MikeCheck: Morant leadership, Anderson growth spotlight Grizzlies among Southwest Division’s second-half storylines
MEMPHIS – The midseason All-Star break was two weeks ago, but the Grizzlies actually opened the second half of their schedule with a productive start to this week’s four-game homestand.
Game No. 37 of the NBA’s truncated 72-game schedule resulted in Wednesday’s home victory over the Heat, with Ja Morant sealing the deal with a game-winning layup. Next up is the start of a two-game, back-to-back set against the Warriors that opens Friday at FedExForum.
The Grizzlies (18-19) look to keep the momentum going in a matchup of teams currently positioned for what would be the final two spots of the NBA’s new 10-team, play-in/playoff format. Fueled by Morant’s leadership and the likes of Kyle Anderson’s versatility, the Grizzlies are viewed as one of the Southwest Division’s most intriguing teams and, perhaps, one of the Western Conference’s biggest surprises in the standings heading into the season’s stretch run.
Our Southwest Roundtable series wraps up with part two of the division’s top storylines over the season’s second half for the Grizzlies, Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets and Pelicans.
Joining me on our panel of Southwest Division insiders are TV broadcaster Mark Followill (Dallas), radio broadcaster/PA announcer Matt Thomas (Houston), writer Jim Eichenhofer (New Orleans) and writer Michael C. Wright (NBA.com, covering San Antonio).
What’s your team’s primary objective for the second half of the regular season?
The Mavs need to be more consistent defensively. Through first 10 games, they had the NBA’s second-best defensive rating, and they had the best over the last six games before the break. In between they have been bad on that end. Also, keep putting together stretches like the 10 of 13 they won before the All-Star break. It gives them a chance to climb out of the 7-10 play-in tournament where anything can happen. I think it’s going to be a wild race in the Western Conference to be the 5 and 6 seeds and avoid that pressure cooker 7-10 tournament.
Play with the same starting lineup two games in a row. John Wall and Victor Oladipo don’t usually play both ends of back-to-backs, so that makes things tricky. Getting Christian Wood back on the floor brings back some much-needed optimism. How many parts of the roster will be moved at the trade deadline will keeps things interesting around here.
Incorporate the final missing piece to this puzzle – Jaren Jackson Jr., who has been sidelined since the Orlando bubble while rehabbing from knee surgery. The Grizzlies were encouraging throughout the first half of the schedule as they endured just about every challenge imaginable. Will they get a chance to be complete, barring any unforeseen issues (which is hardly a guarantee)? Working Jaren back in alongside Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas is the priority. It will require patience, but will be a thrill to finally see come together.
Short term, improving defensively is a primary goal and needs to happen very soon in order for New Orleans to remain in the race for a play-in spot. Staying in the hunt would benefit the team’s youngsters, who have not experienced many pressure situations. David Griffin has said often that he wants the Pelicans to have the opportunity to play in meaningful games. Long term, continue developing the stable of promising talent, putting recent first-round picks Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. in position to make more strides for 2021-22.
For the Spurs, it’s all about consistency, especially on the defensive end, where they entered March ranked No. 10 in defensive rating (110.3). Of course, the Spurs need to improve some offensively, too, having gone into the month ranked No. 22 in offensive rating (110.0). Popovich believes good offense starts on the defensive end. So, that will always be the focus in San Antonio. Maintaining focus there ensures the Spurs a legit shot at returning to the playoffs.
Who’s been the Southwest Division’s MVP so far (not including the team you cover)?
DeMar DeRozan of the Spurs. I don’t know anyone who expected them to be battling for fifth in the West, and DeRozan is big part of that as a 20-point-a-night scorer. He’s also elevated his playmaking these last couple of years in San Antonio. Twenty points, five rebounds and seven assists a game are especially impressive considering he is a reluctant 3-point shooter. He still gets to the line a lot and remains a very efficient player from the dreaded mid-range. And he’s done all of that dealing with the off-court pain of the recent loss of his father.
Luka Doncic remains the division’s must-watch player. He does everything well and is destined for future MVP awards. It is surprising, however, that Dallas is just hanging just above .500.
Luka Doncic should be the clear favorite, simply because he’s the most productive and prolific player in the division – and that’s no knock on any of the other bright young stars throughout the Southwest. But the true most valuable person, bar none, this season has been Gregg Popovich. The Spurs coach has guided San Antonio back to the top of the division standings with a roster that’s clearly in transition mode. His experience, impact, ability to make the best of – and squeeze the most from – whatever he has to work with is truly legendary.
Not sure how long it’s been since this division only had two All-Stars (Doncic, Zion Williamson), but James Harden has moved to the East and the Spurs no longer have perennial All-Star locks. Doncic is the no-brainer pick here.
I’d be shocked if anybody in here says a name other than Luka Doncic. The guy is just phenomenal, and although he struggled some early in the season, he’s rounding back into MVP form. The Mavericks came into March with Doncic on a tear, as he averaged 31.1 points over his last 10 games going into the month, including three of the best regular-season scoring nights of his career with 46, 44 and 42 points.
Who’s been the Southwest Division’s most improved player, or pleasant surprise (not including your market’s team)?
My vote is Kyle Anderson of the Grizzlies. The man has never averaged more than eight points in a season. He is averaging between 13 a game this year. He made 82 3s in his first six seasons combined and is on pace for over 100 made 3s this year. He leads the team in win shares as well, and has started all but two of Memphis’ first 31 games. Year 7 is more than just lucky for Anderson, who has really blossomed into a well-rounded and versatile player for the Grizz and is having a career year in every way imaginable.
I thought Lonzo Ball was going to have his issues shooting the 3-ball coming out of college. He struggled in L.A., but has gotten better every season in New Orleans. He, Zion and Ingram have become a really nice trio in New Orleans. Lonzo has great court awareness and there is now tremendous confidence that he can shoot from the perimeter.
I’ll let John Wall and Christian Wood battle over this one. I won’t let Houston’s recent tumble overshadow the work that Wall put in these past two years to emerge from a devastating Achilles injury and regain most of his game. Seeing Wall explode coast-to-coast and blow by defenders to get to the rim these days is something I don’t take for granted. And Wood was my clear frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player before his ankle injury forced him out of action for nearly 20 games. So just have Wall and Wood split the honor!
If you told me before the season that Ja Morant would miss two weeks of the first half due to injury, Jaren Jackson Jr. wouldn’t play at all and Memphis would deal with a (health and safety pause to their season), I would’ve told you the Grizzlies had almost zero chance to compete for a playoff spot against the West’s brutal competition. Instead, they’re around .500. Impressive.
I don’t know if this is about improvement as much as it is opportunities, but Zion Williamson falls into that category for me. A field-goal percentage of 61.5 is just sick, and that’s what we’re seeing from Williamson, who just rag dolls defenders at will. You’re not stopping that man from getting to the rim, and even though he’s 20, Williamson is grown-man strong. His ability as a creator and facilitator is just astounding.
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