This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at various positions among players in the NBA and ranking who is the best of the best. Our writers have previously used very specific guidelines to rank the best players by position in the NBA.
Today, we’re taking a look at the point guards. The floor generals. The magicians.
In some ways, it’s hard to assess who’s better than who when trying to rank point guards. That’s because a lot of factors go into what makes a point guard one of the best in the league. His playmaking, his shooting, his defense, his effectiveness, etc. It also depends on what his team asks of him.
Patrick Beverley won’t be trading shots with LeBron James in Game 7 in the NBA Finals because that’s not what he’s meant to do. He’s meant to get in his opponent’s face, make every hustle play on the floor, and establish a winning culture. Anything else is an added bonus. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the most promising point guards in the league, but right now he’s not even the best point guard on his team because he’s not required to be right now.
It’s not just about how good a player can be. It’s also about how much he impacts winning. Anyone can put up flashy highlights or fill up a box score. If the team he’s playing for isn’t winning, then how good is he? Questions like these were why guys like Steve Francis fizzled early, why Kyrie Irving had skeptics in Cleveland before LeBron returned, and why D’Angelo Russell may never shake his doubters.
Trae Young is the perfect embodiment of this. Offensively, he already is one of the best all-around players in the league. Even at 21 years old, he’s already a wrecking ball, averaging a near 30/10 a night while constantly keeping opponents on their toes whenever the ball is in his hands. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s been impossible to stop.
So what’s the case against Young? Two things:
1. His team stinks. Atlanta is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference at 20-47, only a half a game better than Cleveland. That’s not entirely his fault by any means, but the lack of wins behind his name currently brings his effectiveness into question.
2. His individual defense really, really stinks. Out of 503 NBA players, Young ranks dead last in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Not to mention, there’s a fair amount of distance between his DRPM (minus-3.12) and the next one after him (Michael Porter Jr at minus-2.9). As good as he is offensively, a lot of his contributions on that end get negated by his defensive ineptitude.
Not to fret, though. Young has plenty of time to develop his game on the other end of the court. Young’s short stature may prevent him from becoming a plus defender, but with enough time and patience, he can optimistically be good enough to not routinely be at the bottom of the barrel defensively from a statistical standpoint.
Nobody is questioning Trae Young’s talent at the moment. The only reason why (Spoilers!) he is not on this particular list is that we have yet to see if he’s a winning player. That can definitely change once he proves he can do just that. We’ll just have to wait until then to find out.
As for who will make this list, please note that what determines the top eight point guards in the league this season depends on how they fared this season. Not by reputation. In any other season, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall would more likely than not be mentioned on something like this, but since the three of them played a combined 25 games this year, they’ve had next to no influence on how things have turned out.
One last little tidbit before we begin- Point guards come in all shapes and sizes these days. Even though they’re much taller than the average floor general, guys like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons are generally classified as point guards. You’d think guys like LeBron James and Nikola Jokic would be on here for that same reason since they are the focal point of their team’s offenses, but since they’re not classified as point guards, they won’t be on here. Now, let’s get to who is on here.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Most players who follow up a rookie season as seismic as Luka Doncic usually suffer somewhat of a sophomore slump. Derrick Rose did, and that was the year before he won MVP. Jayson Tatum did, and now he’s breaking out into a full-fledged superstar. Luka never needed that bridge to cross. When the Luka era arrived in Dallas, it arrived in full swing.
He’s averaging a near triple-double already – averaging a near 29/9/9 on 46/32/75 splits. He’s the best offensive player on the best offensive team in the league — and by a pretty fair margin too. We all thought Dallas was an up-and-coming team. We just didn’t know that was coming into effect as soon as possible. The Mavericks are already a playoff team with Luka leading the way in just his second season.
There are, of course, other factors. Dallas is a well-coached team with guys who know exactly what their roles are. Kristaps Porzingis has come along quite nicely as the season’s progressed. But they wouldn’t be anywhere near where if it weren’t for the Slovenian. Luka’s elite feel of the game — which doesn’t include a reliable three-point shot yet — is why Dallas amazingly is where they are now in such a short amount of time.
He is the reason why their offense is putting up historic numbers, and why this should be seen as just the beginning. Because of that, he’s earned the title of being the best point guard in the league.
There’s only one rookie in somewhat recent memory who took one major step further after he already proved that he was the real deal following his rookie year, and that was LeBron James. Putting Luka on that high of a pedestal this early in his career would seem foolish, but he’s already done so much already that it would arguably be even more foolish to not entertain the comparison.
2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Someone who has played as well as Lillard has this season does not deserve the fate that’s probably going to happen to both him and the Blazers. Injuries and replacing key players with bad fits have led to Portland looking on the outside in on the playoff race. It’s a shame because he’s playing at his absolute peak right now.
