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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “6 Situations” series by looking at which scenarios are worth looking into division by division, starting with the Northwest.

Matt John

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Well, that does it, everyone. The NBA is officially coming back.

There are definitely concerns about whether this is going to work and whether the team that wins the title will be considered the legitimate champion of 2020. We’ve had plenty of players pull out albeit, in retrospect, most of them have been on teams that are not likely to make the playoffs or make a serious run in the playoffs. A lot can change leading up to when the season resumes on July 30, but the headline here is, “The NBA has returned!”

Now that the hiatus has an official expiration date, every team, whether they are playing or not, is worth taking a look at from here on out. With that, it’s time to introduce you to Basketball Insiders’ newest series – “Six Situations” in which, as the title suggests, we look at six scenarios from each division in the league that are worth paying attention to.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Do they bring the band back together?

This season worked out about as beautifully as OKC could have imagined. Chris Paul has been awesome when they weren’t even asking him to. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a franchise cornerstone in the making. Danilo Gallinari’s continued comeback is an amazing story that continues to fall under the radar. The supporting cast has done everything that’s been asked of them. Billy Donovan is a dark horse candidate for Coach of the Year. As an added bonus, they are the team that nobody in the Western Conference wants to face in the first round.

We already knew that the future would be bright for the Thunder. We didn’t know that the present would be bright enough that the future has somehow become somewhat of an afterthought. This has been the Thunder’s most entertaining season since 2016. They’ve been so much fun to watch that seeing a team that plays so cohesively well together would be a shame to break up.

But, they have to be realistic about this too. This team could throw some good punches, but the odds of winning a title are very much not in their favor. Paul will only continue to age, and despite an All-NBA-caliber performance, it’s going to be even harder to get rid of that contract. Gallo will be on the open market coming off another classic Gallo performance – minus the injuries. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are transitioning from young guns to veterans.

Their competitors are only going to get stronger too. Golden State and Portland will be at full strength next season. Memphis and New Orleans will only get better as their youth movement progresses. Sacramento, Phoenix and Minnesota will do everything in their power to take another step forward. It may not be worth making a playoff push when pretty much everyone in the conference will be doing the same — especially when the future draft picks coming your way is basically your ace in the hole.

However, because of their ace in the hole, there’s no wrong answer here for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz: Is the tiff over between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert?

This might be the most dysfunctional a fourth seed in the Western Conference has ever looked. Despite the impressive 41-23 record, the body language the Jazz have displayed has not been too pleasant to look at. They just don’t play like a unit like they did in the last two years. Something is very, very off.

The hiatus has only made things worse it seems. This all started with Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, which made for an awful PR storm on his behalf seeing how days earlier, he demonstrated how careless he was in preventing the spread. Then, Mitchell’s positive test came to light. It then became pretty telling that none of his teammates stood up for Gobert when this all blew up. All of this came to a head when it was revealed that Gobert and Mitchell were at odds with each other.

Since then, Jazz management have stressed that the two have kissed and made up, but in case you don’t remember, things weren’t going all too swimmingly before the hiatus. Now, the Jazz are coming back, but without Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a rare positive for them — and that badly damages their floor spacing. This could be a lone hiccup in a long and prosperous partnership, or it might be the beginning of the end for them. We won’t know until the rest of the season unfurls, but these are not easy times for Jazz fans.

Times like these also go to show that just because you have developed a winning culture does not mean that it will stay that way.

Minnesota Timberwolves: How do they correctly build around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell?

So much has gone wrong for the Timberwolves since the Jimmy Butler fallout that they should take every little victory they can get. They acquired Towns’ best friend, and they followed that up by acquiring Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, both of whom were playing the best basketball of their careers. Even then, none of them were altering the Timberwolves’ chances one bit.

Appeasing your franchise player is always a good move because it keeps his head on straight, but if the losing continues, there’s only so much he can take before he decides being loyal just isn’t worth it. We’ve seen as much over and over again over the past decade. Towns has been a good soldier in Minnesota, but before the shake-ups they made, his frustration on the court was as clear as day.

Having Russell around should put his mind at ease for now. But seriously, is anyone thinking that Russell and the other new faces will magically turn everything around in Minnesota? The Timberwolves will have a lot more work to do, and they have a timer on their forehead. Because who knows how long they have before both Towns and Russell realize that they can be teammates on a better team?

As stated earlier, the West is only going to get tougher. Their new additions give them more offensive firepower, but they’ll need defensive personnel to not only match it, but to make progress too. Adding a high lottery pick into the mix could definitely help things out a bit, but the Timberwolves have relied on that strategy before to not so great results…

Portland Trail Blazers: Can they surround Damian Lillard with better players?

