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The Underrated Players: Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes continues The Underrated series on Basketball Insiders with the Southwest Division.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA, as are most major sports, is a star-driven. LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, etc. carry the day in regards to popularity, production and success, whether on the court or otherwise.

That said, and despite what some may say to the contrary, no one man can take home the Larry O’Brien trophy alone. That star may carry the day, but even the best need a team around them to win at the highest level — players that do the dirty work and raise their team without recognition for their effort and, more often than not, the pleasure of the spotlight.

So, we at Basketball Insiders have done our best to acknowledge some of those players, to give them the recognition they truly deserve. We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Northwest, Pacific and Southeast — we even tabbed some executives that deserve further credit. Today, we look at the Southwest.

Derrick Favors — New Orleans Pelicans

Favors, from the shadow of Rudy Gobert into the frenzy that was Zion Williamson-mania, has gone underappreciated for much of his NBA career.

Never a stalwart on offense, Favors has faded into the background of a league driven by it. A modest 9.2 points on just under seven shots per game in his first season with New Orleans — albeit on an impressive 62 percent clip — was never going to jump out of the boxscore. And, unfortunately, it has caused so many to overlook the massive impact Favors has had on the glass and on defense.

Favors, for a number of reasons, spent the first quarter of the season in and out of the lineup. Once he was restored to a regular role, however, his presence proved more than noticeable: one of the worst defensive groups in the early going, the Pelicans have since improved to eighth in both defensive points allowed per 100-possessions and effective field goal percentage allowed.

A major deterrent in the paint, Favors’ return has forced the opposition, who were already avoiding plus-defenders Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball on the perimeter, to rethink their strategy against the Pelicans. Combined with his work on the glass — 9.9 rebounds per game — and Favors has proven steadying presence at a position that, beyond rookie Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans just has no high-upside depth at, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

And that isn’t to say Favors is only an impact on defense, either. His 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, good for eighth in the NBA, is also a major reason as to why the Pelicans are third in second-chance points.

Dejounte Murray — San Antonio Spurs

Murray’s case is similar to that of Favors. The fourth-year guard made a name for himself on the defensive end, earning an All-Defense nod as a 21-year-old sophomore.

But Murray’s offense? Let’s just say it lagged behind.

There’s a reason Murray made a name for himself on defense — there just wasn’t much of anything for him to work with on offense. Murray not only struggled as a shooter in his first two seasons, but rarely created for his teammates, facts that were only pronounced by his limited touches.

That said, Murray took a massive step forward as an offensive threat this season. Unfortunately, amidst the league shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, his growth seems to have been overlooked.

In 58 games, after a year lost to a right ACL tear nonetheless, Murray has set multiple career-highs, including points (10.7), rebounds (5.8), assists (4.1) and field goal attempts (9.3) per game, field goal percentage (47.5%) and three-point field goal percentage (37.8), among others. 

As the team has continued to evolve in the post-Tim Duncan era, the fact that head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have asked Murray to be a key cog, a primary contributor on offense and defense is no small honor, either.

And, clearly, Murray has responded, thriving under the weight of greater responsibility. And, only 23-years-old, that’s likely only the start.

Jonas Valanciunas — Memphis Grizzlies

Valanciunas is old school, a throwback to the center-dominated, pre-three point boom NBA. But, while that may leave him forgotten when talking about the league’s best at the five-spot — look up “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might find Valanciunas’ picture — it certainly hasn’t made him any less valuable to the Grizzlies.

Like Favors with Williamson, Valanciunas has flown under the radar playing alongside rookie phenom Ja Morant. But, despite the amount of time he’s spent on the court without the ball, Valanciunas has managed a career year: 14.9 points per game, second only to the 15.6 he averaged a season ago, to go along with 11.2 rebounds, a career-high and good for sixth in the NBA, 1.1 blocks and an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 percent, also a career-high. Valanciunas also posted 33 double-doubles, good for 12th best in the NBA.

And he’s managed it just over 26 minutes per game. Not just anyone could put up those numbers, fewer in so few minutes.

Valanciunas even began to expand his range: while he only attempted 1.3 shots per game from beyond the arc, he managed to knock them down from distance at a solid 36.7 percent clip. Only 27, Valanciunas going the way of Brook Lopez, old school big turned three-point marksman, certainly isn’t out of the question.

But, even if he doesn’t go that route, Valanciunas certainly deserves some vindication for his play. Before the season was put on pause, the Grizzlies were in position to make the postseason for the first time in three seasons.

He may not flash like some, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to mention Valanciunas in the same breath as the perceived best centers in basketball.

P.J. Tucker — Houston Rockets

With the Golden State Warriors no longer in their way, the Rockets saw their chance. In a major move toward an NBA Finals bid, Daryl Morey dropped Chirs Paul and brought the James Harden-Russell Westbrook act to Houston.

But, while they’ve proven the show’s main players, P.J. Tucker has played as important a role as any.

Tucker, a hard-nosed, do-the-dirty-work type, would be valuable, if not underappreciated, by any team. But, as Mike D’Antoni and Co. have shifted further toward positionless “small-ball,” Tucker has become central to their identity: defense, switching, forced turnovers, etc.

And, while they struggled in the season’s early going, the 6-foot-5 “center” had anchored one of the NBA’s better defenses in recent weeks.

While his 7.1 points per game aren’t exactly game-breaking, Tucker’s 37 percent three-point shot certainly can be with Harden and Westbrook, two of the NBA’s most gifted passers, patroling the backcourt as well.

By the nature of his game, Tucker will forever be hard-pressed to stand out amongst his teammates. But, should Houston prove successful in their bid for a Finals appearance, let alone in their quest for the Larry O’Brien trophy, know that Tucker will have played a not-so-insignificant part in that success.

Tim Hardaway Jr. — Dallas Mavericks

Could any player average more than 15 points per game, shoot more than 40 percent from three and somehow still be regarded as underrated?

Just ask Tim Hardaway Jr.

Of course, playing with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, it would be hard for anyone to steal the spotlight in Dallas. But, as the team’s third-leading scorer, Hardaway has proven a critical piece to the team’s success and is deserving of some recognition. 

No longer burdened with the weight of a primary option, Hardaway has flourished offensively — while his scoring averaged has dipped a bit compared to his 18.1 points per game from last season, his shooting percentages are up across the board, including a career-high 40.7 percent from three. Meanwhile, there’s something to be said about the fact that Hardaway’s success in his own role has further enabled Doncic and Porzingis in their own play and success.

But there’s more. Defensively, Hardaway has been trusted to defend the opposition’s top option on more than one occasion; like Murray with Popovich, that type of trust coming from a coach as respected as Rick Carlisle means something special.

So yes, the NBA may be a star-driven league. But remember, behind every last one of them resides plenty of other players that deserve to be recognized as well. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out the rest of our Underrated series, and keep on the lookout for more from us here at Basketball Insiders.

And, more importantly, stay healthy and safe!

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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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