5x5 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division
Five teams, five questions. The Southwest is as open as it's been in years. Who wants it?
The NBA season is quickly enclosing us. After two strange and unprecedented seasons, this summer provided anything but relaxation. No, star players like Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons became engulfed in trade rumors, several teams shook up their coaching staffs, player movement was furious in free agency and the Eastern Conference took several steps forward towards being better than the last several years.
Now, it’s time to look backward at what has happened to inform what might happen moving forward. We’ll tackle each team through the lens of the five most important questions they face this year. Some questions are about timeline and process, while others ponder the fit of the roster. At the very least, this serves as a great launching pad into the 2021-22 NBA season.
After hitting the Central and Southeast Divisions in the Eastern Conference, we make our first foray into the Western Conference with the Southwest Division. Besides the retooling Houston Rockets, there are four teams all scratching and clawing for playoff berths and respect. The Pelicans and Mavericks have superstars and urgency to win around them, while the Grizzlies and Spurs feature depth, youth and the opportunity for growth from within.
Head coach: Stephen Silas, 2nd year (17-65 overall)
2020-21 Record: 17-65
Vegas Line: 27.5 wins
Our Projection: 22-60, 14th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 26th
Def. Rating: 29th
The rebuild is on in Houston, where owner Tillman Fertitta is undercutting costs and working to bring a youth movement to this roster. While two bloated veteran contracts (John Wall and Eric Gordon) remain, the meat and potatoes of the team are in their first few years. Leading the charge is young coach Stephen Silas, a great interpersonal leader with a great deal of cache around the league.
Despite the youth movement, the offensive building blocks are in place. 2nd overall pick Jalen Green has all the makings of a franchise-changing scorer. Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood are entering their primes shortly, while fellow first-round pick Alperen Sengun has a great deal of promise. The Rockets might not win many games this year, but the blueprint for the future is already in place and well on its way towards building something special. We really like this young group.
How much growth is still left for Kevin Porter Jr.?
We feel pretty comfortable with Jalen Green, our front-runner for Rookie of the Year. The Rockets’ ceiling will be tethered to Green as their best player long-term, as well as future draft selections they nail. But the wild card in the entire equation is 21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. Last season, in new scenery with the Rockets, KPJ averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists per game. Sprinkle in a 50 point game and it’s easy to see why Porter is firmly entrenched in the team’s long-term plans.
As a playmaker, Porter has shown a lot more than was expected out of college. He’s still a score-first player, but the reputation and single season he logged at USC was drastically different than the playmaker we saw in Houston. He’s left-hand dominant and has a deep bag of jumper tricks that aren’t fully mastered yet, leading to inefficient scoring (only 42.5% from the field) and a high turnover rate (3.5 TO per game).
If Porter can position himself as the ideal complement to Jalen, play off-ball and knock down shots, he’ll be in a good position to avoid being drafted over. Green is driving the car; Porter has his hand on the clutch, ready to put it into a higher gear.
Can Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba play together?
Aside from Green, the Rockets parlayed their stockpile of draft selections into three other 2021 first-rounders. Chiefly among them were two guys we gave top-ten rankings to: Alperen Sengun (10th on our board) and Usman Garuba (7th). Yes, the Rockets walked away with three players in our top ten. Of course, they’re our new favorite team and we’re optimistic about their rebuild.
Sengun profiles to us as a true center, a 5-man who can have an offense run through him thanks to his creativity, underrated mobility and great feel for the game. Guys who dominated pro competition as teenagers simply don’t fail, and we were confident enough that the offense would outshine the defensive concerns to give him a top-ten grade. Sure, the defense might be rough the first few years as he adjusts to a more athletic league. Houston is the right landing spot for him due to the patience they have to let him learn rim protection tactics.
Of course, Sengun’s long-term worries on that end will be blanketed by one of the best defensive prospects we’ve ever scouted in Garuba. A sensational interior help defender, switchable athlete and instinctual mover, he’s some combination of PJ Tucker, Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo. Garuba projects as a guy who can make an immediate impact defensively while being a great long-term piece for a winning organization.
