, over 400,000 people have moved to the Seattle metro area since the SuperSonics left, which means if the NBA decides to expand, don’t be surprised if Seattle is the immediate favorite.
Another city that comes to mind when speaking of expansion is Vancouver, the former home of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Vancouver Grizzlies didn’t have much success in their six seasons, thanks mainly to poor management in the front office. If given a more successful team, Vancouver could play host to an NBA team yet again.
Attendance started in the middle part of the league in the Grizzlies opening couple of seasons in the NBA, showing that there is interest in basketball in the area, but as the team continued to struggle year after year, they slipped to the back half of the league.
Another reason cited for the Grizzlies’ departure from Vancouver was the value of the Canadian dollar at the time compared to American dollars; that is less of an issue now as the Canadian dollar has become much closer in value to the American dollar over the last 20 years. It stands to reason that a good team would draw more interest than it did in their first run in the city, especially with the sport of basketball growing in Canada as a whole.
If the NBA wants a team further east, Pittsburgh is a city with a passionate group of sports fans that would almost certainly rally around a team were they to have success early on. Pittsburgh features successful franchises in the NHL, NFL and MLB, so it stands to reason an NBA franchise would succeed in the city as well. There would also be no worries over having to build a stadium in Pittsburgh since the Penguins stadium, PPG Paints Arena, has a capacity of 19,758, which is more than the average capacity for an NBA arena.
Kansas City is another place that has a lot of basketball history, even if it was over 35 years ago. The Sacramento Kings were initially located in Kansas City from 1972-1985 and even made the Western Conference Finals in the 1980-81 season with a team that featured former Wizards’ general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Kansas City did struggle with attendance during that period, but since 1985 the city of Kansas City has grown quite a lot, with the city’s population going from 1.15 million in 1985 to nearly 1.7 million at the start of 2021. Plus, the success of the Chiefs and Royals have both had in the city in recent years – both have won championships in the last 10 years – indicates that an NBA franchise would have the ability to succeed there as well.
– Zach Dupont
EDITORIAL NOTE: While the NBA is exploring the viability of expansion, there is no timeline currently being discussed. Obviously, with the current state of the pandemic, NBA expansion is not going to happen soon, but as the world normalizes in a post-vaccine world, expansion seems more likely in the NBA than it has in almost two decades, so expect to hear more about this topic.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Denver Nuggets
Following a surprisingly successful postseason run, the Nuggets are off to a relatively slow start. Drew Maresca examines what’s going on in Denver in the latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.
The Denver Nuggets have been on the rise for a while, but it all came together for them last season. If they weren’t already on your radar, a postseason that included two come-from-behind series wins should guarantee that they are now.
The Nuggets finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 46-27 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way, Nikola Jokic proved that he’s one of the best players in the league, while they also received a significant boost from the rising star Jamal Murray, who scored 30 or more points in six of the team’s 19 postseasons games. Michael Porter Jr. also proved his back is just fine after a serious pre-draft injury and that he’s a real threat in the NBA. So what’s there to fix?
Well, the Nuggets are off to an uninspiring start. They are currently 6-6, good for just seventh in the Western Conference. While they’re supremely talented, they must get back on track – otherwise, the team could be in for a long 2020-21 offseason.
Denver’s offense is still effective. Entering play last night, they were scoring 116.5 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA. They draw a lot of fouls, too – 22.3 per game to be exact – which is tied for first in the entire league. So, that’s a start.
Jokic, meanwhile, is still Jokic. He’s playing better than ever and has legitimately entered the MVP conversation. As of last night, he was averaging a triple-double with 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game. He’s also shooting an insane 41.2% on three-point attempts and 82.1% from the charity stripe.
Porter Jr., who has missed the last seven games with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, began the season on a tear. He showed flashes last season, but he’s done it with consistency so far this season. Porter Jr. is averaging 19.5 points on 42.3% shooting from deep – and he was really hooping in his last game, scoring 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 10 rebounds.