Portland has done an excellent job building around Lillard. It only took two seasons for them to build a pseudo-contender around him. Even after they were gutted in 2015, they retooled the team well enough that they’ve won a few playoff series since then and even made a surprise run to the conference finals just last year.

This season’s obviously been a different story, but no one’s really to blame on their end. Better yet, when the season resumes and next season, they should be much better with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in action. Losing Trevor Ariza will sting a bit, but even if Portland misses the playoffs, they should conceivably play well enough to turn some heads.

With a full squad, the Portland Trail Blazers are good…not great. Damian Lillard is a top-10 player in the league, and he’s put up the finest regular-season performance he’s ever had in his career. It’s evident that as he approaches 30, he’s entering the very top of his game. A talent like that can only do so much though. Guys like Nurkic and CJ McCollum are great surrounding pieces, but as guys who are next in command, comparing them to the likes of others in the same role such as Anthony Davis and Paul George is downright laughable.

Now that he’s in his prime, Lillard doesn’t have years to waste. Portland needs better talent surrounding him if they both want to go on deep playoff runs as well as keep Lillard happy. How they do that is anyone’s guess. They don’t exactly have a ton of assets at their disposal, but they have a good executive running the show in Neil Olshey, so don’t count them out.

Lillard has never complained once since being drafted by the Blazers in part due to them putting a solid team around him for most of his tenure. That could change if, well, nothing changes.

Utah Jazz: What do they do about Mike Conley Jr?

This really isn’t anyone’s fault. Conley just has not been a good fit with the Jazz for a combination of factors. At 32 years old, it’s possible his best days are behind him. It’s also possible that the Jazz have realized that Mitchell is best used as a point guard, as he’s played 49 percent of his minutes there — a career-high — which is Conley’s position. Whatever the case is, the Conley experiment has been a failure.

With Bogdanovic down for the count, Conley’s role on the team has become more crucial than ever before. This is his chance to prove that the Jazz didn’t waste assets when they acquired him from Memphis, but his season output should not make anyone optimistic. There’s still hope for him, as he’s had his moments, but expecting him to get his old groove back might be wishful thinking.

If the Conley we saw throughout the season is what we get when the season resumes, that puts Utah in somewhat of a bind. Conley has a player option at the end of the season for upwards of $34+ million, which he is definitely going to take given how uncertain the market is going to be. Should Utah make Mitchell the team’s starting point guard full-time, there’s not much use in having another point guard that’s being paid a near-max contract to come off the bench.

If they were to trade him, teams wouldn’t be interested in Conley for his services at point guard but more for his expiring contract. The real conundrum would be what to trade Conley for. Would it be for defensive help — Utah’s defense suffered when Gobert sat on the bench — or maybe for more scoring/playmaking that Conley was originally supposed to provide.

Then again, with the salary cap presumably going down with all that’s happened over the past year, it might be best for Utah to just ride this wave until it passes over.

Denver: Does Michael Porter Jr. make Paul Millsap expendable?

You gotta love when the low-risk/high-reward scenario actually comes to fruition, and thus far, it looks like that’s exactly what happened when Denver took Porter 14th overall in the 2018 draft. The young stud definitely has some kinks to work out in his game, but there’s a lot to like when it comes to Porter’s upside as a scorer. Denver already made some accommodations like trading Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to open up some room for Porter. It looks like they’ll have no regrets for doing so.

It’s clear they view Porter as part of the future, and even though he hasn’t been able to escape the injury bug entirely just yet, they clearly believe he’s worth the risk. Enter Paul Millsap.

Despite being paid $30+ million annually for the past three years, you don’t hear a lot of complaints coming from Denver regarding Millsap’s production. He’s not putting up the same numbers he did during his days in Utah and Atlanta, but his reputation as a sturdy reliable veteran on both ends of the floor has been a welcome addition to the young Nuggets. With him entering the last days of his prime combined with Porter prepping as his heir, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before the youngin’ usurps good ol’ Millsap.

Whether that will be after this season or later is up to Denver. Millsap’s contract is up after this summer, so who’s to say that he couldn’t be an important fixture while the team simultaneously develops MPJ? It’s also possible the team may view the younger, more defensively versatile Jerami Grant over Millsap, but again, that’s up to them.

No matter what direction they go, Denver selecting Porter will more than likely go down as yet another brilliant move since they started the Jokic era. Should he live up to his potential, there may not be much else Denver needs before they go on their most extended run ever as a franchise.

A fair amount of these questions are for teams that don’t have to worry about that in quite some time. Even so, they are something they will have to keep in mind when they see how their players do once the season resumes.

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NBA Daily: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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