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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southwest Division

In continuing the disappointment series for Basketball Insiders, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Southwest Division and their current woes.

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The NBA season is still very much in its infancy and yet storylines have already begun to develop around the league. Certain teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are playing up to their pre-conceived expectations. Others, much like the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans, appear as if they could be in for somewhat of a long season. Either way, there is still plenty of time for things to change — but will they?

Continuing our early-season disappointments series, it’s time to look at various aspects of the Southwest Division and highlight the ways the specific situation could turn around down the line. Whether it’s the Pelicans slow start or the Houston Rockets’ lack of defense, the Southwest has clearly left quite a bit to be desired. Let’s take a look at the previously mentioned, as well as a few other divisional setbacks and see what we can uncover.

Pelicans’ Slow Start

To what can we accurately attribute New Orlean’s horribly slow start? Considering the fact that many considered them a West playoff bubble team, it’s been disappointing beyond belief. It would be easy to point a finger at the absence of Zion Williamson. He was electric in the preseason and was a major reason the Pelicans were expected to compete. But laying all the blame there would be too easy.

The fact of the matter is that New Orleans has just been playing poor basketball. Their best player, Jrue Holiday, has been off to an alarmingly rough start. He’s shooting just 23.3 percent from three on over five attempts per night and his efficient field goal percentage is 40.5 percent. Those are both career lows by a country mile.

Brandon Ingram has been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 25.9 points on very efficient shooting, and yet he’s second-worst (to Holiday) in plus-minus at negative-7.3.

It’s hard to point out exactly what it is that is causing them to lose games, but they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league — and that’s as good a place to start as any. They no longer have Anthony Davis’ length under the rim and the only true defensive force they have in the paint, Derrick Favors, is barely cracking 15 minutes a night.

Williamson’s return from injury in a few weeks should improve their play on both ends of the floor — but head coach Alvin Gentry will need to fix this defense if they want to start seeing more wins.

James Harden + Russell Westbrook’s Efficiency Woes

The Rockets are sitting at 7-3, but they haven’t looked too impressive.

James Harden leads the league in scoring but is doing so by shooting a career-low percentage from three and his worst mark from the field since his rookie year. Russell Westbrook is shooting an abysmal 21.4 percent from three, a career-low, yet he’s shooting a career-high from the field as a whole, which is certainly strange.

The efficiency issues don’t solely stop at Harden and Westbrook. Eric Gordon is shooting 30.9 percent from the field, an entire 10 percent below any other season average he’s had.

Unfortunately, and expectedly, their issues don’t stop on the offensive end. Houston has given up 118.4 points per game to opponents, ahead of only four other teams in the league. The Rockets rank 20th in defensive rating as the fast-paced offense and overall age of the roster has certainly influenced that stagnation.

The one silver lining is that they still lead the NBA in scoring despite their efficiency issues. If their shooting averages start to increase — as you should expect them to — their offense could become a problem for the rest very quickly.

Kristaps Porzingis Struggling

Surprisingly, Kristaps Porzingis was actually pulled out of the Dallas Mavericks lineup during crunch-time against the Boston Celtics. He even lost to the New York Knicks in his first return to Madison Square Garden and looked bad doing so. Overall, his fit with Luka Doncic has been awkward at best.

And yet, the Mavericks are 6-4.

Porzingis started hot by scoring over 20 in each of his first three contests, but he’s put up just one such contest over their last seven games and has lacked plenty of physicality on the defensive end.

In that game against the Celtics, he mustered just 20 minutes, netting just four points on 1-for-11 from the field.

There have been 14 players to average at least three post-up possessions per game this season and Porzingis is dead-last in there at 0.55.

Let’s look at the bright side: He’s playing alongside arguably the best, young player in the league in Luka Doncic. Moreover, Porzingis is playing in his first season since tragically tearing a ligament in his knee just weeks before his first All-Star Game. It was expected that he’d struggle early. So the fact that he’s still averaging over 18 points per game isn’t exactly a negative.

If he can find his game — or, more importantly, a tad more competitiveness — the Mavericks could be a real threat to make the playoffs.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ Minutes Distribution

This one is pretty bizarre. For all the young talent on their roster, guess who is leading the team in minutes? Jae Crowder. Guess who is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes per game? Jae Crowder. Guess, then, which players are averaging well under 25 minutes per game? Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson.

Jaren Jackson Jr. barely cracks 26 minutes and Ja Morant creeps out over 27.

What is up with this? Obviously, the Grizzlies aren’t trying to make the playoffs this season, but wouldn’t it be in their best interest to play their young studs? Perhaps there is a deeper plan to all this, but if so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense.

There are still plenty of games to be had, so perhaps Memphis’ front office wants to save their key player’s legs for down the stretch. Still, there’s honestly no rhyme or reason for doing this when their team is so young and uninjured.

It really can’t be mentioned enough that these disappointments could all be completely dispelled, some within a few weeks. At only about 10-to-11 games into the campaign, the amount of reliable data out there isn’t necessarily accurate.

Will the Rockets start making their shots? Will Ja Morant get more minutes? Can Williamson change the narrative around the Pelicans? Only time will tell for these pertinent questions and many more. But if we’ve learned anything over the history of the league, it’s that puzzling stories and frustrations can change in an instant.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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