Dame Time has been taken to a whole new level this season, which didn’t seem possible knowing his reputation around the league. He has upped his scoring and assist numbers to almost 29 and 8 per game, respectively, while also increasing his efficiencies, as he’s put up his numbers on 46/39/89 splits.
In the month of January alone, Lillard averaged 34.1 points and 8.4 assists on 49/45/88 splits. In that time, there was a two-week stretch from late-January from to early February where Lillard looked like he was making a case for MVP. During that time, he was averaging 48.8 points, 10. 2 assists and even snagged 7.2 rebounds He was so unstoppable that his 36-point outing against Houston on Jan. 29 was the lowest scoring output he had in that stretch.
Even outside of that range, when Portland asked him to give more in light of what they lost, he has delivered for them. And yet, when all of this ends, it’s not going to matter. Lillard playing like a borderline MVP candidate can only make so much of a difference when you’re relying on Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan to give you serious minutes.
It should get better next year when Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and Portland gets more help along the wing, but Golden State will be back too, and the rest of the competition in the Western Conference isn’t going to cut anyone else a modicum of slack. Lillard’s only a few months away from turning 30. At times like these, he has to ponder if Portland will get him where he wants.
3. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Between being dumped by the team that invested so much in him last summer, being thrown into what seemed like an infinite number of trade proposals all season, and above all else, being labeled as past his prime, you’d think this would be the season that broke Chris Paul. Little did we know, we were underestimating an all-time talent just itching to prove everyone wrong.
That’s exactly what’s happened. The Thunder’s surprising resilience after losing its two best players has been two of the better feel-good storylines to come out this season, and Paul’s been the one leading the charge. Who would have thought this far into the season that the Thunder, at 40-24, would actually be in striking distance of a top-four seed in the West?
Paul has not only been the best player on the team, but he’s been the alpha dog on the best five-man lineup that’s played at least 150 minutes together in the entire league. That sounds pretty good for a guy who was supposedly falling out of his prime.
It’s weird knowing that Paul made his first All-Star team since 2016, and it feels weird to say that he’s probably going to make his first All-NBA team since 2016, too. It’s mind-blowing that in that time, no one’s forgotten about how good he is. It’s just that injuries really have gotten in his way since the end of his days as a Clipper. That really puts things into perspective. We all knew prime Chris Paul still existed. It just took a season like this for us to acknowledge how good he still is.
There’s only one teensy problem: This Oklahoma City team isn’t championship material, and that’s a shame to see Paul’s efforts go to a team that’s not going to make serious noise. But this has been fun, right?
4. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Full disclaimer: Some moron thought the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were going to be the least talented defending champion since the 2006-07 Miami Heat? All apologies to our friends north of the border for that take.
This has been a season full of teams that have exceeded expectations, and Toronto, despite being the reigning champs, might just be the premier example among all of them. There’s plenty of credit to go around between Pascal Siakam’s continued rise and Nick Nurse continuously proving himself as one of the NBA’s best coaches, but Kyle Lowry taking back the role he once had and running with it cannot go unnoticed.
Last year, his role was heavily reduced with Kawhi Leonard in the picture and Siakam taking a leap, but with more touches to go around, Lowry has gone back to his roots. Lowry’s putting up the best numbers he’s had since 2017, upping his points and assist average to almost 20/8 every single night, respectively. This while still being one of the league’s biggest pests on the defensive end, and he’s tied for most charges drawn this season with 30.
We knew Lowry had some juice left in his game, but not this much. When you factor that Toronto had to make up for the loss for Kawhi Leonard, is it more surprising that Chris Paul, who’s already regarded as an all-timer is doing what he’s doing at 34? Or that Lowry, someone with a lesser reputation, to say the least, is doing just about as much at the same age?
Lowry gets the nod over the next name on the list because he has less offensive talent around him, and yet his team is still right in the mix of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Here’s to hoping his playoff woes don’t come back as well.
5. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Every once in a while, the NBA should come up with a team that consists of guys that make people think, “Thank heavens he’s on a much better team now!” If they did it this year, this is what it would probably look like.
Center – Kristaps Porzingis
Power Forward – Anthony Davis
Small Forward – TJ Warren
Shooting Guard – Tim Hardaway Jr.
Point Guard – Kemba Walker
Sixth Man – Jordan Clarkson
We all would be eagerly awaiting the day Devin Booker gets named to a team like this if it existed, but we’ve gotten off-base here. The point is, Kemba Walker, after fighting valiantly for a team stuck in mediocrity, is finally seeing his efforts be put to good use.
There may not be a player who couldn’t be happier to see his numbers drop than Kemba this season. With less usage and fewer minutes, Kemba’s scoring and assists have taken a noticeable dip. Yet no one seems to have a problem with that. Especially him. He’s gladly taken more of a complementary role next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Because of that, he’s on a team that’s on pace to win 55 games this year, easily the best of Kemba’s career.
