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NBA Daily: Ranking The Southwest Division

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down what we’ve seen from the Southwest Division to start the 2020-2021 regular season.

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Were just over a week into the NBAs 75th regular season and, already, weve seen some significant developments. From the new direction teams that made an offseason coaching change have taken, to the impact of some of the more critical offseason acquisitions with their new teams or even the development of the rookie class as they continue to transition to the games highest level, almost all of them have played a part in the trajectory of the young season.

And, here at Basketball Insiders, were taking stock of those developments and more to provide a comprehensive ranking of how each team stacks up within their division. We’ve already discussed the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, and Pacific Divisions earlier this week and, today, we’ll look over the Southwest.

Houston Rockets, 0-2 

Well start in Houston, where the Rockets are a franchise in transition. With Daryl Morey gone to Philadelphia, long-time front office assistant Rafael Stone took up the mantle as the teams GM while Stephen Silas replaced Mike D’Antoni as the team’s head coach. And, as for Houston’s roster, an offseason makeover that included a John Wall-Russell Westbrook swap (among other additions) has left the team in flux as they continue to search for a trade partner to move James Harden.

As of this writing, Harden is still a Rocket, but that could change in an instant. Meanwhile, the teams asking price for him — a host of young players and a package of draft pick — could leave them within a range of different as to their immediate future, should a team meet that request or Houston make a compromise as to what they want in a return. Pending that return, the Rockets could find themselves competing for a spot in the NBAs new play-in tournament just as easily as they could find themselves far and away from any postseason basketball. If Harden doesnt get traded (a big if at this point), the Rockets should be a playoff team, barring injury, COVID-19 or a toxic locker room derailing their season.

For Stone, a point of emphasis will be to restock their draft assets. Morey, before last season, emptied the war chest to maintain the Rockets status as a contender but, ultimately, it blew up in his face. Stone has already done a good job of replenishing that chest, however, as hes added multiple picks — one from the Washington Wizards in the Wall-Westbrook trade and another two from the Portland Trail Blazers in a deal for Robert Covington. Christian Wood, acquired via a sign-and-trade with the Detroit Pistons, has also proven a strong addition and should prove a cornerstone in the Rockets new era.

That said, barring something drastic, dont expect Houston to hold their spot at the top of the Southwest’s hierarchy.

Memphis Grizzlies, 1-3

Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, has wisely remained patient with Memphis’ rebuild. They already have a strong base in cornerstones Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr and, in fact, nearly made the postseason year ago. Even so, while clinging to that eighth and final playoff spot, Kleiman and the Grizzlies made a deal for their future, as they dealt starting forward Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala for Justise Winslow at the trade deadline. While Winslow has yet to play for the franchise, at 24-years-old, he’s a much better fit for the franchise’s timeline than the veteran Crowder, fits their timeline much better than the veteran crowded.

The Grizzlies aren’t going to be rushed in this rebuild — their priority has always been the long-term growth and development core. That said, their current roster features plenty of intriguing young talent who will receive ample playing time to prove they’re a part of the future. Brandon Clarke has the look of a promising young big man, while the team retained De’Anthony Melton and drafted Desmond Bane, both of whom should contribute to Memphis’ bench for a long time.

The team has yet to provide a return timetable for Jackson Jr., who tore his left meniscus in early August while playing in the bubble, or for Winslow, who suffered a hip injury in July. Meanwhile, Morant has since sustained a Grade 2 left ankle sprain and is expected to miss three-to-five weeks. If those three can surprise and return earlier than expected, the Grizzlies may have a shot but, if not, it may be time to wave the white flag on the 2020-21 season.

Dallas Mavericks, 1-3

The Mavericks are coming off a campaign that produced the most efficient offensive season in NBA history. That said, even on that end of the floor, this team faces a number of questions which could determine their ceiling.

Thanks in large part to their defensive struggles, the Mavericks often found themselves in close contests that were within five points in the final five minutes. In those situations, per NBA.com, as defenses tightened up, Dallas’ record-breaking offense reduced to scoring at a below league average rate.

It’s easy to write off the Mavericks’ season-opening 106-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns, especially after a shortened offseason and the absence of Kristaps Porzingis. However, in the game’s final five minutes, Dallas missed all three of its attempts from beyond the arc, Luka Doncic missed a free throw and, down three with less than 10 seconds left, the Mavericks gave up a rebound that led to a back-breaking free throw from Devin Booker.

