ICYMI: Southwest Division

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Basketball Insiders just launched our new ICYMI series, detailing some of the happenings around the league that may be going under the radar. Today, Zach Dupont will be taking a deeper look at the Southwest Division

The NBA’s Southwest Division has quietly been full of exciting storylines, both good and bad. The Southwest has exciting young talent like Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, all three of which are having wildly different levels of success in 2020-21.

Plenty is going under the radar in this division, so here are a few storylines you may have missed from the Southwest.

The Spurs are back!

Coming into the season, the talk around the San Antonio Spurs was not about their playoff aspirations, but rather if they could still trade DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge for positive value before the trade deadline. Now, more than a quarter through the season, the Spurs sit atop the Southwest Division with an 11-8 record.

DeRozan is having an impressive season for the Spurs and, despite being in his 12th NBA season, he has taken a significant step forward as a three-point shooter. DeRozan currently has his highest three-point percentage of his career at 36.4 percent, while attempting nearly two per game. DeRozan’s improved shooting has him leading San Antonio in scoring, averaging over 20 points per game. 

San Antonio has also gotten substantial improvement from a pair of youngsters, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson. Both Murray and Johnson are averaging career highs in points per game, with Murray putting up 15 points per game and Johnson tallying 14.6. Murray has also done a bit of everything for the Spurs, averaging a team-high in assists per game (5.2) and steals per game (1.3). Additionally, Johnson is leading the Spurs in rebounding, averaging 7.5 per game.

Even further down the roster, San Antonio has many exciting young talents not often discussed as much as others around the league. Devin Vassell, a rookie out of Florida State, is having a very solid season, averaging 5.7 points per game while shooting over 40 percent from three, while tied for the team lead in steals per game at 1.3. Lonnie Walker IV is also putting together a nice year, averaging 12.1 points per game on 41.6/38.9/78.8 shooting.

The Spurs, who are currently sitting fourth in the Western Conference, still even have room to improve, with stud youngster Derrick White waiting in the wings, having played only one game due to a toe injury. White’s return will only enhance San Antonio’s efforts as they will soon be adding a player who averaged 11.3 points per game last year and served as one of the best on-ball defenders on the team.  

Time to panic in New Orleans? 

Contrary to San Antonio’s success, the New Orleans Pelicans came into 2020-21 with high expectations and have yet to capitalize on the talent many said they have. New Orleans is currently 6-10, good for last in the Southwest and second to last in the Western Conference.

Unlike the Spurs’ youngsters, who have all seemingly taken a step forward, the Pelicans’ highly-touted youth have stagnated. Zion Williamson, the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was expected to step forward into the superstar conversation but instead, he has struggled. Defensively, Williamson has been nothing short of a disaster, acting as a constant liability while not showing the same effort and agility he showed at Duke.

Williamson’s on/off-court stats are shocking and when on the court, opposing offenses are putting up an offensive rating of 116.9, and when off the court, that drops to 106.1, a 10.8 point difference. Offensively, Williamson’s upside is still unreal. He’s currently averaging 23.8 points per game on nearly 60 percent from the field, but shooting continues to be an issue as Williamson’s free throw percentage hasn’t taken a jump, while his three-point percentage is hovering around 15 percent.  

Lonzo Ball’s play has warranted some concern as his shooting improvement from last year seems to have been a fluke. Ball has struggled shooting everywhere on the floor this season, posting a woeful shooting split of 38.8/30.1/58.3 and only averaging 4.6 assists per game, down seven last season. His alarming three-point percentage isn’t helped by the fact that Ball is shooting 7.6 attempts from deep per game, the highest total on the team by 1.5 attempts.

It’s not all doom and gloom in New Orleans though as the ultra-young team still has plenty of reason for optimism. Brandon Ingram is having another excellent season, putting up 24.1 points per game to lead the way.  A fully healthy and slightly skinnier, Williamson is still a player to be feared in the NBA as he continues to develop. The Pelicans also have guys like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis Jr. all on the roster and improving by the day. So, while the Pelicans 2020-21 season may be in serious jeopardy, their future remains as bright as ever.

Houston’s Island of Misfit Toys Rising

The Houston Rockets have assembled a roster of castoffs after sending James Harden to Brooklyn earlier this month, but their crew of misfits has shown to be competitive. The Rockets have won four games in a row to push their record to 8-9 and just one game back of the eight seed Portland Trail Blazers.

Christian Wood has been a revelation for the Rockets, putting together an All-Star level season in his first season in Houston. Wood leads the Rockets in both points and rebounds per game, averaging a 23.4/10.8 double-double. The Rockets’ new core is also led in part by John Wall and Victor Oladipo, two guards who have struggled with injuries over the last few seasons. Oladipo had an excellent first five games for the Rockets, putting up 22.4 points and 4.8 assists per game while crucially providing high-level defense that the team was missing before the Harden trade. Wall has had quite the career renaissance himself, putting together 18.1 points and 5.5 assists in his first season since 2018-19.

The Rockets’ rotation players also contain a nice group of guys who have had unconventional paths in the NBA. DeMarcus Cousins is far from the player he was during his All-NBA years with the Kings, but he has proven to be a solid piece off Houston’s bench to back up Wood, especially when you consider Cousins has played just 30 NBA games since 2018. David Nwaba is on his fifth team in five seasons – but through 16 games, he’s shown himself to be a serviceable rotation wing, especially on the defensive end.

Another solid defensive piece for Houston is rookie Jae’Sean Tate, who is playing 25.7 minutes per game to go along with his sevens starts. Tate went undrafted in 2018 out of Ohio State, then spent the last two seasons abroad playing in Belgium and Australia before getting his shot with the Rockets. Even further down the roster, Mason Jones, an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas, has shown some serious flashes of skill in limited play this year, putting up 8.6 points per game while shooting 58.3 percent from three-point range over his nine contests this season.

The Rockets are more than just a likable story of many players getting a chance of redemption or their first shot at all in the NBA. Better, they’re a competitive basketball team fighting for a playoff spot. While Houston might not be a title contender in 2021, they have a lot of pieces to build off of moving forward.  

Much like Houston, the entire Southwest Division is full of weird and exciting stories going under the radar in a spectacular 2020-21 season. Between early season struggles and unexpected leaps, there are loads of storylines to pay attention to as the campaign evolves.