The fit of Garuba and Sengun is a bit tight in the half-court on offense, but both have some shooting potential. A positive step in that direction: the performance of Sengun and Christian Wood together, finishing with 34 points and 31 rebounds combined on Friday night’s preseason finale. We’re really eager to see the minutes any of these three log together and whether the Rockets really snagged three top-tier talents in the same draft who can share the floor in crunch time.
Are any of KJ Martin, Jae’Sean Tate or Josh Christopher projectable rotation players on a championship-caliber team?
Beyond those core three rookies and the long-term investment in KPJ, the Rockets are using the next year or so to find any other pieces they can count on once they compete at the top of the West. The main three candidates for those roles: Martin, Tate and Christopher.
All three should have ample opportunity to earn a large role this year, especially Tate and Martin. The great part about already having offensive focal points in Green, Porter and Wood is that we get to see how Tate and Martin function in the roles they’d have on contenders: off-ball, low usage and based on their ability to limit mistakes and play meaningful defense. That isn’t to diminish their offensive upside entirely, but in many rebuilds, these guys are asked to do more as scorers, either blowing up their ego or causing them to fail out of the league since that isn’t their strong suit. It’s a luxury the Rockets are able to avoid that hell.
What happens with John Wall and Eric Gordon?
In a way, we know what happens with John Wall: he doesn’t play for the Rockets. Wall was pretty good for the Rockets last year, so somebody around the league should want his services.
Nobody is going to want that contract, though, which pays Wall $91.7 million over the next two years. The only guy in the NBA making more than Wall this year: Stephen Curry. In a league where the prevailing sentiment is for players to “secure the bag”, don’t expect Wall to be giving back money just for a buyout. That makes trading him, or swallowing his money just to let him walk, a crazy undertaking for the Rockets, especially considering Wall plays a position fairly well stocked on top-end talent.
An injury could thrust Wall back into trade conversations, but it’s actually Eric Gordon who makes the most sense to shop. Gordon will be 33 by Christmas, and while his contract is similarly larger than the productivity he provides (two years, $37.7 million remaining with a non-guaranteed third year priced at $20.9 million), the sheer number isn’t insurmountable for the right price.
We wouldn’t be surprised if Gordon is waived and the Rockets eat his salary in March, either. We’re at the point where Gordon won’t help this team too much, and if releasing him provides more opportunity to guys like Christopher or Armoni Brooks, it’s an option worth considering.
Do the Rockets entertain offers for Christian Wood?
Inevitably, the opportunity to log heavy minutes and put up serious numbers will lead to the Rockets getting phone calls about Wood’s availability. Wood was sensational as a versatile big last year and his game translates really well to a lesser role on a championship team. If he’s the piece that puts a team over the top, and they pony up a great offer, should the Rockets listen?
To be honest, so much of this has to do with the answer to question two. If Sengun and Garuba clearly present themselves as a frontcourt tandem for the future, Wood isn’t expendable per se, but parting from him doesn’t feel like an unnecessary risk. Wood is 26, so his prime can still be within the window of the Rockets’ eventual upswing.
San Antonio Spurs
Head coach: Gregg Popovich, 27th year (1310-653 record)
2020-21 Record: 33-39
Vegas Line: 28.5 wins
Our Projection: 33-49, 12th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 25th
Def. Rating: 15th
At this point, circumstances around Gregg Popovich’s retirement remain murky. There’s no clear-cut heir apparent, and the 72-year-old Pop doesn’t seem to be slowing down. But the Spurs are at least a year away, or a star player away, from reloading deep into the playoff picture.
This iteration of the Spurs is super young, with all holdovers from the title team gone and veterans like DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay opting for a change in scenery. There’s a great deal of depth, some incredibly solid pieces but no alpha on offense. We like the players individually and the collective defensive identity they can develop. Long-term, it’s hard to figure out if they’ll have enough offensive firepower to trust this collection of talent to lead the Spurs into the future.
Pick three to start: Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker, Derrick White.
At the bookends of the starting lineup, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl seem like locks. Everything else in-between is a mystery. Keldon Johnson is the most polished, ready-made player of the group, a shocking statement to make if you’d have asked me that a year ago. Johnson is versatile enough to play the 3 or the 4, meaning his slotting into the lineup would do little to tip San Antonio’s hand as to who else they play.