Trading Seth Curry for Josh Richardson should help the Mavericks’ defensive and, to an extent, he should alleviate some of the burden on Doncic to create his own offense. And yes, while Doncic is an MVP candidate, it may end up being Porzingis’ durability, Richardson’s productivity and how the Mavericks close out games as a team that determines their place in the Western Conference and the Southwest Division pecking order.

New Orleans Pelicans, 2-2

David Griffin brought Stan Van Gundy in to replace Alvin Gentry as the Pelicans’ head coach, believing young, talented players such as Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball would benefit from his tutelage. The other part of Griffin’s calculus was Van Gundy, who coached the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, is plenty qualified to have at the helm if this trio proves they’re ready to compete at a high level this season.

The Pelicans opened this season with an impressive 113-99 win over the Toronto Raptors. Ingram poured in 24 points to go along with 11 assists and nine rebounds, while Williamson registered a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Ball showed off his improved shooting form, splashing four of his eight three-point attempts en route to a 16-point, five rebound performance.

Since then, New Orleans suffered a 111-98 loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas, squeaked by the Spurs, 98-95 and were then blown out by the Phoenix Suns, 111-86.

Though Ball’s shooting form is the best it’s ever looked, it hasn’t exactly translated to success on the court: he’s shot just at a 28.6% clip from deep on seven attempts per game, markedly worse than the 37.6% he shot from beyond that arc last season. Perhaps it’s just a case of small sample size, but Ball’s shot will prove critical to the Pelicans. With Jrue Holiday gone, the space Ball’s shot could create is vital to the success of Williamson and Ingram down low.

Defensively, New Orleans is still adapting to Van Gundy’s system, which emphasizes rim protection above all else. The early returns are encouraging as the Pelicans are surrendering the second-fewest points in the paint per game, per NBA.com. In fact, the most pressing issue they currently face is that they’re tied for the third-most turnovers per game this season. When combined with their poor transition defense, those turnovers have provided teams with easy buckets on the fast break. They also need to tighten up their perimeter defense, as opponents have shot 36.1% from beyond the arc against them.

If they can manage that, the Pelicans should easily carve out a place in the play-in tournament for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs, 2-2 

Gone are the days of being a perennial title contender. However, this iteration of the Spurs has an intriguing blend of promising young talent and savvy veterans. 

Gregg Popovich has reconfigured San Antonios starting lineup, which now features LaMarcus Aldridge flanked by four perimeter players, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray, who are under 6-foot-7. DeRozan is the tallest member of that quartet at 6-foot-6.

And the early return has been promising: improved ball movement, an increase in three-point attempts per game from a season ago and, as you’d expect, a faster pace of play. Defensively, the Spurs have proven far better on the perimeter than they were a season ago.

Of course, there’s always a price to pay for playing with a smaller group. In San Antonio’s season opener, the Grizzlies managed to post 66 points from the painted area. In their second contest, the Toronto Raptors managed 50, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans 44 in their third. They’ll need to shore up the inside if they want to stay competitive in the Western Conference.

Derrick White’s return should help in that regard, as well. White, who averaged nearly 19 points per game in the NBA Bubble down in Orlando and recently signed a four-year, $73 million extension, should provide an immediate spark on offense. There’s also the case for Devin Vassell, the Spurs’ first round selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, who’s seen a quiet start to his rookie campaign but, with time, should provide San Antonio with the strong shooting ability and defensive prowess he displayed as a Florida State Seminole.

Should they falter, there should be plenty of interest in the Spurs at trade deadline. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay should certainly generate some buzz while Aldridge and DeRozan, both on expiring contracts, should interest many a contender.

Still, for now, the Spurs would appear to be in the division driver seat. And, after they missed the postseason for the first time in 22 seasons, don’t be shocked to see San Antonio right back in the thick of the postseason hunt or securing a spot in the play-in tournament.

The door to the Southwest Division title would seem to be wide open. At the very least, the Spurs, Pelicans, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets (should they retain Harden) are all capable of competing for a spot in the NBA’s expanded postseason. And, with that in mind, the Southwest should be one of the more interesting divisions to keep an eye on this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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