Josh Hart wrestles for the ball with San Antonio's Dejounte Murray

Southwest Division roundtable: Midseason review, part 1

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

It’s the halfway point of what’s been a very unpredictable season around the NBA and the Southwest Division, where San Antonio leads the current standings, while Dallas and Memphis are in play-in position, eighth and 10th in the Western Conference. All three of those teams were impacted greatly by the pandemic recently, but still managed to take a winning record into the All-Star break. In the first of a two-part update with our division-wide panel, it’s time to weigh in on first-half surprises, disappointments, team MVPs and unsung heroes:

What’s been the most pleasant surprise of 2020-21 so far for the team you cover?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

It has to be Jalen Brunson. The third-year guard is second on the team in fourth quarter points scored and heading into the final game before the break he was shooting 57 percent in the fourth quarter. He has given the Mavs a reliable bench scorer averaging over 12 points a game. Also he’s effective as the bench unit’s point guard and can be a secondary playmaking threat with Luka in the fourth quarter. He does all of this while being a high IQ player who has steadily improved from two-time college national champion to a very solid pro who is still getting better.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Clearly the free agent acquisition of Christian Wood. When he was playing before the ankle injury, he was very close to an automatic 20-10 a night player. He is a great pick-and-roll finisher and able to hit a 3 like a stretch 5 is supposed to do. He really became the main go-to threat after the James Harden trade and changed the style of the how the Rockets’ offense operated. He was having an All-Star-worthy campaign and was on track to a Most Improved Player award.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The most pleasant surprise is that the Grizzlies are still on solid ground at right around .500 and within playoff/play-in position, despite having players miss nearly 150 total combined games to injuries through the first half of the schedule. Justise Winslow just got healthy before the break, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has yet to make his season debut. Yet, Taylor Jenkins’ system and the squad’s depth have produced 11 different leading scorers this season in games.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Other than Zion Williamson showing aspects of his game he wasn’t necessarily able to fully display as a rookie, it might be the play of backup center Willy Hernangomez. A DNP early in the season, the native of Spain has emerged as a dependable reserve for a bench unit that needed help. He rebounds and makes simple plays on offense, giving the Pelicans a veteran reserve option beyond Josh Hart and JJ Redick. Additionally, Nickeil Alexander-Walker had a 37-point game in January and lottery pick Kira Lewis Jr. has shown lightning quickness and promise in spurts of playing time.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

San Antonio’s record-tying run of 22 consecutive postseason appearances came to a close last season after an admirable fight. So, the fact the Spurs are even in the mix for a return to the playoffs is certainly a surprise, considering nobody expected San Antonio to even be in this position. He won’t win it, but the job Gregg Popovich has done in switching up the team’s style – not to mention his ability to get the players to buy in -- certainly deserves mention in the Coach of the Year discussion.

What’s been the biggest disappointment?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

Rather than put that millstone on one individual, I would argue getting hit by a COVID outbreak for about three weeks is the biggest disappointment. Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are starters who missed 2.5 to 3 weeks. Backup big man Dwight Powell missed the same amount of time and the aforementioned Brunson was also out a week. In all, 41 man games were lost to health and safety protocols, most of them in a 2-9 stretch from Jan 15 through Feb. 1. The Mavs are 16-7 in games outside of that stretch.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

What hasn’t been? Christian Wood’s prolonged ankle injury. Victor Oladipo and Eric Gordon have been in and out of the lineup because of injuries. Twenty different starting lineups. The longest losing streak in decades for the franchise. The final days of James Harden in a Rockets uniform. The DeMarcus Cousins experiment didn’t really work out.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The drastic inconsistency. In a way, every team in the league is battling that syndrome due to multiple factors – from COVID-19 issues to injuries to chemistry and continuity challenges. But the Grizzlies have played to the extremes on a nightly basis. One night, they’re blowing out the Rockets and Clippers; and the next set of nights, they’re drastically underperforming against the Pelicans or the Raptors. Perhaps the Grizzlies resolve this identity crisis in the second half.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

That New Orleans hasn’t been able to improve defensively. Jrue Holiday’s trade departure left some big shoes to fill, but Eric Bledsoe is a two-time NBA All-Defense selection and came in the trade from Milwaukee. There were reasons to believe the Pelicans could be as good or better on defense, partly due to young players gaining more NBA experience last season, but instead they have regressed. New Orleans has given up three-pointers in bunches, especially on the road.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

A seven-time All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge is playing the fewest minutes (26.5) since his rookie season as he’s been hampered by various injuries after returning back from season-ending shoulder surgery. Aldridge’s scoring average (14.3) is also the lowest since his rookie season, and at this point it’s unclear exactly how the forward fits with San Antonio’s new more uptempo playing style. He’s played in just 20 games this season, and he came off the bench for the team’s last two games of February.