McDermott adds specialty shooting on a team desperate for it. To us, he’s best served in the bench role as a movement threat just in the way he was used in Indiana. Walker was underwhelming during the preseason, and it’s hard to know whether White is needed for his scoring punch off the bench or with the first unit.
How would we build the Spurs lineup? Start Murray, White, Vassell, Johnson and Poeltl. The bench unit (Tre Jones, Bryn Forbes, Walker, McDermott and Thad Young) has a little more spacing, speed and offensive firepower to it, while the starters feature a defensive juggernaut trio in Murray-Vassell-Johnson guarding wings. That’s at least an identity we can understand from unit to unit.
Can Dejounte Murray get keep getting better offensively?
It’s hard to come to peace with the fact that Murray is now entering his sixth year since playing at Washington. Murray was one of the league’s more underrated guys last year, putting up averages of 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Murray is an elite finisher for a guard, but the jumper and ability to drive contact are still lagging behind for a potential top offensive threat.
Quite frankly, the Spurs need him to take another step forward and be their top scoring threat. Murray is such a good passer and improved out of the pick-and-roll that he’ll be first in line for reps as the guy. Murray was an underwhelming 87-224 (38.8%) on pull-up jumpers out of ball screens last year, with almost 80% of those jumpers coming inside the arc. The lack of volume from deep really makes it hard to trust the Spurs offense if he’s the top option.
We’re big believers in Dejounte, but probably not in the role he’s cast.
Is Keldon Johnson ready for a larger role?
We were very wrong about Keldon Johnson as a prospect. At Kentucky, we saw Keldon as an inefficient shooting wing who didn’t have a ton of ball skills or finesse to his game. Johnson, who just turned 22, had a very strong second season: 12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and a respectable 33.1% shooting from deep.
Johnson took 10 shots a game while playing 28 minutes a night. He was incredibly aggressive in spurts, acting like a human bowling ball coming down the lane at some candlesticks. Keldon was very inconsistent last year, often struggling to find a defined role. He’d play close to 40 minutes one game, then 23 the next.
Without DeRozan, Gay, Patty Mills or other veterans who were around in San Antonio, Johnson will need to be counted on as a consistent option. Whether the struggles with daily production were caused by him or his fluctuating minutes, those won’t be tolerated now that he’s a building block in year three.
Where does Popovich generate offense?
Instead of framing this from a player-driven standpoint (since players are the ones who score), let’s look at an adaptable coach who constantly changes with the times. Popovich has a unique challenge with this roster, one that features very few who can create their own shot or are elite drivers off the bounce.
Pace should be a large part of their attack, but what do they do in the half-court? Last year’s Spurs team was dead last in 3-point attempts. Phasing out the likes of mid-range kings DeRozan and Gay will help slightly, but the other players who slide into taking more shots in their absence aren’t exactly 3-point killers, such as Johnson and Murray.
If Popovich wants the Spurs to have a fighting chance, he’ll either have to generate a ton of 3-point attempts through his playbook (and encourage them to take them) or turn up the defensive aggression meter to a ten.
Is this Pop’s final year on the sidelines?
There’s really no way to answer this for him, and as we’ve maintained for years, Pop is the last guy we want to second guess. If it is indeed the end of the road, Pop will go down as arguably the greatest coach of all time and the purveyor of a dynasty that was stable and on top for 25 years. He deserves to go out in style, and at the very least, this young and retooling group seems like a fun, energetic group to be around.
New Orleans Pelicans
Head coach: Willie Green, 1st year
2020-21 Record: 31-41
Vegas Line: 39.5 wins
Our Projection: 39-43, 11th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 10th
Def. Rating: 26th
We aren’t at DEFCON level five quite yet, but four doesn’t seem like a stretch. For the second time in five years, the Pelicans could find themselves shopping a former top overall pick and elite talent their franchise is formed around. Rumblings about Zion Williamson’s discontent in New Orleans have been growing louder. The main impetus behind that animosity: the decisions and leadership style of general manager David Griffin.
To double down on making a postseason push and keeping Zion happy, Griffin canned Stan Van Gundy this offseason to bring in their third head coach in as many seasons. He also significantly mortgaged their future selection of draft picks to bring in mundane talents like Devonte Graham, unload Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe and let Lonzo Ball walk in the process. Are the Pelicans better and capable of making the playoffs? Yes, but not clearly enough that this season’s road to playoff contention is the slightest bit smooth.
