Southwest Division Season Preview: The [Redacted] might be the Title Favorite

Welcome to the second of the Corner Three 2019-2020 NBA division-by-division season previews. In each of these previews, we use RJ Garcia’s player-by-player ratings (based on on/off metrics and career trajectory) and per-game minutes projections (taking into account potential minutes lost to injury) to project overall team quality for the upcoming season. RJ and Derek Reifer also provide their own analyses and commentary to provide any context and additional insights.

Northwest breakdown here.

Pacific breakdown here.

We continue with the Southwest Division:

1. Houston Rockets – 51 wins (2018-2019: 53 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Westbrook, Russell 33 3
SG Harden, James 33 5.5
SF Gordon, Eric 26 0.5
PF Tucker, P.J. 30 0.5
C Capela, Clint 28 2.5
6 Rivers, Austin 26 -1.5
7 House Jr., Danuel 21 0
8 Clark, Gary 10 -1.5
9 Sefolosha, Thabo 9 0
10 Chandler, Tyson 7 -1
11 McLemore, Ben 7 -3
12 Hartenstein, Isaiah 5 -1
13 Ponds, Shamorie 2 -1
14 Frazier, Michael 2 -3
15 Clemons, Chris 2 -3
16 Green, Gerald 1 -2
RJ’s Big Picture: Interesting start of the NBA year for the Rockets, huh! However you feel about China and Daryl Morey, one has to recognize that [Redacted by China]. Jokes aside, this is going to be a fascinating team on the court this year, even with a likely reduced role for James Harden. Rockets fans before the free agent moves that sent Kevin Durant to Brooklyn had been calling for the trade of Clint Capela and other roster shakeups to be able to compete with the Warriors next year, and now most likely Clint Capela will be essential to compete with three of the four biggest competitors in the Western Conference (Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets) considering their strengths at the 5.
RJ’s Big Question: Well, this is obvious –  it is Russell Westbrook, and more than that, how will Russell Westbrook fit with James Harden. To start, before even factoring in the question of the Westbrook-Harden combination, one of the big questions facing the Rockets is “Is 2018-19 the true Westbrook?”. In 18-19, Westbrook put up his worst year in a decade with a miserable 50.1% true shooting, and absolutely horrendous shooting splits at .43/.29/.66. The Rockets are betting that this was a one year dip, and not a reflection of the “true talent” of Westbrook.
On top of the question of “might Westbrook be washed up” is the question of how on earth these two are going to share the ball. In 2018-19, per Cleaning The Glass, James Harden led the league with an absurd 43.9% usage rate. The second highest usage in the league? Russell Westbrook. The Rockets have suggested publicly that reducing Harden’s usage will make him fresher for the playoffs, which would seem to make sense, but at the same time reducing Harden’s usage means fewer possessions that are being used by the bona-fide best offensive player in the league (his 7.4 offensive RPM blew second place Stephen Curry’s 5.99 out of the water). This will inevitably lead to lower offensive efficiency in the regular season even if Westbrook bounces back to his high standard of play.
Derek’s Big Number: 1.5%. A lot has been (rightfully) made about Westbrook’s inability to shoot spot up jumpers from the outside and its potential to cramp James Harden’s style on offense (he got just 0.95 points per possession last season on spot ups; under the 46th percentile leaguewide). However, playing off the ball isn’t just about catch and shoot threes. 1.5% represents the percentage of plays last season Westbrook attempted a shot off a cut, i.e. moving without the ball. That was one of the lowest 10 numbers in the entire NBA – one of the only players with a lower number? New (and old) teammate James Harden, who came in at 1.4%. Figuring out how to get these two moving when they don’t have the rock could be an underrated key to the Rockets’ new offense, and could be doable stamina-wise considering each will have a lesser load this season than last.
Derek’s Film Room:
It’s not that Russ isn’t good at cutting. As a matter of fact, he ranked in the 79th percentile last season in cutting efficiency in his small sample. He’s still a good finisher considering his athleticism, and it’s still possible to get a head of steam toward the basket – perhaps even easier – when not dribbling. Mike D’Antoni’s recent offenses haven’t implemented much cutting and have gravitated to a sort of stand-around-and-watch-Harden system, but I’m not sure that will work so well this year with Westbrook’s outside shooting issues and potential shooting regression from aging role players like PJ Tucker. It’s a contract year for D’Antoni, and it’s time for him to get creative and earn a new deal. If he does, then Houston will be a good bet to win the West.

