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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 10

What did Week 10 reveal in the Western Conference? Ariel Pacheco takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Ariel Pacheco

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We’re quickly approaching the All-Star break in what, to this point, has been a very odd season. Soem teams are starting to find their rhythm while others are struggling. As for individual players, we’re seeing guys put up monster numbers on an almost nightly basis.

There’s a lot of basketball being played, so here’s what we learned in the Western Conference this week. 

Zion Williamson Unlocked

The Pelicans have started giving Zion Williamson a lot more responsibility in terms of initiating the offense and, in turn, Williamson has become one of the most unstoppable forces in the entire NBA. He has relentlessly attacked the basket with his athleticism and insane touch around the rim. His efficiency is through the roof and his play is deserving of an All-Star spot. 

In his last five games, Williamson is averaging 30.4 points and 4.2 assists while shooting an incredible 71.3 percent from the field. Most of his work is coming right at the basket and there doesn’t seem to be a defense that can stop him from getting there. It’s a real glimpse of what Williamson could look like at his best and it’s something that should terrify opposing teams.

Williamson’s play aside, the Pelicans still struggle to win on a consistent basis. Their defense has been awful all season long, routinely giving up over 120 points per game. If they can figure out their defensive issues and string some wins together, New Orleans could pose a serious threat in the season’s second half.

Trail Blazers Winning Despite Injuries

The Portland Trail Blazers, for what seems like the entire season, have dealt with injuries to key guys like Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum and Zach Collins. Still, somehow, they are the hottest team in the NBA, with the longest current win streak at six straight games. As guys have stepped up, the team has thrived.

Gary Trent Jr. has scored efficiently while providing great defense. Enes Kanter has been a double-double machine as a starter. Anfernee Simons has started to find his game, scoring in double digits in 11 of his last 14 games off the bench. Camelo Anthony has filled his role as a scorer of the bench rather nicely.

While those guys have stepped up, no one has done more for the team than Damian Lillard.   

It’s hard to state just how great Lillard has been this season. He’s carried this team to the fourth seed amidst all the injuries, planting himself firmly in the MVP conversation. A large reason for the team’s success is how they’ve performed in close games; Lillard, in particular, has hit huge shots in the clutch on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, his 43-point, 16-assist performance against the Pelicans this week was one the best games by anyone on the season.

Jokic Keeping Nuggets Afloat 

Nikola Jokic has been arguably the best player in basketball to this point. It is a marvel that he’s able to play the way he does at his size. His season averages of 27 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists are reflective of his remarkable style of play. Jokic has multiple 40-plus point performances as well and a 50-point game in a loss to the Kings a few weeks back. 

Despite his play, the Nuggets have struggled this season and the team’s success is the only real negative in his MVP case. In Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, they lost two key players to Detroit. They’ve also got inconsistent play from Jamal Murray, who had a 50-point outburst against the Cavaliers this week but has been up and down otherwise. Michael Porter Jr. missed significant time due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. 

The Nuggets have managed a 16-14 record, good enough for seventh in the Western Conference. After last year’s playoffs, there were high hopes for this team. Jokic has largely kept them afloat. There’s still plenty of time left for the Nuggets to find that level they were at last season, but it’s concerning they haven’t looked like the same caliber of team.

Best in The West?

As of right now, there are three teams that are clearly in a tier above everyone else: the Utah Jazz, Los Angles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. All three teams have pretty good cases for being the top team, but all three equally share some concerns as well.

The Jazz have the best record of any team in the NBA, while they’ve also managed the best net rating at 9.0. However, the question with the Jazz is if they have enough top-end talent to compete come the postseason. It’s a fair question, but we have seen Donovan Mitchell raise his game to that level before — the Jazz will need him to do so again if they want to win a title.

The defending champion Lakers are second in the West. Still, despite their great record, they haven’t played to that same level this season. They also now have injury concerns with Anthony Davis now sidelined with a calf strain. Simply put, the Lakers need a fully healthy Davis to win a championship this season. They still have LeBron James which will always give them a shot, but at the moment there seem to be more questions than answers. 

The Clippers, despite their talent, have become a sort of underdog in terms of title teams. Third in the West and third in net rating. They have been a great offensive team and their depth has been an asset. They also seem to have much better on-court chemistry this year. The concern with them is related to their performance in last year’s playoffs and whether they can put that in the past or not. 