How concerned are we about Zion’s foot injury?
At this point, the timetable around Williamson’s return from offseason foot surgery has been murky. He didn’t play in the preseason, and it seems like his return to the court will continue to be delayed into the regular season. Let’s hope Zion is 100% when he comes back and not simply playing because the Pelicans are hell-bent on pushing to the playoffs. It’s only October, and guys who start off the year gutting through injuries always are tough to trust.
Here’s the kicker: without Zion, the Pelicans have been really bad. They can’t afford to drive him into the ground right away. The Pels are 19-38 without Zion the last two years, equivalent to a 27-win season. Brandon Ingram is good, but he’s not that good. They aren’t deep enough to survive very long without him, so if this becomes a lingering issue, the Pels are in trouble.
Did the Pelicans improve or get worse this summer?
Let’s set the table here with a quick recap of their entire Summer:
Leaving New Orleans: Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, Wes Iwundu, 10th pick, 40th pick, two 2022 1st round pick
Coming to New Orleans: Devonte Graham, Jonas Valanciunas, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, 17th pick
That’s… a good deal of draft capital to give up (three 1st rounders, with at least one lotto pick) and the best player in the deal (Lonzo) for a guy who is slightly better at floor spacing at the 5 and the ability to get off Bledsoe’s deal. Yeesh.
The success of this group will come down to whether Graham is such a good fit next to Zion that the Pels needed to mortgage their future to get him. We aren’t confident that will be the case.
Do Valanciunas and Zion really fit well together?
When the Pelicans pulled the trigger on this deal, the immediate reaction on the internet was one of positivity. We’re a little dumbfounded about the source of that positivity: this idea that Valanciunas is a stretch-five to pair nicely with Zion’s slashing.
Sure, Valanciunas is an improvement of Adams’ non-shooting in that way. But last year, Jonas took only 57 treys, less than one a year. Only 11% of his overall shots in the half-court were jump shots, half the amount of his post-up frequency (23.6%). While Adams’ lack of shooting wasn’t great next to Zion, he wasn’t a high usage post threat (only 10% of his shots came with his back to the basket).
We aren’t overly sold on how well Jonas is going to work with Zion as a result. There’s a little more shooting, and a little more need for the ball in his hands, and that’s a scary proposition when Zion doesn’t space the floor well.
What do we expect from Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr.?
Let’s level the playing field here: the term point guard is a tad antiquated when half the teams in the NBA run their offense through a player at a different position. Zion is such a player for the Pelicans, meaning what they do in the backcourt isn’t necessarily about developing the next do-it-all point guard.
Alexander-Walker is the clubhouse leader to start at the 2 and be one of the most improved players this year. He’s a long, talented slasher who shot 34% from 3 each of his first two years. After returning from an injury, NAW set the world on fire in his final five games: 17.6 points and 4.2 assists per game.
Lewis might be best-served as the anchor of their second unit, letting Graham play the off-ball role next to Alexander-Walker, Ingram and Zion. Kira flies on the second unit with an up-tempo group that doesn’t pair him with the slow-down nature of a guy like Valanciunas. Instead, Lewis can become an elite backup point guard by pushing tempo, maximizing full-court and PNR play with Jaxson Hayes and getting clean looks for rookie spot-up threat Trey Murphy III.
Are the Pels about to take a nosedive on defense?
Shedding Bledsoe and Adams will improve their spacing on offense. Losing both, along with Lonzo, and replacing them with Valanciunas and Devonte Graham could really hurt them defensively. We thought Adams was a very good defender, and a notch better than JV on that end. To be fair, Valanciunas anchored a really strong defensive unit in Memphis a year ago, so it’s not like he’s bad by any means.
The issue is that the Pels got rid of almost all of their strong perimeter defenders. NAW is solid but unspectacular, Graham gets picked on a ton and Satoransky or Kira aren’t very good at this stage in their careers. Bledsoe and Ball at least provided value on that front.
The Pelicans were 23rd in defensive rating last year, their third straight season outside the top-20. This year, with lesser personnel and a first-time head coach, could be disastrous on that front and wind up sabotaging their playoff ambitions.