2. New Orleans Pelicans – 45 wins (2018-2019: 33 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Ball, Lonzo 21 1
SG Holiday, Jrue 29 4
SF Ingram, Brandon 23 -1
PF Williamson, Zion 28 2.5
C Favors, Derrick 22 1.5
6 Redick, J.J. 24 0.5
7 Hart, Josh 20 0
8 Moore, E’Twaun 12 -2
9 Hayes, Jaxson 12 0
10 Okafor, Jahlil 12 -2
11 Alexander-Walker, Nickeil 12 -1
12 Williams, Kenrich 9 -0.5
13 Miller, Darius 9 -1.5
14 Melli, Nicolo 7 -0.5
RJ’s Big Picture:  This team is going to be so exciting. The NBA debut of Zion Williamson is the main storyline for most people regarding this team, and understandably so, but this is a team that has a lot of talent up and down the roster, as unlikely as that appeared to be before this upcoming year. Zion, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker create the exciting rookie core for this team that has already created highlights at
summer league this year, with all three poised to compete for all-rookie teams.
Essentially the rest of the roster outside of Jrue Holiday, Kenrich Williams, and E’Twaun Moore was acquired via either free agency or trade this offseason. The Pelicans will likely have a very good shooter on the court at all times with either JJ Redick, NAW, or Josh Hart, and will have high-level passers in the form of Holiday and Lonzo Ball.
The playoffs this year is not only possible, but likely for this team as they enter their first year together, and they will provide a lovable team for the city of New Orleans to come together around after the difficult departure of Anthony Davis.
RJ’s Big Question: How will the former Lakers fit? This question is not about Josh Hart as much as it is about Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Both Ball and Ingram were top-two picks who saw themselves as potential stars in the NBA, but on this Pelicans team Ingram and Ball have to figure out a way to fit in as second or even third options on offense with Holiday and Zion being the focal points for the Pelicans.

In the past, this has been difficult from a mentality perspective and also a skill perspective, with both Ball and Ingram being better on ball than off.

Derek’s Big Number: 12.3. That’s how many wins Jrue Holiday was worth last season to the Pelicans per Real Plus-Minus. That ranked 4th among all guards in the NBA, ahead of everyone but James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Damian Lillard. There’s definitely a narrative out there that Holiday is underrated, but I think that even from there, he’s still vastly underrated. Holiday’s defense has been on full display the past couple of years ever since he single-handedly locked up the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2018 Playoffs, but people haven’t been paying enough attention to his offense. He averaged over 21 points per game last season for the first time in his career, and he did it on 56% true shooting (better than Lou Williams and CJ McCollum) – not to mention averaging almost 8 assists a game. It’s time we start treating Jrue as a star in this league, and he’s the perfect star to complement this filthy defensive squad.
Derek’s Film Room: 
Here’s a play where Jrue’s underrated scoring ability is put on full display. Here’s what he sees first:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 7.35.52 PM.png

There’s a potential lane to take to the left and baseline, but his instincts tell him to use a play action and go for the screen-and-roll. Anthony Davis, for whatever reason, sets a rather uninspired screen (perhaps his mind was elsewhere?). However, many players would pull up for a mid-range shot here:

Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 7.36.15 PM.png
Instead, Jrue is hell-bent on getting a better look. Due to the lackluster screen, though, Jrue’s defender is able to follow him into the paint, putting him in a tough spot – one pass away is Elfrid Payton (4), a total non-shooter, and Davis doesn’t give him much of a roll or fade to work with:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 7.36.28 PM.png
However, he uses a fantastic behind the back dribble move to get by his man, then meet two defenders at the rim. He’s able to finish over the top of both of them, and using his left hand:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 7.38.11 PM.png
With a more inspired team of young guys and playmakers around him, things might be even easier for Jrue this season.

