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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: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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