One Question Every Team in NBA’s Southwest Division Must Answer By the End of 2017-18
NBA championship odds come courtesy of Bovada and are accurate as of Thursday, March 29. While teams that have been officially eliminated from playoff contention won’t have line changes, be sure to double-check the numbers on postseason hopefuls before placing a wager, as they will shift with each passing game.
Dallas Mavericks (Off): Do They Have Any Wings For The Future?
The short answer to this question appears to be no…for now.
Dorian Finney-Smith is an interesting prospect, even after battling injuries for most of this year, but he’s best suited at the 4—where he’s spent most of his minutes this season.
Harris Barnes is in the same boat. He’s wildly overpaid, but at 25, he’s still young enough to be a key part of a rebuilding team. And yet, he too is best off at the 4, where he, like Finney-Smith, logs most of his court time.
Doug McDermott qualifies as an option. He has a quick release, tries hard on defense and can come around screens with gusto. He’s nailing more than 53 percent of his threes since coming over to the Dallas Mavericks from the New York Knicks.
But he’s not a no-brainer option at the 3 slot. Though his effort on defense is almost always there, the execution just isn’t. He would have an easier time matching up against more power forwards rather than having to chase truer wings.
Wesley Matthews is a perimeter Band-Aid at best. He turns 32 October, is working his way back from a fracture in his leg and entering the final year of his deal. He won’t be with Dallas beyond 2018-19.
This, right here, is the extent of the Mavericks’ wing prospects—which is to say, they don’t really have any wing prospects. With the playoffs out of the question, they need to use the rest of this season to decide who they’ll target in the draft (Mikal Bridges? Luka Doncic?) and to scout free agents who might help them in the long run at the 2 and 3 spots.
Houston Rockets (+130): Are Their Super-Small Lineups Playoff-Ready?
Plucking out flaws for the Houston Rockets is unfathomably difficult. They don’t have many. They have clinched the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, field one of the most potent offenses ever and are much better on the defensive end than most previously expected.
If there’s one thing they need to work on, however, it’s the exposure of their super small lineups.
Part of their championship appeal has always been the ability to play without a big. Sure, they have a nice traditional option in Nene. Ryan Anderson is a good contributor at the 5 for his floor spacing. Clint Capela is the bridge between the classic and contemporary; he infuses both size and switchiness. They have to play those guys. And they’ve been effective when doing so.
But the Rockets’ all-wing lineups are supposed to be unguardable. And the numbers often support this. They’re outscoring opponents by 46.6 points(!) per 100 possessions when running out James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker. This also happens to be their most-used lineup that doesn’t feature a conventional tower.
The problem: This five-man arrangement has only seen 58 possessions all season, according to Cleaning The Glass. That’s not even two-thirds of an entire game. Sub in Chris Paul for Gordon, and you have the lineup that was supposed to scare the bajeebus out of everyone in the Association—including the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors. That unit hasn’t even cycled through 25 possessions on the year.
Protracted absences from Paul and Mbah a Moute have limited the Rockets’ ability to trot out these pocket-sized monsters. And they’ve been a statistical terror when they do. Head coach Mike D’Antonio could be saving these amalgams for the postseason, in order to catch the Rockets’ rivals off-guard.
But the relative lack of exposure for these combinations can be construed as a weakness. Houston will want to make sure it doles out more run to them in advance of the playoffs.
For the record: Tucker has played 309 possessions at center this year, which is a fairly large sample. But the key for the Rockets is playing him at the 5 while CP3 is on the court. They need to deploy that combination more during these next couple of weeks.
Memphis Grizzlies (Off): Is It Time To Start Over…For Real?
If the Memphis Grizzlies know what’s good for them, they won’t have already answered this question. They’ll keep an open mind when approaching it.
Of course, this may be wishful thinking. If they were even half-considering a full-scale rebuild, they wouldn’t have fired head coach David Fizdale roughly three seconds into his second season at the helm. Nor would they have held onto Tyreke Evans at the trade deadline. Nor would they have rebuffed all inquiries into Marc Gasol’s availability.