3. Dallas Mavericks – 41 wins (2018-2019: 33 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Curry, Seth 18 -0.5
SG Hardaway Jr., Tim 26 -1.5
SF Dončić, Luka 31 2.5
PF Porziņģis, Kristaps 21 2.5
C Powell, Dwight 23 2
6 Wright, Delon 22 0
7 Brunson, Jalen 21 -0.5
8 Kleber, Maximilian 20 1.5
9 Finney-Smith, Dorian 18 -1
10 Jackson, Justin 15 -1
11 Barea, José Juan 10 0
12 Marjanović, Boban 7 0
13 Lee, Courtney 6 -2
14 Broekhoff, Ryan 2 0
RJ’s Big Picture: After a somewhat disappointing offseason, where Dallas missed out on both Kemba Walker and Goran Dragic, the team enters this season hoping for growth from their two European stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and has good reason to expect it.
Doncic had one of the best rookie seasons ever, drawing comparisons to LeBron James’s rookie year. If he is truly on that path, then the Mavericks look to be a playoff team that could win a series with Luka at the helm, starting his potential transition to All-NBA caliber player and more.
RJ’s Big Question: What Kristaps Porzingis are they going to get? It’s fairly remarkable how much uncertainty has occurred for Porzingis since he last was on an NBA court, between his torn ACL, the allegation of sexual assault against him, and switching teams and entering a brand new system, its hard to have any idea what to expect from him this year. Even if Luka becomes an all star level player, the Mavericks will need to get serious production to be able to live up to the team they think they can be.
Derek’s Big Number: 17.6. That’s the average number of minutes per game that Kristaps Porzingis has averaged over his first 4 seasons. That’s not going to cut it for a guy on a max contract. Porzingod is still very young with potential to improve, but he’s clearly been injury-prone and has shown signs of fatigue as each season has progressed. His pairing with blue-chip stud Luka Doncic has an incredibly high ceiling, but there’s plenty of variance in outcomes here.
Derek’s Film Room:
This clip shows the kind of stuff Kristaps is (already) capable of in the pick and roll, with the ability to grow alongside Luke Doncic. He starts by setting a normal screen:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 8.10.41 PM.png
Instead of rolling, though, he pops out to the top of the key:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 8.11.08 PM.png
Considering his excellent three-point shooting ability, Thaddeus Young has no choice but to sprint out to guard the line. But the second Young commits, Kristaps makes a beeline for the rim:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 8.11.30 PM.png
The pass is on time and on target, but look at how far Kristaps is from the rim when he catches the ball:
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 8.11.39 PM.png
He rises up across and over one of the league’s best shot blockers in Myles Turner and hammers it home.
Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 8.11.47 PM.png
As much as I do love Frank Ntilikina, Doncic will a bit more dangerous a ball handler for Kristaps in this combination. There’s a reason Mark Cuban was willing to give up multiple first round picks, and take on bad salary, just for the opportunity to offer Porzingis a max contract. If he can stay healthy and grow alongside Luka as the Mavs believe he will, it will be a huge problem for 29 different teams – not just the Knicks.

4. San Antonio Spurs – 41 wins (2018-2019: 48 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Murray, Dejounte 20 1.5
SG Forbes, Bryn 21 -1
SF DeRozan, DeMar 32 0
PF Aldridge, LaMarcus 30 1.5
C Poeltl, Jakob 20 1
6 Mills, Patrick 22 -0.5
7 Gay, Rudy 22 1
8 White, Derrick 20 2
9 Carroll, DeMarre 18 -0.5
10 Lyles, Trey 12 -1.5
11 Belinelli, Marco 12 -2
12 Walker IV, Lonnie 6 -1.5
13 Johnson, Keldon 3 -2.5
14 Samanić, Luka 3 -3.5
15 Metu, Chimezie 0 -2
RJ’s Big Picture: The most consistent organization in all of sports moves on to a new year with new challenges to continue their consecutive playoff appearance streak. The biggest changes for San Antonio are the return of Dejounte Murray, recovered from an ACL tear that ended his year early in 2018-19, and free agent acquisitions DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles. The rotation should look largely similar with heavy minutes for LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, with shooters spaced around them in Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills.
RJ’s Big Question: At what point does this run end? Realistically, this team is less talented than many of the other teams in competition for the West Playoffs. On top of that, this team takes shots that are deemed to be less efficient than do most other teams, as San Antonio lead the league in mid range shots last season. Yet, the Spurs made the playoffs last year, and had a top-five offense to boot. This seems like it could be the year that the Spurs lose their annual spot in the dance, but it may be better to be too late on predicting Gregg Popovich to miss the playoffs than too early.

