Grading Fred VanVleet, potential Zach LaVine deal and more: NBA Southwest Division mailbag

Most NBA teams have reached the 10-game mark, so it’s the perfect time for a check-in around the Southwest Division. The Houston Rockets are rolling, the Memphis Grizzlies are not and the San Antonio Spurs are somewhere stuck in between. Thank you all for sending in your questions; hopefully, I have some answers. Let’s dig in. (Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.)

What is the grade for the Rockets so far on acquiring Fred VanVleet? Are they getting what they need from him so far? — Lisa F. 

I’m typically a huge sample size guy, and nine games in, including those against teams missing key components, requires some context — especially as it pertains to free-agency moves.

But you can only play who’s in front of you, Houston is firing on all cylinders and VanVleet is at its epicenter. He’s been nothing short of a godsend for this group. It’s the sort of thing Cleaning the Glass or Synergy can’t wholly put into perspective; it takes an all-inclusive approach. Different statistics tell different stories, and it’s important to understand how to piece them together.

For example, you could point to VanVleet’s career-high 7.9 assists per game and also his impressive 4.73 assist-to-turnover ratio and see his progression even as he approaches 30. You could also look at his lowest-scoring season since the Orlando bubble, worst ever conversion rate on 2s and fewest steals in four seasons and point to a player who might be stagnating.

But with VanVleet and Houston, it’s deeper than that. He’s now one of the adults in the room and arguably the most important one, given the ability to establish control and poise on the floor. The Rockets are seventh in half-court points per possession, a feat that might not have been possible previously. They sound different. They look different. They play different. VanVleet makes them better on both ends, empowers their young players and has all the elements of a leader. When you factor in VanVleet’s awareness down the stretch in clutch games — one of the bigger reasons teams give players large sums of money — I lean toward a B+.

Do you see the Spurs targeting a top-tier PG in the 2024 offseason or hold out till 2025? — Aiyappa S.

It honestly depends on how the front office views this season, whether it’s through the lens of enjoying the Victor Wembanyama experience and whatever comes with it or trying to push for the postseason.

I would assume, given the Spurs’ 3-7 start, that leaning toward the former is the smart move, but there’s no need to draw out the good vibes for the sheer sake of doing so, especially when Wembanyama’s development is paramount. It doesn’t make sense to push for a lead ballhandler around the deadline if San Antonio isn’t intent on making the playoffs, but once the offseason hits, that should be the Spurs’ No. 1 goal.

A week ago, I was speaking to an Eastern Conference scout about the Spurs on a macro scale but their long-term playmaking/ballhandling on a micro level. They’re in a weird spot because Jeremy Sochan and Tre Jones bring such different things to the table and the numbers lean heavily toward the latter, but for the time being, San Antonio is riding the Sochan-at-point train. It has its warts, but it’s clear the Spurs value Sochan’s size and defensive potential, in addition to not solely relying on him to initiate everything in the half court, with players such as Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Zach Collins all capable of creating offense at times.

The name the scout kept bringing up was Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey. And the longer the conversation went on, it became clearer Giddey isn’t just a nice hypothetical; he’s someone who might be on San Antonio’s radar for the future.

It’s been a bit of an up-and-down start for the third-year player out of Australia, a disappointment considering his strong 2022-23 season — 16.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists — but Giddey is a talented floor general and could be a real floor raiser for a young team. There’s been some adjustment integrating Chet Holmgren in OKC — Giddey is taking and making fewer 3s, and statistically, the Thunder have been better on both ends when he’s on the bench — but he’s still an exceptional passer, a good rebounder at his position and can cut with the best of them. (Coincidentally, Giddey looked great against the Spurs on Tuesday, posting an 18/7/7/2 line on 7-of-11 shooting.)

“I think there was a reason they had legitimate interest in Chris Paul at one point,” a second scout, given anonymity so they could speak freely, said. “In order to expedite the Victor process, they have to have a steady floor general, especially one who is a reliable shooter with the amount of below average shooters on their team.”