Head coach: Taylor Jenkins, 3rd year (72-73 record)
2020-21 Record: 38-34
Vegas Line: 41.5 wins
Our Projection: 40-42, 9th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 20th
Def. Rating: 6th
Year two of the Ja Morant and Taylor Jenkins era resulted in a playoff berth for the Grizz, and a solid showing against one of the league’s best teams in Utah. Memphis shook up their roster a bit this summer, subtracting Jonas Valanciunas, adding Steven Adams and utilizing their cap space to add a good deal of mid-tier contracts that could be used in a trade. The front office gambled on packaging them together for a useful piece that could push this team clearly into a playoff spot instead of fighting for their lives on the edges.
The biggest step forward will come from internal growth. Two years in, we know where Morant’s biggest improvement areas are (shooting off the bounce) and that Jaren Jackson Jr. has to stay healthy to keep Memphis in the hunt. There are solid veterans, impressive young role players and a fortified backbone protecting the paint in Adams. The Grizzlies should field a top-ten defense once again, and their ability to shake up their roster at a moment’s notice makes them a team worth watching through the trade deadline.
What version of Jaren Jackson Jr. are we getting?
At this point, we know that Ja Morant will show up and score. We can say the same for the competitors like Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson, and even Steven Adams is a known quantity. The internal elevation of the starting group comes from JJJ, now in his fourth season. Year three was lost due to injury in many regards, but it also represented a half step backward from the impressive displays he had in his second year.
Since his rookie season ended, JJJ has averaged 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 37.9% from 3 on 6.3 shots per game. He’s a true stretch big who is a solid defender and moves his feet far better than any other high-volume shooting 4 in the league. Jackson does have his shortcomings, too: he hasn’t rebounded the ball at a high enough clip, he still fouls far too much and he could stand to become a better finisher in traffic.
JJJ is firmly entrenched in extension talks with the Grizzlies, and we’ve seen first-hand the complex nature of trying to estimate what Jackson is worth and what the Grizzlies might offer. Regardless of what happens there with injury clauses and potentially hitting free agency next summer, Jackson holds the keys to the Grizz reaching their zenith. They need a big year out of him.
Are the Grizzlies going to be active on the trade market?
By the looks of how he’s structured the offseason, Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman has ambitions for a large deal. Whether that comes to fruition will depend on if the right piece becomes available and if Kleiman can construct a package that seals the deal. There are expiring deals (Kyle Anderson’s $9.9 M, Tyus Jones’ $8.4 M, the $6.4 M from Jarrett Culver if Memphis declines his fourth-year option), lots of intriguing young talent on rookie deals and no players outside of Morant that should be off the table.
The Grizzlies are deep enough to not deplete their depth with a consolidation trade, and have so much cap space in two years (only $23 M under contract for 2023-24) that it becomes an attractive landing spot for a star because the Grizz can build around their new team without much constraint. If Kleiman is going to make an aggressive move, this would be the year, positioning Memphis to make an ascent up the West akin to the one Trae Young and the Hawks recently made out East.
Do Anderson and Brooks finish the season in the starting lineup?
Nothing against Slo-Mo or the hypercompetitive Brooks, but if either moved to the second unit in favor of a superior option, it might not hurt the Grizzlies. Anderson is the consummate role player; he’s the glue of that first unit and a great secondary creator to have. Brooks, who can play the 2 or the 3, is hard to move to the second unit due to his defensive prowess. His injury to start the year might make him seem expendable if the Grizz thrive without him.
That said, either via trade or from internal improvements from a guy like Desmond Bane, the Grizzlies might be in market for a slight shakeup. Bane is an elite shooter who, if slid into the starting group for Anderson, spreads the floor a lot more around Morant-Adams pick-and-rolls. Don’t be surprised if Jenkins tries to press some buttons to revive a Grizzlies team that sputters and doesn’t take a massive step forward.
Who emerges as the more trusted third big: Xavier Tillman or Brandon Clarke?
When postseason play comes around, Jenkins has to shrink his rotation. Last year, behind Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies didn’t have one consistent option in the playoffs. Tillman played in three of their games, Clarke the other two, and both were only used in short stints as Jenkins went smaller.
