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NBA Standout Player Watch — Jan. 30

Basketball Insiders moves to the Western Conference for our “Standout Watch” series. Quinn Davis examines three players who have been making their mark nearly a quarter of the way through the season.

Quinn Davis

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In a pre-pandemic world, it would be right around that special time of the season where players, media and fans spend countless hours arguing over the NBA All-Star rosters. In some years, a player might even lash out at a post-game presser over the perceived slight. The first post-snub game for those players is a must-watch, as they always seem to bring extra intensity in the hopes of showing the voting public just how wrong they were.

But this season, the All-Star situation is fluid, to say the least. The game itself was originally a no-go, but recent reports indicate the NBA may be looking for a way to host the exhibition. The league also just announced that voting on the starters for each conference will begin soon.

With only a month of NBA basketball in the books, crafting a perfect All-Star team that spares no deserving player is futile. There will be snubs — likely even more than usual. A player’s reputation may come into play more than ever leading to more deserving players missing the cut. Those players will make snarky comments about this, and their fans will argue on Twitter, and life will go on.

In previous years, Basketball Insiders would take a look at some players on the fringes of the All-Star roster and make the case for their selection. Due to the aforementioned circumstances, it seems more prudent to leave the All-Star game out of the equation and take a look at a few players who have simply stood out this year.

Our own Tristan Tucker has already pinpointed a few of those players in the East, so a few players from the West will be examined here. Keep in mind, these are players who, in a normal year, would be in the All-Star discussion, rather than a lock for the team. So, while players like Nikola Jokic and LeBron James have had incredible seasons, neither will not be mentioned beyond this sentence.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

The entire Utah Jazz starting five was in consideration for this list. The Jazz are now on a 10-game winning streak and sport the league’s best record. Their starting lineup is running teams off the court and they are shooting the lights out of the ball over the last few weeks.

While each player involved in the streak has played well, Conley will be the focus here. His two-way play at point guard has been a revelation, particularly after his struggles when joining the team last season.

Conley currently leads the entire league in plus-minus. While this stat is more indicative of team success than player success — Rudy Gobert is second on this list — the fact that Conley leads all other members of the Jazz shows just how valuable he has been in propelling bench units.

Conley’s efficiency has mostly been driven by his hot three-point shooting and the rebirth of his once-great floater game. Conley is shooting 42 percent from three and 54 percent from floater range, up from 38 percent and 36 percent in those respective areas last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

Conley has also developed better pick-and-roll chemistry with Gobert. The Jazz has scored 1.03 points per possession with Conley as the pick-and-roll ball handler this season, up from 0.84 points per possession last season, per NBA.com.

Just as impressive has been Conley’s defense. His basketball IQ and experience have made him a standout team defender and he still possesses the ability to hound the opponent’s point guard out to the half-court. Here he stays with Trae Young while reading the pass from John Collins, nabbing a steal which leads to a layup:

While Conley is helped by a Jazz team that is dominating as a unit, his stellar play has been a large part of their recent streak.

Christian Wood, Houston Rockets

After bouncing around the league and a brief stint in China, Wood has found his footing in Houston. The gangly big man is averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds a game on 60 percent true shooting. His production has been maintained even after the departure of James Harden, with who he had developed decent chemistry in their short time together.

The Rockets offense is performing at a league-average rate when Wood plays but plummets to one of the worst in the league when he sits. His vertical gravity around the rim opens up the team’s pick-and-roll game, where they have scored 1.20 points per possession on nearly six of those possessions per game, per NBA.com. Only Nikola Vucevic can claim that efficiency on that high of a volume over the first month of the season.

Wood is not a perfect defender, as his slight frame can make guarding the league’s bulkier centers a tall task and he can often find himself out of help position. He does occasionally find ways to be disruptive thanks to his ridiculous wingspan. Here he swipes an entry pass while guarding the perimeter:

The most impressive part of that clip comes after the steal, as his poise with the ball when leading the break has stood out early this season. Despite his stature, Wood looks comfortable dribbling into his spots and doesn’t panic when guards swipe at him. He moves at his own pace to get to where he wants on the floor.

The play of Wood has put him well ahead of the pack in the race for Most Improved and has been a key component in the Rockets’ fight to stay competitive.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

After a year under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander has been given the keys to the Thunder offense. And the third-year point guard has rewarded the team’s trust, putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists on the season with a very impressive 61 percent true shooting.

While the Thunder have slipped from the national spotlight this season, Gilgeous-Alexander is blossoming into a star. He has continued to improve his ability to finish at the rim and draw fouls, while also improving his already impressive floater game.

He is carrying the Thunder offense. The team posts a not-great-but-respectable 110.1 offensive rating when he plays, compared to a god-awful 96.0 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. His defense has slipped a bit with the increased offensive load, but he still competes on that end and has the length to bother opposing guards.

And, if you are into cherry-picked statistics, then this is the stat for you: in NBA history, only seven players have averaged at least 21 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds on 60 percent true shooting or better. Those players — Michael Jordan (twice), Lebron James (six times), Larry Bird (twice), Magic Johnson (three times), James Harden (six times), Stephen Curry (three times), and Wilt Chamberlain.

Right now Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokic — who was not supposed to be mentioned again, but alas — are posting at least those numbers.

The league is filled with talent in every corner, but those three have made their mark on this condensed and weird season in a way that deserves recognition.

Outside of that triumvirate, young players out West like Mikal Bridges, Michael Porter Jr., Lu Dort, and Keldon Johnson have been impressive and important for their teams as well. Basketball Insiders will be keeping an eye on them and many others as the season wears on.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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