That doesn’t bode well for Giddey at the moment, but if the Spurs have an eye on the 2024 crop of potential free agents, names such as Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley and even Tyus Jones make sense in a vacuum. Holiday feels like the quintessential Spurs guard — tough-nosed defender, unselfish and brilliant. Conley fits that mold as well. At the same time, I do understand the thinking behind waiting for 2025. Sexier options could be on the table — the likes Jalen Brunson, Jamal Murray and VanVleet can choose to hit the market if they so please. Any move for Giddey would have to be a trade, as restricted free agency is a difficult maze to navigate and is geared toward the incumbent team.

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Could Raptors forward OG Anunoby be a good fit for the Grizzlies? (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Obviously very early, but is the start combined with the lack of production out of recent draft picks going to be the tipping point for the Grizz to go all in on a trade for another piece? Mikal Bridges and OG Anunoby are names previously linked, anyone else to watch? — Cori C.

Hands up if you expected Memphis to come out the gate with a 2-9 record? When John Hollinger and I got together to discuss the Grizzlies’ mess, one name I brought up as a theoretical big swing trade target was Chicago Bulls guard Zach Lavine. On Tuesday, The Athletic reported on LaVine’s potential availability. Here’s what Hollinger said about LaVine previously.

“That said … man, LaVine would be tempting. He’s been good this year, even as the Bulls have not been, and his shooting next to Bane’s would open acres of space for Morant. But that still leaves the Grizzlies as small and, by the way, extremely expensive.”

Call me crazy, but I love the idea of LaVine paired with Desmond Bane on the wings in Memphis. The Grizzlies have really struggled with injuries and inconsistency to start the year, but they’re also seemingly trying to figure out the best five to start and close games. Recently, two-way point guard Jacob Gilyard has gotten the nod while Ziaire Williams has had to settle for the bench.

Coach Taylor Jenkins would have less of a headache figuring out the best three-guard combos for Memphis and just throw out LaVine, Bane and Marcus Smart for now, understanding that Morant is edging closer to a return from his 25-game suspension. As an aside, a Morant-Bane-LaVine-Jaren Jackson Jr. nucleus sounds terrifying, especially in the Western Conference. It’s undersized to some degree, but the athleticism, scoring punch and playmaking are enough to carry the Grizzlies out of the abyss.

Now, the important part — how much is too much for LaVine, and more importantly, does Memphis even have the assets to get a deal done without including any of its core guys? (This is aside from the fact that Chicago might get better value elsewhere or the fact that adding LaVine propels Memphis into the luxury tax.)

The simple answer is yes. Memphis could send out the contracts of Williams, Luke Kennard, Kenneth Lofton Jr. and one of Brandon Clarke or Steven Adams to make the math work. In addition, the Grizzlies have a mountain of draft capital they could add to sweeten any deal (they have all of their first-round picks through 2030). But the real answer lies in whatever direction the Bulls are looking to go by moving LaVine, knowing that DeMar DeRozan is still on the roster.

Do you have any intel on how things are going with the new Rockets assistant coaches so far? Do any stand out in their contribution to the offense, defense and/or overall team culture? — John A.

In the closing moments of Tuesday’s practice, the media, as we waited to speak to select players and Ime Udoka, was allowed to watch.

On the far end of the floor, Udoka was working with VanVleet and Jalen Green. But on the side closest to us, lead assistant Ben Sullivan was going through a half-court drill with players such as Jae’Sean Tate, Jeff Green, Tari Eason and Aaron Holiday. The set involved curls, rolls to the basket and two players spaced in either corner.

Each time the set wasn’t run exactly how Sullivan wanted, he would stop the play and ask to run it again. It could be stopped for anything — a player not curling at the desired angle or length, the roll not being on time or the pass not being right. There was no fuss, no complaints, just work. Sullivan had this same level of control during summer league in Vegas working with Houston’s younger players, but it’s clear the respect for him goes all the way through the roster. Udoka has an incredible amount of trust in Sullivan to help get the team in order, and the players are responding to it.

