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The NBA Story Lines Beneath the Surface: Southwest Division

Did you know New Orleans has the best lineup of the past decade-plus? With the league still in limbo, we’re digging deep into overlooked in-season developments for the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Rockets, and Spurs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. We’ll be looking at the overlooked story line for each team, division by division, over the next few weeks. Here’s the Southwest:

New Orleans Pelicans: The Zineup

The NBA has been tracking lineup data for the last 13 years. In that timespan, 636 different lineups have played over 200 regular-season minutes together.

Think about some of the talent in those 636 lineups. Golden State’s “Death Lineup” and the “Hamptons 5.” The “Heatles” with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Boston’s “Big Three” with KG, Allen, and Pierce. Lob City. This season’s Lakers. San Antonio’s lineups from pretty much always.

Those are some historically great lineups, but none of them top this. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Zineup: Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors.

Together, these five have a stat line of:

  • Offensive rating: 117.9
  • Defensive rating: 91.6
  • Net rating: Plus-26.3

We are not discussing this enough. We should be going door to door. There should be a text-based subscription service called ZION FACTS. Why isn’t everyone freaking out that the “still warming up” version of Zion is leading the most effective five-man unit we’ve seen in the last 13 years, all within his first 20 games played? This man is huffing and puffing all over and the court, and everyone is still so screwed.

We knew about the potential of New Orleans’s core; no one expected it to be actualized this quickly. Ingram (38.7 percent) and Ball (38.3 percent) weren’t supposed to make massive strides as 3-point shooters, and Zion was supposed to take more of a back seat offensively, at least at first. It’s like the Pelicans hit fast-forward on all that and are ready to burn the league down.

Houston Rockets: Ben McLemore Is Back for the First Time

Ben McLemore was broken. The seventh overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft barely saw the floor last season in a second stint with the Sacramento Kings. McLemore had always looked the part—fast and strong with a sweet stroke—but any hope he’d be able to salvage a career in the NBA was beginning to fade.

Unbothered by six seasons of evidence that suggested McLemore would never be anything more than a replacement-level player, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey was confident he could rebuild him. Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni haven’t shied away from reclamation projects in the past: From Michael Carter-Williams to Carmelo Anthony, there are few careers Houston isn’t willing to at least try to resuscitate. This one seemed like a stretch even for them, as no player under 6-foot-4 in NBA history has played more minutes and compiled a lower assist percentage or worse assist-to-turnover ratio than McLemore.

But unlike his previous teams, Houston aimed to leverage his limited skills to its advantage. Players who can fill cookie-cutter roles are preferable next to James Harden; McLemore running the wing with blinders on wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. The Rockets locked McLemore up for $2 million per year for two years, and gave him clear instructions: Shoot when you get the ball. Do not dribble. Do not pass. Do not pass go. Just shoot.

McLemore has obliged Houston’s house rules and is knocking down nearly 40 percent of his 3s this season at a pace so prolific (5.0 makes per 100 possessions) that he’s second on the team only to Harden (5.6). With Eric Gordon’s unexpected shooting struggles, McLemore has become an essential part of a contending team’s title chances—something no one would have believed possible just a few short months ago. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Rockets are plus-5.2 with McLemore on the floor.

No player in the NBA (minimum 1,000 minutes) averages more shot attempts with a quicker average time per touch than McLemore. When he gets it, it’s going up. It may feel weird to celebrate this level of chucking, but there’s beauty in a misfit toy finding his island, right in the nick of time.

Dallas Mavericks: Simpler Is Better

Rick Carlisle runs some of the most beautifully scripted sets in basketball. He’s like a magician who utilizes misdirection and false motion to move eyeballs elsewhere in order to disguise the primary action. In the past, that was usually an elbow touch for Dirk Nowitzki. Now, it’s pretty much an anywhere touch for Luka Doncic.

Don’t get me wrong: Carlisle can still draw up an after-timeout doozy with the best of them, but this is far and away the least complicated offense he’s ever run. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it’s also his most effective.

As you’ve likely already heard, Dallas has recorded the highest offensive rating in NBA history this season. At the heart of it was Doncic, who was given the freedom to run simple five-out pick-and-rolls in secondary transition and make his own magic happen. Doncic took the newfound freedom and ran with it, using his unique size and vision to anticipate exactly where the help is coming from. It’s almost painful how methodical Doncic is when manipulating a defense into showing its hand. You aren’t supposed to extract information from the league’s best defenders like this at 21 years old:

Doncic has been unstoppable in that pick-and-roll setting—Dallas leads the league in points per possession for the ball handler (1.00 PPP, the highest since the NBA began tracking play-type data) and is tied for first for the roller (1.25 PPP). But none of that would work without freedom and spacing, and spacing requires shooting.