JaMychal Green is another bright spot that has done a lot to help replace Jerami Grant, who was lost to free agency. He came over from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent and he’s fit in very nicely. Green began the season on the bench due to an injury and, in the four games for which he was out, the Nuggets went 1-3 and gave up 120 or more points in three of those four games. Since Denver has surrendered only 109 points per game, which would be good for the 11th fewest in the NBA. He’s also shot the ball incredibly well (52.8% on three-point attempts), while his presence means that the Nuggets won’t have to rely as heavily on 35-year-old Paul Millsap. The hope is, if Green can stay on the court, the defense will continue to even out.
What’s Not Working
A number of things aren’t working right now for Denver. First and foremost, the Nuggets haven’t put forth a complete effort too often. For example, they built up an 18-point lead in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week in which they scored 70 points. They went on to only score 46 in the second half and lost the game 122-116.
On a related note, Denver has also failed to close out tight games. Of their six losses, four were within three points or went to overtime.
Then there are the high-level defensive issues. Entering play last night, the Nuggets had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league and were allowing opponents to shoot 39% on three-point attempts – also good for sixth-worst. Worse, all of that has been done while playing the fourth easiest schedule in the league.
Drilling down to individual player issues, Murray’s struggles haven’t helped. Yes, his numbers are alright, but 19.7 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds is a bit underwhelming considering the performance he put on in the bubble last season. His shooting is down slightly, most notably from between 3-10 feet from the basket (36.8%), and he’s struggled a bit from the free-throw line, too (76.3%, down from 88.1%).
What Needs To Change
First of all, the Nuggets need time to acclimate to one another; the team added seven new players this offseason and when you consider the shortened training camp and limited preseason – which was really only one week long – that leaves little time to build synergy. Theoretically, that should improve with time.
Porter Jr.’s defense is another aspect that must change. He is regularly Denver’s soft spot in the defense because he either loses focus or takes defensive shortcuts. The upside, Porter Jr. is still just a sophomore and his defensive should improve with time – he certainly has the requisite skills needed to be a successful defender (e.g., length and athleticism). So let’s give him a little more time before we make any bold claims about him.
Finally, the Nuggets have to find a way to deploy Bol Bol. Bol is averaging just 6 minutes per game. Sure, he’s incredibly lean and might not match up well in the half court with most bigs. Additionally, he’s a bit hesitant to shoot, despite a solid range. But, while the Nuggets are clearly in win-now mode, what contender couldn’t use a 7’2” shooter with a 7’8” wingspan? If they get Bol a bit more burn and he can mature, it would give the Nuggets one of the most unique weapons in the entire league. And, to Denver’s credit, Bol did receive the first two start of his young career in back-to-back games this week — perhaps that change is already underway.
The Nuggets may have started slowly, but all should be well in Denver. The Western Conference is incredibly competitive, but the Nuggets have more talent than most and, assuming finishing the season is realistic given COVID-19’s impact on it already, the Nuggets should be comfortable with where they are, regardless of their early-season record.
NBA Daily: Fixing The Houston Rockets
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the newly-minted Houston Rockets, a team that now has given itself plenty of options.
In the most well-timed edition of Fixing ever, we’re taking a look at the very recently-revamped Houston Rockets. We all knew that one trade was coming one way or the other and now the time has arrived. For how well-designed this beautiful era of basketball was for the Rockets, it surely didn’t deserve the anti-climactic ending it got. Yet here we are. For the first time since Yao Ming’s retirement, Houston is starting from scratch.
Is all hope lost in H-Town? Well, losing Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Harden is basically like the Justice League losing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in one swift motion. It would be a major setback for anyone. In situations like this, it’s not about what you lost. It’s about how you respond to what you lost. To their credit, Houston had time to prepare for the disintegration of the Harden-D’Antoni-Morey era, and they haven’t taken their departures lying down.
They’ve wiped the slate mostly clean and, even if there’s definitely room for improvement, the new-look Rockets are a little more exciting than what meets the eye.
It is a shame that Harden never gave this group a chance. Houston had a better offseason than they were given credit for because the high-profile personnel that they lost (or were about to lose) overshadowed what they brought in. Compared to past teams that faced similar circumstances, Houston could have done a lot worse. Let’s start with the best-kept secret that gets more and more exposed by the hour: Christian Wood.