One rotation piece we are watching is who will be the backup 5-man behind JJJ and Adams. To us, Tillman’s trustworthy nature and solid playmaking puts him a half-step above the wild shooting Clarke. Sure, Clarke is an insane athlete and a major defensive presence, but he’s not a more imposing defender than the uber-dependable Tillman.
Is Ja Morant really the man to build around?
The question nobody is asking but everyone should be. Morant has proven to be a high-volume contributor but is rarely efficient as a scorer. Part of the reason: the jumper (or lack thereof) changes how he’s played. Last year, he was 91-266 (34.2%) on jump shots and 36-106 (34%) on catch-and-shoot looks. The only starting point guard with worse C&S stats on similar volume was Dejounte Murray. Rookie year was much of the same: 85-242 (35.1%) on all jumpers, 24-61 (39.3%) on catch-and-shoots.
Because Morant is sagged off, his finishing suffers. He was 157-323 (48.6%) at the basket last year, and 170-342 (49.7%) his rookie year. Two consecutive high-volume seasons where Morant misses more than he makes at the hoop. His floater and explosive play in transition are redeeming qualities as a scorer, and he’s an exceptional passer. That said, we haven’t seen enough to convince us that he isn’t popping early in his career due to the spacing, scheme and opportunity provided by Jenkins and the Grizzlies.
Simply put, in order to have faith as Morant knocking on All-Star talent, we need to see him improve in one key area. Either become an effective jump shooter or finish everything at the rim. It’s year three, and Morant has gone through a normal offseason. Improvements are expected. The fate of the franchise is immediately tethered to his success.
Head coach: Jason Kidd, 1st year
2020-21 Record: 42-30
Vegas Line: 48.5 wins
Our Projection: 48-34, 6th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 15th
Def. Rating: 13th
What a tumultuous, strange few years it’s been in Dallas. Mark Cuban’s organization has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, stemming from office cultures of sexism to power-grabbing of control by executives. They ran off their Hall of Fame-bound coach and former NBA champion, and decided to replace him with a third-time head coach who has been convicted of domestic assault charges in the past.
Despite the tone-deaf nature of their offseason, optimism abounds in Big D thanks to Luka Doncic, a favorite for MVP and the league’s brightest young star. Doncic can’t overcome the restrictions around him forever, and there should be urgency to get him with another star player or establish a culture around him. For many reasons, this iteration of the Mavs worries us from both standpoints.
Is there enough talent and trust in Luka to remain within the thick of the Western Conference playoff race? Surely — Doncic is that damn good. Expecting a step forward seems foolish given management’s inability to get out of their own way.
Are we justified to already be worried about Jason Kidd?
Look, Kidd hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt as a coach. He had horrific interpersonal styles in Brooklyn, schematic nightmares in Milwaukee and illustrated some basic mistakes as an in-game coach in both stops. While reports out of the Lakers organization were all positive, Kidd has already reverted to his old, antiquated ways.
Kidd’s philosophy on the 3-pointer, of which it’s fair to say he’s behind the curve on embracing, is shining through:
We aren’t alarmed by the context of this quote, which seems to be as much about attacking the basket as it does taking 3-pointers. But the idea that you don’t shoot them because there’s potential to miss them is either a flawed premise or an issue with roster design that doesn’t provide enough shooters.
Look, the Mavs were sixth in the NBA last year, taking 38 treys a game. It worked, producing a top-ten offense under Rick Carlisle and the perfect floor spacing for Luka Doncic to operate one-on-one. Whether in the post or off the dribble, surrounding Doncic with shooters is a proven formula.
It’s also the easiest way to maximize the roster built around him. Kristaps Porzingis is a stretch big who has struggled on the interior, and we think Carlisle was right to defend his usage of KP as a floor spacer. Reggie Bullock and Tim Hardaway Jr. are 3-point shooters at heart and best on catch-and-shoot looks. Role players like Dorian Finney-Smith, Sterling Brown and Maxi Kleber aren’t shot-creators or finishers, they’re shooters. Drafting a point guard like Tyrell Terry, who is more a shooter than a driver, and signing a backup like Trey Burke, is the definition of preparing to flank Doncic with knockdown snipers.