Enter the Others. In almost every lineup, the three other guys on the court next to Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have made big leaps of their own. Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, and Delon Wright (tied) are all averaging career highs in 3-point percentage—a pretty important piece of the puzzle that’s easy to overlook when watching Doncic do his thing.

Dallas is one of four teams in NBA history to make at least 15 3s per game—the other three have been D’Antoni’s science experiments. Doncic may be the one creating, but percentage-wise he’s one of the worst 3-point shooters on the team. Porzingis is rounding back into form, but his early season was rough. The others are doing more heavy lifting than they might get credit for.

That’s one of the most fascinating aspects of the league’s current state: Everyone wants to arrive at the same conclusion and shot profile, but there’s no real consensus on the best way to get there. Golden State utilized ball movement at a level previously unseen. Houston puts its best players in isolation constantly. For Dallas, it’s a modernized take on the bread-and-butter of NBA offense—a two-man game that works best when everyone else plays off their jumper.

Memphis Grizzlies: Brandon Clarke Can’t Miss

There are a lot of teams you could rake over the coals for skipping out on Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke, but you can at least understand why there was some hesitation. Clarke was a 23-year-old, 6-foot-8 tweener with a funky-looking jumper who started his collegiate career at San Jose State. There were reasons to be scared away, even if they were mostly superficial.

Of course, Clarke also recorded one of the most efficient collegiate seasons of all time as a junior at Gonzaga, blocking as many shots as he missed from the field. So maybe most of those teams shouldn’t get a free pass on this one, either.

The Grizzlies pounced at the chance to take Clarke on draft day, moving a future second-round pick in order to jump up two spots in the first round and select him. The aggressiveness has already paid dividends, as Clarke quickly proved he was a ready-made rotation player with his high IQ and game-changing athleticism. It’s hard to measure how quickly a player jumps, but there’s almost no reload on Clarke’s second jump. He just gets there faster than everyone else, making him a menace around the rim.

To this point, Clarke has been the most efficient rookie the NBA has ever seen by a mile, and he’s averaging a healthy 20 points per 36 minutes played. He’s looked like a perfect complementary player next to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, even as the other pieces alongside them have shifted while Memphis’s front office continues to try and make a dollar out of 15 cents.

The Grizzlies are tapping into the shrewd parts of Sam Hinkie’s Process that people tend to overlook because of the aggressive tanking: signing low-risk, high-upside fliers (Jontay Porter and John Konchar are going to ruin everyone); using cap space as a means to acquire draft capital; and flipping veterans in order to pick up more lottery tickets. The Process takes grit and is meant to be a grind, but things become easier once your stars are in place. It’s early, but Clarke looks like one of them.

San Antonio Spurs: A Backcourt Without Clarity

For the first time in 22 years, we can say it: The Spurs are a mess. San Antonio is 24th in defensive efficiency, 28th in 3-point attempts, and 11th in the Western Conference in average point differential. Things are bad!

The Spurs have pieces—they just don’t fit together. Ask a Spurs fan what their best backcourt is, and you might get seven different answers.

Dejounte Murray is rounding back into shape after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and he’s the only player on the current roster locked into a long-term deal, so he seems like a natural pick. DeMar DeRozan is having the most efficient shooting season of his career (52.6 percent from the field), so you can slot his offense next to Murray. But then there are spacing issues because neither Murray nor DeRozan is a capable (or willing) 3-point shooter, especially when a true center like Jakob Poeltl is on the floor. So maybe you slide Patty Mills into bigger minutes instead, especially since he’s been the most and maybe only consistent player this season for San Antonio, both from an energy standpoint and by the numbers (a team-high plus-11.3). Mills has always come off the bench, though, so maybe you look the way of Bryn Forbes, the team’s only other real perimeter threat. But Lonnie Walker IV needs some of those minutes too to further his development.

Then what about Derrick White? He has the most potential on the roster outside of Murray, but because of the glut of options and the difficulty of building around a player with DeRozan’s unique scoring profile, the two guards almost never share the floor together. Murray and White have played only 102 minutes together this season—a frighteningly low mark for what could and probably should be San Antonio’s backcourt of the future.

Even the great Gregg Popovich is having a difficult time solving this problem. It just seems odd that San Antonio’s best two defenders, Murray and White, aren’t playing together to shore up such a leaky defense.

It’s one of the unseen costs of having DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the same roster, even if—from an individual standpoint—both players have done about as well as you could reasonably expect. DeRozan might be the best version of himself right now, and Aldridge is still churning out solid game after solid game, but there is little to no room for imperfect players around them—which is a problem when you’ve been drafting at the back end of the first round with no real cap room to speak of for the last decade.

DeRozan, Aldridge, Mills, and Rudy Gay will all come off the books after the 2020-21 season, freeing up nearly $80 million in combined salary if San Antonio wants to start over. It’s a good reminder for us all right now: This isn’t permanent. It’s just a small blip of time in the grand scheme of things.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.