The NBA is an ever-changing beast that can look different even on a week-to-week basis. Be sure to check back for our next installment of What We Learned.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?

Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.

Chad Smith

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As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.

There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.

Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.

While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.

Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.

The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.

Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?

Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.

Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.

Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.

Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.

Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.

After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.

Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.

In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.

Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.

Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.

Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.

Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.

The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.

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NBA Daily: Gary Trent Jr. Pushing Portland to Defy Expectations

Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and defying expectations. As to how, look no further than Gary Trent Jr.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and exceeding expectations. They’re currently fifth in the Western Conference and within three games of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.

It’s abundantly clear that Damian Lillard is most responsible for Portland’s success. However, one player can only take a team so far and, as great as Lillard has played the role of Batman, Gary Trent Jr. has taken a huge step up and emerged as his Robin in the absence of CJ McCollum.

In fact, in their Feb. 4 tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, a game in which the Trail Blazers were without Lillard and McCollum, Trent scored a team-high 24 points and led Portland to a 121-105 victory at the Wells Fargo Center, just the 76ers second loss at home on the season.

Lillard, McCollum and Trent have only played 11 games together this season — and, in one of those, Trent logged fewer than six minutes. When the three of them suit up, Portland is 7-4 and has scored 136.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest offensive rating of any trio on the Trail Blazers that has played at least 10 games together, per NBA.com. That group will have to provide more defensive resistance for Portland to succeed in the postseason — in their time together, the trio is surrendering 117 points per 100 possessions — but their offensive potency would give them a chance against just about any opponent.

McCollum, who has missed time due to a fracture in his left foot, hasn’t played since Jan. 16. Since then, Portland, who recently rattled off six consecutive wins, are 10-6. In February, the team is 8-3 while Trent, who is averaging 18 points per game since McCollum’s injury, has proven an essential part of that success.

For the season, the former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 15.4 points per game while splashing 44.2 percent of his 7.4 three-point attempts per game. Trent is also 13th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, contributing 3.3 per contest. But what’s pushed his game to a new level this season?

Well, Trent has improved his greatest strength: the catch-and-shoot three. Last season, Trent shot 41.5 percent on 2.9 catch-and-shoot opportunities per game. This season, not only has he improved that percentage to 44.6 percent, but he’s done so on four such attempts per game.

Trent has also become more dangerous off the dribble: while he averaged just 2.9 pull-ups per game last season, Trent has appeared far more comfortable creating off the bounce this season, hoisting 6.3 pull-ups per contest this season and knocking them down at a 39.2 percent clip. 3.3 of those attempts have come from beyond the arc and are going in at a rate of 43.3 percent. The fact that Trent has more than doubled those attempts per game is an accurate reflection of his evolution into more than a long-range threat.

The same goes for his newfound penchant for coming off a pindown and snaking his way from the slot — the space between the three-point line and the top of the key — to the opposite elbow for a mid-range jumper.

 

For all his improvement, Trent still has a lot of room for growth. To put it mildly, his numbers at the other end of the floor are underwhelming. Trent ranks towards the bottom of the Trail Blazers’ roster in numerous defensive metrics, per basketball-reference: his 1.1 steal percentage is 10th on a 14-player roster; his .1 defensive win shares ninth; his -2.3 box plus-minus 11th; his 120 points per 100 possessions 14th.

His effort is evident — Trent’s 2.1 deflections per game, the third-most on the Trail Blazers, is a testament to that — but, as someone who’s typically alongside at least one of (if not both of) Lillard and McCollum, Trent is often charged with more difficult defensive assignments, arguably tougher tasks than he’s best-suited to take on. But, sometimes, challenges of that nature are a part of life in the NBA.

The Trail Blazers rank sixth in points per 100 possessions, but their defensive rating is the third-worst in the league. That imbalance has existed throughout the Lillard-McCollum era in Rip City, and it’s at the core of why Portland hasn’t made it past the first round in three of the last four postseasons. It also makes the Blazers’ run to the Conference Finals two years ago that much more impressive.

Trent Jr.’s growth offensively is a crucial part of why Portland once again is overcoming injuries and defying regular-season expectations. However, if he can make more of an impact defensively, perhaps by raising his steal rate, it could be one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers enjoy a lengthier stay in the playoffs than has typically been the case in recent years.

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