All signs point to the Grizzlies trying to evade a rebuild. They’ll take their top-three pick in this year’s draft and amble into next season hoping said rookie, plus Gasol and Mike Conley, plus maybe Evans, slingshots them back into playoff contention.
This isn’t a totally unreasonable stance. A healthy Conley and Gasol can anchor a quality team. But they’re both on the wrong side of 30. And whomever the Grizzlies draft with their first-rounder may not be ready to contribute to a team angling for wins right away.
Hitting reset in a small market like Memphis is undeniably tough. The Grizzlies’ attendance will suffer, and they aren’t blessed with the cap flexibility necessary to lease out space in exchange for draft-pick compensation. But dangling Conley and Gasol should at least begin to restock their draft-pick cupboard while lightening their financial burden.
And after the season they’ve had this year, they owe it to their future to weigh all their options.
New Orleans Pelicans (+6500): Can They Start Hitting Some Dang Three-Pointers?
The New Orleans Pelicans still deserve a collective pat on the back for how they’ve played since DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Many thought they would fade from the Western Conference’s playoff picture, but they’re in control of the No. 6 seed at the moment, with an 84 percent chance of getting an invite to the spring dance, according to FiveThirtyEight.
But the Pelicans’ last 10 games, through which they’re 5-5, have been concerning. They rank in the bottom five of points scored per 100 possessions and have seen their three-point accuracy plummet.
Diminished outside accuracy would be a problem for any team, but it’s especially damning to the Pelicans, because they’re not a blisteringly accurate squad to begin with. They’re 19th in three-point efficiency on the year overall and a disastrous 29th during this 10-game stretch.
New Orleans is not barren of shooters. E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, Darius Miller and Ian Clark can all get after it from beyond the arc. Even Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo can drill the occasional long ball. But the Pelicans need to do a better job of creating high-quality looks—specifically with making quicker passes off drives into the paint.
At the bare minimum, head coach Alvin Gentry must have his team jacking more threes to keep defenses honest. New Orleans is dead last in three-point-attempt frequency for this 10-game span. It isn’t going to surprise anyone in the playoffs with that kind of shot distribution.
San Antonio Spurs (+4000): What’s The Deal With Kawhi Leonard?
This question is twofold.
First, the San Antonio Spurs must ask: Is Kawhi Leonard going to return from his right quad injury this season? After that, regardless of the answer, they must then ask: Should we sign him to a designated player extension this summer?
The initial question doesn’t seem like much of a query at all. Leonard has appeared in just nine games all year, and his return continues to be pushed back. It doesn’t look like he’ll be giving it another go this year.
That’s fine. The Spurs won’t win a playoff series without him, but he’s still just 26. They have time to make the most of his prime.
That second inquiry is a little harder to tackle. It appears to warrant a reflexive “yes” at first glance. But a DPE will award Leonard around $219 million over five years. That’s a lot of money to pay someone who, in all likelihood, will have missed 72 games this year.
It’s also a lot of coin to shell out for a player who may be unhappy. The rumor mill continues to churn out reports alleging that the Spurs and Leonard aren’t on the same page with his injury, and that neither side is pleased with the other.
Does it make sense to extend this marriage when it may be on the rocks? It worked for the Spurs with LaMarcus Aldridge last summer, but this situation is different. Leonard is their everything. They’ll steer into a rebuild without him. And we’re also talking about a lot more money.
The Spurs can always let this situation ride out into 2019, when Leonard has a player option, but that itself could create another problem. How will Leonard react to the Spurs passing on the opportunity to offer the DPE? He would have to re-qualify for it next season, and there’s no guarantee he makes an All-NBA team, wins Defensive Player of the Year or snags league MVP honors.
So if the Spurs show hesitation now—or rather, this summer—could it come back to bite them in the future? Unless Leonard returns to the rotation in time to re-establish his place among the Association’s top 10 players, San Antonio will have to think long and hard about how much it’s committed to him moving forward.
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