He’s putting up the worst numbers he’s had since 2016, averaging 21 points on 42/38/87 splits, and yet, there’s no one second-guessing on bringing him in. That’s not just because he can put the ball in the bucket. It’s because Boston’s body language has done a complete 180 with him leading the way.
The Celtics look like they enjoy playing together again. They look like they have each other’s backs again. They look like they can get past whatever struggle they are going through. Kemba’s demeanor and role as the leader has a lot to do with why they don’t look anything like the trainwreck they were last year.
Putting up All-Star numbers as well as boosting the morale of one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams last year gets him a spot on this list.
6. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s hard to ignore the strides that Simmons has made this season. Defensively, Simmons has become much smarter at using his physical advantages to become more disruptive on that end. He always had the tools to be an elite defender — and he’s never been a liability on that end — but now he has indisputably become one. Defensively, Simmons has become an all-around menace that should get him All-Defense honors this season.
It’s also hard to ignore the strides Simmons has not made this season. With the undeniable talent that he has, Ben Simmons should be a shoo-in for as a top-five point guard in the league whether Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall are playing at full-strength or not. It’s just that the glaring holes are still there, and they are more glaring than ever.
Simmons had to know that with JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler both gone, Philly needed him to improve both as a shooter and as a scorer to compensate for losing both of them. He hasn’t come close to that, which has led to Philly’s offense falling badly through the cracks. The 76ers have the 17th-ranked offensive rating — 110.4 points per 100 possessions — and a fair amount of blame should be put on Simmons’ shoulders. His stagnated progress on the offensive end now has many wondering if he and Embiid have a limited ceiling together.
You know how we call such uniquely talented young starlets “unicorns?” Well, if Simmons is comparable to any sort of creature, whether fictional or nonfictional, he’s basically a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all know how frightening T-Rexes are, but those tiny arms are just so laughable to look at. That’s Simmons’ problem. He’s got plenty of tools to make him the feared player in the NBA we all thought he would be, but if the tiny arms of his game — his absent jumper — don’t improve, he can’t reach his full potential as a generational talent.
7. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Sadly we won’t divulge too much into Westbrook because we’ve already talked about how Houston’s new team schemes have made it as close to a perfect team to put around Westbrook as anyone could imagine. The extra spacing he has now that he’s surrounded by all shooters will make it so much easier for him to live in the post.
Westbrook’s tenure in Houston didn’t start out great, which was what many of us thought was going to happen, but because he’s a man that will never take a play off, we all knew he wouldn’t give up. Daryl Morey knew this about Westbrook when he brought him in this past summer, so he ultimately decided to take the “Work smarter, not harder’ approach by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and overloading on wings
These haven’t sprung the best results, but Westbrook has the green light now. Since the beginning of January, he’s putting up almost 32 points a game on 52/31/75 splits. The best field goal percentage he’s had in a season is a tick over 45 percent, which he’s done only twice in his career.
No one knows what the future holds, but Houston’s doing everything it can to help Westbrook thrive. Even if this doesn’t work in the end, we’ll at least know that both sides tried.
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Remember when Memphis was trying to avoid rebuilding so that they didn’t have to worry about that first-round pick they owed Boston from the Jeff Green trade? And how that was last year?
This year was supposed to be the year they started fresh. If they did, they’ve done a bad job, because this season has been Memphis’ best all-around performance since 2017. The Grizzlies have been holding a playoff spot for a while now. That won’t mean much this season if and when the Lakers crush them in the first round, but leading your team as a rookie counts for a lot in the long-term because it gives the franchise hope as they start their next chapter. That’s what Ja Morant has done.
Seeing rookie point guards make the league take notice isn’t anything new — see Doncic, Luka — but what makes Morant stand out among others stems from his efforts leading to something substantial. Most impressive rookie point guards can dazzle, but if they are the best player on the team, then it doesn’t lead to much success-wise during their rookie season. Stats won’t do him justice — that usually happens with first-year guys — but Morant is the best player on his team, and this time, it’s translating into wins.
The last rookie point guard to do something like that was Derrick Rose. That should excite and scare Grizzlies fans at the same time. They have a kid special enough that they didn’t have to reminisce about Grit-and-Grind for one second this season. Here’s to hoping that this is the start of a long-lasting era, and not one cut short in its prime by injuries.
Admittingly, there’s a fair case that Trae Young, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe, among others, deserve the nod over Morant, but the story of Memphis’ hot-shot guard is too inspirational to leave him off of this list.
Making this list was hard because the league is filled with talented point guards. Should something like this come up next year, we could see an entirely different top eight. Everyone’s criteria are different when it comes to rankings, so let’s end this with a question.
Who would you rank as your top eight point guards?
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.