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NBA Daily: Stunning Playoff Berth Slipping From Injury-Riddled Grizzlies’ Grasp

Injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke have exacerbated the Grizzlies’ greatest weakness. At eighth in the West and facing the league’s toughest remaining schedule, can Memphis cling to a playoff spot? Jack Winter takes a look.

Jack Winter



The Memphis Grizzlies are playing with house money.

Not even a year removed from finally and fully dismantling the most successful era in franchise history, Memphis finds itself in pole position for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot. The eighth-place Grizzlies, 28-31, are two games up on both the Portland Trail Blazers and two and-a-half games ahead New Orleans Pelicans with just six weeks remaining in the regular season. The San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns aren’t far behind, but conventional wisdom is that Memphis’ chief competition for the postseason is Portland and New Orleans.

The biggest reasons why are self-evident. Damian Lillard was playing at an MVP level before going down with a minor groin injury before the All-Star break. Trevor Ariza has proven a perfect fit on both sides of the ball for the Blazers, Zach Collins is coming back from injury next month and there’s still a chance Portland gets a lift – even it’s psychological as much as physical – from the potential return of Jusuf Nurkic.

The Pelicans, meanwhile, have been the league’s eighth-best team since Christmas. Their new starting five of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors boasts a +21.8 net rating in 147 minutes. No other lineup has played even a fifth of that total since the No. 1 pick debuted on January 22, but those featuring Williamson at small-ball five have been even more dominant than New Orleans’ starters.

Unfortunately, the race for the eighth seed can’t be conducted in a vacuum of equal remaining competition and perfect health. As the playoffs fast approach, there’s ample evidence completely out of their control suggesting the Grizzlies will fall victim to that reality.

Jaren Jackson Jr. sprained his left knee against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 22, and is scheduled to be re-evaluated next week. That forthcoming update almost certainly won’t align with his return to the court, though, especially debilitating because Memphis has struggled immensely without him, going 0-3 so far.

Two of those games came absent of Brandon Clarke, too, who started in Jackson’s place versus the LA Clippers on Monday before exiting with a right quad injury. It was announced shortly thereafter that he’d miss at least the next two weeks, leaving Memphis without two of its top three players up front as the West’s postseason push intensifies.

Even that description doesn’t accurately convey just how valuable Jackson and Clarke have been to the Grizzlies this season.

There’s an argument to be made that Memphis is the worst long-range shooting team in basketball. The Grizzlies rank 23rd in three-point percentage and 26th in three-point rate, per Cleaning the Glass. The hapless New York Knicks are the only team to rank lower in both accuracy and frequency from beyond the arc. No team with playoff aspirations other than Memphis sits in the league’s bottom third of both categories.

The good news is that coach Taylor Jenkins and front office honcho Zach Kleiman have ample time to modernize their team’s shot profile. The Grizzlies, remember, were never supposed to compete for the playoffs this season, and Ja Morant has been solid enough from three as a rookie to alleviate the major concerns about his shooting ability during the pre-draft process. But the promise of the future only deflects so much from the bad news of the present, which is that Memphis has been left especially punchless from deep as Jackson and Clarke watch from the bench.

Jackson’s development into a long-range assassin has come more rapidly than anyone anticipated. He’s shooting 39.7 percent on over six tries per game, and there’s not a single player Jackson’s height or taller who matches his blend of usage and three-point rate, according to data compiled at Basketball-Reference. Jackson isn’t a superstar yet, or even all that close, but he’s already a unicorn offensively.

Jackson doesn’t just launch threes on pops to the arc or simple ball reversals, like most players his size that boast legitimate shooting range. He’s comfortable letting fly almost no matter how far he is behind the three-point line, and almost no matter how his feet and shoulders are aligned on the catch.

Jenkins calls several pet plays per game to free Jackson up for clean looks from beyond the arc. Grizzlies guards have also grown adept at fooling defenses by screening for Jackson away from the ball, during instances that otherwise resemble routine NBA offense.

Clarke is way ahead of schedule as a shooter, too. After taking just 15 triples during his lone season at Gonzaga, he’s 21-of-52 from three as a rookie, good for 40.4 percent.

Obviously, Clarke isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter. He does the vast majority of his damage as a pick-and-roll finisher, finding small gaps in the defense to make himself available for pocket passes and lobs that often end with authority at the rim. But the gravity Clarke provides when he’s not involved in Memphis’ initial offensive action still matters, especially given the team’s utter lack of imminently threatening shooters without Jackson in the fold.

Jonas Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng have worked hard to extend their range to the arc midway through their careers. Both have shown they can knock down open triples, but neither is the type of shooter who defenses fear. The same goes for Kyle Anderson, now starting next to Valanciunas at the 4, as well as Morant, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson and De’Anthony Melton. The notoriously-streaky Dillon Brooks is currently Memphis’ sole rotation player who deserves to be guarded like a real three-point threat.

The result? Possessions like these from the Grizzlies’ home loss on Friday night, when the Sacramento Kings consistently packed the paint with multiple defenders, completely unafraid of Memphis making them pay from the outside.

The numbers are just as damning as the eye test. Lineups without Jackson and Clarke that include Morant take threes on 28.5 percent of their possessions, ranking in the fifth percentile league-wide. Those units attempt 36.2 percent of their shots at the rim, compared to the 46.6 percent ratio of quintets featuring all three of Memphis’ young building blocks – the highest share of rim attempts among any lineup in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the Grizzlies’ remaining schedule – the most difficult in basketball, according to Tankathon – doesn’t really toughen up until mid-March. Beginning with a key March 12 tilt in Portland, a whopping 16 of their final 17 regular-season games come against teams that will make the playoffs or are fighting tooth and nail to get there. There’s a chance both Jackson and Clarke are back by then.

On the other hand, considering just how rough its last month of the schedule is, wouldn’t it be better for the Grizzlies to bank wins against subpar opponents like the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, who they face in early March? But if Friday’s loss to the Kings is any indication, Memphis is just as likely to lose to those foes without Jackson and Clarke as they are to powerhouses like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors at full-strength.

These are good problems for the Grizzlies to have. Before 2019-20 tipped off in October, literally no one expected them to be in the playoff hunt entering the season’s final stretch. Missing the playoffs might actually be best for this team’s long-term plans, too. Boston gets Memphis’ first-round pick if it falls outside the top-six, and flattened lottery odds increase the likelihood of teams that just miss out on the postseason vaulting into premium position. The Grizzlies, basically, would undoubtedly rather convey that pick to the Celtics next season, when they’re a year older, wiser and more experienced.

But that dynamic won’t blunt the disappointment of Memphis’ potential late-season collapse in real time. The Grizzlies have been one of the league’s most exciting teams this season, playing with the urgency and electricity that belongs in the playoffs. What a coronation it would be of Morant’s star-turning rookie campaign for the Grizzlies to face off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, with millions and millions watching worldwide.

Memphis’ breakout on the postseason stage, to be clear, will come regardless. But if early takeaways from the Grizzlies’ play absent Jackson and Clarke are any indication, it won’t be until this time next year.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.


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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz



We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca



It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John



The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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