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NBA Daily: Ranking The Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz breaks down what we’ve seen from the Pacific Division to start the 2020-21 regular season.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Spearheading Grizzlies’ Growth

Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut last night after missing the first 56 games of the season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies have stockpiled wins without their second-best player, thanks in large part to the strong play of Jonas Valanciunas.

Chad Smith

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With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff races are heating up. The new play-in tournament will allow more teams into the thick of things as the season winds down. One team looking to make a return to postseason play is the Memphis Grizzlies, led by dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Memphis currently owns the eighth spot in the Western Conference, thanks to excellent team basketball.

Morant may be the face of the franchise, but he has had a minor sophomore slump this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board, which include 74 percent from the free-throw line and 27 percent from behind the three-point line. Like most everyone in the league this year, he has missed a handful of games that have prevented him from getting into the type of rhythm that he would like.

Memphis is the true definition of the word “team” as they have collected wins with a well-balanced attack. They don’t have one or two superstar players that carry them on a nightly basis. They don’t rely on that which either, which makes things difficult for the opponent as they prepare their defensive strategies. The Grizzlies are difficult to game plan for, which is a credit to their unselfish play.

Contributions have come from everyone on the roster, from top to bottom. Kyle Anderson has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is seemingly unstoppable when he gets going. Brandon Clarke continues to impress and Grayson Allen has been a revelation for this team. It doesn’t stop there either. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been excellent additions by the front office and the continued development of Tyus Jones has been crucial to lessening the load on Morant.

The real surprise has come at the center position. Memphis was supposed to be a two-headed monster with the young duo of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft finally made his season debut last night against the Los Angeles Clippers, which makes what Memphis is doing even more impressive.

With Jackson sidelined for essentially the entire season, the only other center on the roster is Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis was concerned about having the veteran big man shoulder too much of the load, but he has delivered on a nightly basis. The nine-year vet is having a career year in Memphis. Unfortunately, the team announced on Sunday that he would miss some time due to a concussion.

Not only has the Lithuanian produced some incredible numbers so far this season, but he has also been a key cog to the Grizzlies’ winning ways. Valanciunas has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 24.13 which ranks 18th in the league among all players. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a center in today’s game.

The rebounding numbers alone are quite impressive. Valanciunas has essentially led the team in that department each game and has done it by a wide margin. He currently ranks third in the league in rebounds, behind only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.

Valanciunas has 40 double-doubles this season in his 50 games played. As of last week, the only players with more double-doubles this season were MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

Valanciunas has been getting better as the season progresses. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game in March. His numbers in April are a reflection of how well Memphis has been playing. He is averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game this month. He is shooting 68 percent from the floor, 46 percent from three-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. His best game this month came against the Indiana Pacers when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.

Before Valanciunas went out with a concussion, the Grizzlies had won seven of their last ten games. They are now 0-2 without him but the losses weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. They came up short in an overtime game against a red-hot New York Knicks team, then lost to the Dallas Mavericks on a ridiculous floating three-pointer by Luka Doncic. On Monday they fell two points short in a double-overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets. Without JV on the floor, Jokic erupted with 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.

Sharing the ball has been a constant theme for this young Memphis team. Only the Golden State Warriors average more assists per game as a team. The Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game, which is a testament to their effort on the defensive end of the floor.

Taylor Jenkins deserves much of the credit in Memphis, though he doesn’t want the spotlight. The second-year head coach has the Grizzlies playing elite defense despite being one of the faster teams in terms of pace of play. Their defensive rating ranks seventh in the league while also boasting the 11th best net rating. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier for them though.

Memphis is in the middle of a brutal seven-game road trip. It started well for them, with wins over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. After the double-overtime loss in Denver, they beat the Clippers in Jackson’s season debut and now head to Portland for two games against the Trail Blazers. Their road trip wraps up with another visit to Denver before facing Portland for the third time in six days.

The last time Memphis made the playoffs was during the 2016-17 season. Along with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, that roster included players like Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph. This Grizzlies team may not have the same level of veterans, but their talent runs extremely deep.

Adding Jackson back into the fold should give Memphis a potent punch heading into the postseason. With Valanciunas now missing games, Jackson should have the opportunity to shake off the rust. While they aren’t heading to the NBA Finals this season, this is a scary Grizzlies team that can derail the hopes of a championship contender in the West.

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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

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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 NBA.com’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 NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, 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

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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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