Yet here comes Kidd, strolling into Dallas and proclaiming that taking those shots on high volume is going to be their undoing in the postseason, despite the fact the Mavs had FIVE shooters make 40% or more of their treys in the postseason, which allowed them to almost upset the LA Clippers. By our measure, shooting is what maximized this group, not what inhibited it. We’re really worried that Doncic is going to fall victim to an offensive strategy that sabotages their season internally.
What version of Kristaps Porzingis are we getting?
Bubble Porzingis was such a welcomed sight, and his development gave so much optimism about the Mavericks having enough on their roster to advance in the playoffs. In nine games down in Disney, KP was back towards All-Star production: 28.2 points (and five 30-point efforts), 9.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting an absurd 42.4% from deep.
In the seven-game series against the Clippers only seven months later, Porzingis was drastically different: 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and only 29.6% shooting from deep. Injuries played a role in hampering his season, but that’s far too little production to get from your team’s second-best player.
Porzingis is one guy who is energized by Kidd’s presence in Dallas, and perhaps the fresh face on the sidelines will get a more consistent output from KP. Offensively, we’ll expect to see more pinch post and back-to-basket opportunities. Defensively, KP needs to be an anchor that stays on the floor regardless of matchups or play styles. This is a crucial year for him and the Mavericks.
Can the Mavs get anything positive from Josh Green to somewhat salvage their 2020 draft class?
Rookies rarely contribute on playoff teams. Factor in a shortened season, abridged training camp and a former coach in Carlisle who is always reticent to trust first-years and there’s good reason why Josh Green, Tyrell Terry, Tyler Bey and Nate Hinton didn’t carve out consistent roles in Dallas.
A new coaching staff has taken over, but three-quarters that crop is already gone. Bey and Hinton (a second-round pick and undrafted free agent, respectively) have been released. Terry was a surprise release at the conclusion of the preseason. Green, who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last year, was projectable as a 3-and-D wing. His strong on-ball defense would make him useful for the Mavs, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen in the preseason from how Kidd has let him loose in transition.
RE Terry, a top-ten prospect on our 2020 board from just a year ago: something outside of basketball is at play here. Terry had a strange Twitter outburst slamming his time at Stanford, took several leaves for personal reasons away from the team and wasn’t good enough on-court to justify those hurdles. We hope he winds up figuring this out, but this is the investment in human beings at play that often gets overlooked. Sometimes, there’s no way to predict how things will turn out.
We love the premise of Josh Green in Dallas. He wasn’t great during his rookie campaign, but his ascent to the rotation on a playoff-bound Mavericks would be exceptional for all parties involved.
Who closes games in the frontcourt next to Porzingis?
As we mentioned earlier, Porzingis struggles against certain matchups due to his lack of quickness and the high-waisted nature of his body. He’s too good on offense to be sitting on the bench during late-game situations. Wisely, the Mavs have not committed one player to be his frontcourt mate, but platoon the position and spot based on what they need to counter their opponent.
If a big is needed, Dwight Powell should step in and be solid. If going smaller works, Dorian Finney-Smith is an appropriate role player at the 4. Hell, embracing going all-in on offense works against some teams, meaning Kleber could be on some closing lineups.
The issue is that none of the three are great talents. They sacrifice quality for versatility, and that typically catches up with a team in a seven-game series. Knowing Kidd, he will likely resist going super small and putting Doncic at the 4 in closing situations. That doesn’t sound like his style.
Is this the year they win a playoff series?
Health aside, this is the year where many mainstream pundits are expecting Luka to take another step forward. His numbers are already ridiculous, and no player spends more time with the ball in their hands. Another leap by the MVP candidate could be enough to push the Mavs finally into the second round.
Everything comes full circle, though. Doncic’s scoring rates are dependent on floor spacing, shot selection and usage within Kidd’s offense. His assist numbers will be determined by teammates making shots and standing in areas Luka can easily find them. We expect the Mavs to take a half-step forward defensively under Kidd, but there are worries about their schemes on offense and Kidd’s ability to adjust that hamper faith in their postseason performance.
The Mavs are good enough to hover around 50 wins once again, and clearly the class of the Southwest Division. Predicting a playoff advancement seems like an overly ambitious task.