Derek’s Big Number: 22. That’s how many seasons in a row the Spurs and Coach Pop have made the playoffs. He’s done it with great teams and with mediocre teams. He’s run offense through post-up centers and iso wings. He’s utilized ground-and-pound two-big lineups and quick, swing the ball around the perimeter sharpshooting lineups. No one can build a winning system around their team like Popovich, and at this point, it’s doesn’t feel like will they make the playoffs, but how. The West has gotten a ton deeper and the Spurs’ two stars are getting older, but there is plenty of hope with young, improving, and returning talent around them.

Derek’s Film Room:
Here’s one of my favorite examples of returning 23-year-old Dejounte Murray’s defensive instincts. It’s a quick clip, but it’s an example of something not being coached by Gregg Popovich. This is all Murray, whose sniffing out of tiny actions like this will contribute to winning Spurs basketball. Together with Derrick White, who had a coming-out party in last year’s playoffs for his defensive work against Jamal Murray, San Antonio has the opportunity to field an absolutely terrifying defensive backcourt.

5. Memphis Grizzlies – 34 wins (2018-2019: 33 wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Morant, Ja 24 -1
SG Brooks, Dillon 21 -1.5
SF Anderson, Kyle 22 0.5
PF Jackson Jr., Jaren 26 0.5
C Valančiūnas, Jonas 24 0.5
6 Clarke, Brandon 22 0.5
7 Jones, Tyus 21 1
8 Crowder, Jae 16 -0.5
9 Guduric, Marko 15 -1.5
10 Caboclo, Bruno 12 -0.5
11 Melton, De’Anthony 9 0
12 Allen, Grayson 9 -3.5
13 Hill, Solomon 6 -3.5
14 Jackson, Josh 4 -2.5
15 Konchar, John 4 0
16 Watanabe, Yuta 4 -2
17 Rabb, Ivan 3 -1.5
18 Iguodala, Andre 0 1
RJ’s Big Picture: What an offseason for the Grizz. They found their point guard of the future, got assets for their well-paid point guard of the past, used their cap space to get future first round picks (some unprotected), and picked the sleeper of the draft in Brandon Clarke. The Grizzlies for this upcoming season have a roster that is packed with a combination of youth, talent, and the interaction term of the two. Realistically, this will be an evaluation year for the new Grizzlies front office, hoping after this year they will have a better idea what the team has in guys like Josh Jackson, Grayson Allen, Tre Jones, De’Anthony Melton, and their new set of rookies.
RJ’s Big Question: How will Memphis manage their frontcourt rotation? In the first couple of preseason games, the Grizzlies have rolled out a Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke frontcourt which has sent #DraftTwitter into a frenzy of excitement, but realistically those two aren’t going to start too many games together with Jonas Valancunias taking over that starting center spot. The question remains how many minutes this year Jackson Jr. plays at the center position, whether that is with the second unit or during any potential Jonas injury.
Derek’s Big Number: 26.3%. That’s the percentage of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shot attempts in his rookie year that came after 2 or more dribbles. Many people have compared Jackson to Al Horford, which is of course a great ceiling, in his defensive ability combined with a promising spot up three pointer. However, my real fascination with Jackson is his ability to create shots for himself – a skill which, if he develops it, can turn him into a true NBA superstar considering how well-rounded the rest of his game is. JJJ had an effective field goal percentage of over 47.4% on those shots. As a comparison, fellow rookie Trae Young, heralded as one of the best young shot creators in basketball, shot 47.1 eFG% on shots with 2 or more dribbles.
Derek’s Film Room:
5 point game on the road. 20 years old. Ball in your hands. Guarded by LeBron James. No fear for JJJ, who looks silky smooth with this crossover into a stepback 27-foot three pointer for cash. The Grizzlies will have plenty of time to experiment this season, and I’d love to see them unleash Jackson.

 

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by RJ Garcia, Northwestern University
contributions by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

 

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