Aside from the Raptors game this weekend, Victor Wembanyama on defense has seemed to resist the temptation to chase help-side blocks. Is this something that he should consider to do more frequently or continue to stay home on his man to prevent kick-out 3s? — Stuart S. 

I wrote earlier in the year about Wembanyama having the potential to be the greatest help defender in the history of basketball. I still stand by it. When you’re 7 foot 4 with an 8-foot wingspan, the world is your oyster. He’s currently averaging 2.4 blocks a game — he could flirt with a six-block seasonal average one day. Easily.

Still, young players have to learn the nuances of NBA defense. There’s going to be a natural temptation for Wembanyama, at that size, to ball watch and want to get his hands in areas for blocks, ball deflections and steals. But everything has to be done within the confines of San Antonio’s scheme.

I have a hard time believing Gregg Popovich wanted Wembanyama to leave his man, who was originally in the left corner, move toward the paint and go for a steal. He has no idea Haywood Highsmith has relocated to the wing, and although his attempt at contesting the shot is valiant, it did nothing to affect it. Highsmith simply missed the 3. Why he decided to station himself behind the hash is a question for another day.

Wembanyama’s gamble didn’t pay off here. He moves toward the restricted area to help Sochan with Jimmy Butler, a good move in theory, but doesn’t fully commit. The ball is recycled to the corner, and Doug McDermott is put in a bind trying to stick with Duncan Robinson.

It’s going to be a learning process, much like the totality of his game. There have been some menacing moments when Wembanyama swallows up defensive possessions and leaves no crumbs, just because of his sheer size and how much area he takes up. But others take time and reps to find the sweet spot between structure and chaos.

The Grizzlies offense went to **** in OT versus the Blazers, continuing a trend of looking fairly lost and clueless in clutch situations when they can’t just give it to Ja (Morant). Where are they going wrong in those situations whilst Ja-less? — Rhys D.

Memphis’ offense in the clutch has come to a complete standstill, scoring a measly 96 points per 100 possessions while also operating at one of the slowest paces in the league. But it’s not just the lack of Morant that has hurt them.

The Grizzlies don’t have the requisite outside shooting to keep pace with opposing teams down the stretch when spacing becomes increasingly premium. They’re shooting 20 percent on 3s in the final five minutes of games and only taking two, not a good formula for success. Nearly 63 percent of Memphis’ shots are non-3s, putting Bane and Jackson’s driving and finishing abilities on the table. And for good reason. Most opposing teams will want to send pressure at Bane, knowing he is their best creator and biggest offensive threat, and force others to beat them. If David Roddy, who’s shooting 25 percent this season on 3s, beats you in the final minutes of a game, you tip your cap.

Their offense becomes too predictable. It’s not so much Memphis going wrong as its roster, as currently constructed, can only play one way down the stretch. They desperately need Morant back to give them that extra asset as well as ball security. (The Grizzlies are borderline bottom third in crunchtime turnovers. Jackson isn’t the best ballhandler and is prone to a loose dribble at times.)

One of the areas in which the Rockets excelled last year and have struggled with this year is rebounding. What accounts for the difference, and are we just seeing small sample size effects or a longer-term issue right now? — Glen R. 

Three out of Houston’s top six rebounders from last season — Kenyon Martin Jr., Usman Garuba and Kevin Porter Jr. — are no longer with the team, and Tari Eason, a phenomenal rebounder as a rookie, is still getting integrated after missing some time with a calf injury. He’s also not playing as much as he did as a rookie.

There’s also been a slight tweak to the Rockets’ defensive structure that keeps Alperen Şengün less in drop coverage near the rim and more up to touch. It hasn’t resulted in a substantial difference, but Şengün’s up to 74 rebounds so far through Houston’s first nine games. Last year, he had already grabbed 89 rebounds during the same time span.

(Top photo of Fred VanVleet: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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