NBA nerds hyped up Wood throughout the offseason for how great he looked during the brief time he was the full-time center in Detroit – averaging nearly 23/10 on 56/40/76 splits. When you take the sample size (13 games) and how Detroit fared in that stretch (they lost all but one game) into account, it’s understandable why it was hard to buy stock in Wood’s potential during the mini off-season.
That’s why Houston got him at the value they did and he’s already one of the league’s better bargains. Those numbers he put up as a Piston have carried on with the Rockets; while his 53/34/66 splits with almost two blocks per game have put him on the map. Wood’s ascension hasn’t led to much team success yet, but he’s the last player to blame for that.
Then there’s Houston’s more well-repped new addition, John Wall. Wall’s probably never going to live up to the $40+ million deal that Houston is paying him, but they didn’t acquire him for that reason. They acquired him in the hopes of him giving them more bang for their buck than Russell Westbrook did. The results have been a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected after what he’s been through. It’s been encouraging to see that on a good day, he still has most of his form.
There are plenty of games left for him to find consistency. We also have to keep in mind that Wall’s just getting his feet wet following two awful injuries. Even if he’s not the same Wall from his prime, this has worked out a lot better for Houston than Westbrook has in Washington. Having the better player as well as an additional first-round pick should be counted as an absolute win for the Rockets.
There are other stand-out players: It looks like the Rockets found another keeper in rookie Jae’Sean Tate who, along with David Nwaba, have infused the Rockets with badly needed energy.
Jae'Sean Tate's defense is absurd. pic.twitter.com/mgMv3lZjp1
— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) January 15, 2021
Things were obviously better last year when Harden and co. were content, but the Rockets are far from a disaster.
What’s Not Working?
Well, James Harden. Plain and simple. When a superstar wants out, it wears the team down internally. That elephant is too big for the room to ignore, clear that both sides were done with each other by the end. Houston deserves props for willing to get “uncomfortable” just as they promised, but a superstar wanting out brings down the team’s morale no matter what.
It’s why Houston started 3-6 with the league’s ninth-lowest net rating at minus-1.8. There were other factors at play here with all the shuffling parts, but there’s no need for fluff. Harden’s trade demand loomed too large for it not to affect the Rockets. It’s hard for everyone when the best player on the team isn’t buying in. His teammates were complaining about him publicly.
The upshot is that it’s over now. Losing James Harden the player certainly isn’t addition by subtraction – in Houston’s case, that’s Westbrook – but losing James Harden the distraction could certainly be for this season.
Now that the dust has settled, the Rockets can finally take a deep breath and sort out both their present and their future. Presently, there’s going to be even more shuffling now than there was before. At the very least, the roster is going to have players who should be on the same page.
Houston may still have some loose ends from its previous era. From the looks of things, PJ Tucker could be the next one to go. Houston’s prospects are on the come up, but a player with Tucker’s abilities should be on a contender. That’s something that the Rockets, as of now, are not. The same goes for Eric Gordon, but it’s tough to see any of the elite teams willing to put up enough salaries to trade for his contract.
Then there’s the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo has been a good soldier in spite of the trade rumors that have buzzed around him over the last several months. Indiana trading him to Houston signified that he wasn’t re-signing with them. Houston provides a unique opportunity for Oladipo to further re-establish his value as a star. It’s hard to foresee if he’s in their long-term plans or if he’s another asset to move in their rebuild.
With all that said, new head coach Stephen Silas seems to have won over the players. After beating the San Antonio Spurs last night without Harden or Wall, the Rockets, despite not being in the tier of elite teams anymore, should be excited for what the season holds.
As for what the future will bring, their outlook is a lot brighter than it was back in September. Even if they’ll face the repercussions of giving up most of their own first-round picks for Westbrook and Robert Covington last year, they just hauled in a massive load of first-round picks and four pick swaps combined for Westbrook, Covington and Harden since then.
The development of players should put Houston in a good light, which could pay huge dividends for their chances in free agency. We’ve seen teams establish a great team culture while building up a promising future – ahem, the very same Brooklyn Nets that just cashed in for Harden proved that.
The Rockets might be next in line.
The days of Houston being a contender are gone for now. But, thankfully, the days of the Rockets becoming one of the NBA’s premier League Pass favorites may have only begun.