Who’s been your team’s first-half MVP?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

It’s obviously Luka Doncic. His stats, highlights, performances and overall star power speaks for itself. He averaged a triple-double in January and over 30 PPG in February. Last year Luka was the only player in the league to be in the top 20 in points, rebounds and assists per game and as of the All-Star break he’s doing it again, along with Nikola Jokic. And he continues to play with a joy and flair that is infectious to teammates and fans alike.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Christian Wood and it’s not even close. The team went from winning six of seven with him to a 13-game losing streak.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Ja Morant. That’s the easy one, there. Although his outside shooting has been a major challenge so far this season, Morant’s leadership, defensive competitiveness and ability to control tempo and set teammates up have all given the Grizzlies the boost to stay afloat. Morant’s overall numbers don’t jump off the page in Year 2 after winning Rookie of the Year last season. But his presence and command of Jenkins’ system make him the MVP by far.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Zion Williamson is a first-time All-Star and has played so well that there was very little pushback on him being the youngest player selected for that honor since the mid-2000s, even though the West is loaded with top-tier talent, per usual. He’s improved in several areas compared to the mere 24 games he played as a rookie, making Pelicans fans wonder what else he’s going to add to his skill set over the next few months and beyond.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

No question, it’s been DeMar DeRozan, who has put together an All-Star caliber season in the face of difficult circumstances, as his father recently passed away after a long battle with illness. DeRozan is averaging career-highs in assists (7.0) and free-throw percentage (89.0) with an effective field goal percentage of 51.7. He’s been a vastly underrated playmaker and leader for this young team, and he’s done everything asked of him with Popovich drastically changing San Antonio’s style of play.

 Who’s been the biggest unsung hero?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

I’ll take Maxi Kleber. He gives them the perfect last piece to round out the starting lineup. He’s a stretch 4 who can switch onto smaller players and in the past has really held his own defensively in those situations. He had the worst bout with COVID of any of the Mavs’ players and I think as that is farther in the rearview mirror, his plus defensive ability will be more apparent in the second half of the season. He still is solid defensively and of course has the other half of the sought after 3-and-D combination. Before an off night in the last game before the break, Kleber had reached fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 46.8. If you’re from Wurzburg, Germany then you can shoot. (That’s Dirk and Maxi’s hometown for those who don’t know).

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Jae’Sean Tate is technically a rookie because he spent time playing in Australia. But the Ohio State product has brought it every single night. He’s the only Rocket to play in every single game. Gritty young man who gives it his all even when on most nights he’s undersized on the defensive end of the floor. I think he’ll have a nice career in the Rockets rotation.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Kyle Anderson. Jonas Valanciunas. Dillon Brooks. De’Anthony Melton. The Rookie class. I could go on and on and on, and still feel like I’m leaving someone out from this Grizzlies team full of unsung heroes who contribute night in and night out. Kyle tops that list, because he’s completely transformed his game from the three-point line, where he is arguably the NBA’s most improved shooter this season. He’s shooting nearly 40 percent from deep and has knocked down as many treys this season than he has the previous three years combined.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

In recent weeks it would have to be Lonzo Ball, who was one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters during an extended stretch that began Feb. 1. Over the course of the entire schedule, I’d go with Josh Hart, who provides hard-nosed rebounding, energy and hustle plays. He’s been a glue guy over his two seasons in the Crescent City. Meanwhile, Steven Adams has helped make the Pelicans one of the NBA’s best rebounding teams.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

It’s a tossup between Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray, but the latter has developed into a straight-up dog; a two-way nightmare for opponents. Just 24 years old, Murray has already been named once to the NBA All-Defensive Team. He’s now rounding out into a more complete player with much more confidence on the offensive end. Murray is averaging career-highs in minutes (30.7), scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounds (7.2) and assists (5.1). If Murray can improve his jumper, the Spurs will have one of the league’s elite two-way point guards, similar to what the Pelicans had in Jrue Holiday.

Pelicans-Magic Postgame Interview: Brandon Ingram 4-22-21

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram postgame interview following the Pelicans game against the Orlando Magic (4/22/2021).

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