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Atlanta Hawks 2017-18 Season Preview

The Atlanta Hawks were once a promising up and coming team, has their window closed? We take a look at the Hawks in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After 10 consecutive seasons of reaching the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have hit the reset button and are at the beginning stages of what promises to be a long-term rebuilding project. In recent years the Hawks have been powered by All-Star performers Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. All three players are now in more promising situations. Teague is the presumed floor general on a revamped Minnesota Timberwolves roster, the Boston Celtics are relying on Horford to help lead them into title contention and Millsap joins an emerging Denver Nuggets franchise filled with promising young talent. The Hawks usher in a new era with a new general manager, Travis Schlenk, at the helm and expecting more production than ever from starting point guard Dennis Schroder. The Hawks have put together a scrappy bunch but will enter the 2017-18 campaign with major losses from last season and even less experience. Expect the team to battle opponents tough each and every night, but the franchise has work to do before returning to the land of the playoffs.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

From a playoff team to potentially the league’s basement, the Atlanta Hawks enter this season in a complete rebuild mode.

Following the departure of Paul Millsap this summer, the Hawks officially lost the final piece of the Millsap-Al Horford-Jeff Teague-DeMarre Carroll-Kyle Korver squad that won 60 games in 2014-15. After spending the last few seasons battling for playoff position, Atlanta will be in the uncomfortable position of battling for draft lottery position instead.

With no real discernible star talent currently on the roster, it would probably behoove the Hawks to set their sights on the upcoming draft where the consensus around the league is the top half of the lottery will be plenty talented. Of course, monitoring the development of rookie John Collins and continuing to bring along Dennis Schroder is still plenty important for Atlanta. Nevertheless, this year will certainly be far from a playoff year for the Hawks.

5th place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

Sadly, the Hawks seemed to have embraced the fact that being in the middle is the very worst place to be in the NBA. After an impressive string of playoff appearances, the Hawks seem more likely set on a run through the lottery than another run through the post-season meat grinder. With new leadership in place, the Hawks look like a team with a tough season ahead of them. It’s possible their young guys blossom under great coaching, but it looks like likely that this season is going to be a tough one.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Steve Kyler

The Atlanta Hawks made the decision to restructure the front office rebuild its roster this offseason. Not returning from last season’s squad includes players like Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jose Calderon and Ryan Kelly. The Hawks are now surely focused primarily on developing its young players like Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry while maintaining financial flexibility and making opportunistic deals to acquire more future assets. Mike Budenholzer, who gave up his role as the president of basketball operations this offseason, resisted undergoing a full rebuild for arguably too long and now will have to embrace a down season for the first time as the head coach of the Hawks. Budenholzer is one of the better coaches in the league, but now we’ll get the chance to see how he responds and performs in a rebuilding environment. How he does this upcoming season could have a big impact on how quickly things turn around in Atlanta.

4th Place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

By letting Paul Millsap walk in free agency and trading away Dwight Howard, the Hawks have loudly announced their intentions for the 2017-18 season. With only a few NBA starter-level players left on the roster in Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and perhaps a couple others, Atlanta should be tank city this year in the East. The primary goals this year will be development of the young talent on the roster: Taurean Prince, Tyler Dorsey, John Collins and DeAndre’ Bembry. Figuring out which of these guys fit with the Schroder-Bazemore core is priority one in a season where actual wins should be very tough to come by.

5th Place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

All good things must come to an end, and the playoff streak of the Atlanta Hawks is no exception. Believe it or not, the Hawks have qualified for the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, second only to the San Antonio Spurs (they’ve done it for an amazing 20 years in a row).

Sadly, this season will probably mark the end of the line.

Sure, Mike Budenholzer is a great coach. He led the club to 60 wins just a few shorts years ago and won the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award after they began the 2014-15 season with minuscule expectations, but three of the team’s top six scorers from last season have moved on, including the leading scorer and All-Star in Paul Millsap.

The Hawks are somewhat reminiscent of the Indiana Pacers. Players like Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are great pieces to complement three more gifted players, but a team built around secondary contributors probably isn’t good enough to compete for anything meaningful, not even in the Eastern Conference.

In the end, I do expect the Hawks to overachieve, but for this bunch, that probably means winning somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games, and I don’t think that’ll be enough to escape the cellar of the Southeast Division. It almost certainly won’t be enough to qualify for the playoffs.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Dennis Schroder

As talented as Schroder is, most would agree that he would be best suited to be a second or third option on a playoff bound team. However, for the 2017-18 Hawks, the team’s offense will begin and end with him. The fifth-year guard averaged 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists last season on 45 percent shooting from the floor, showing tremendous growth while being entrusted with a larger role.

There’s a lot to like about Schroder. The guard has proved to be extremely durable since entering the league, missing only missed 10 games over the past three seasons. Schroder has also increased his scoring, rebounding and assist production in every campaign since his rookie season. He is primed to increase productivity in all of these categories this season without the presence of Millsap and former All-Star center Dwight Howard in the fold.

Top Defensive Player: Taurean Prince

The Hawks had four players ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s real plus-minus defensive ratings last season. Three of the four – Howard, Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha – are now playing elsewhere. The fourth, Taurean Prince, remains on the roster and should make an even bigger leap next season.

Prince has the size and athleticism to guard at least three positions effectively. Playing acceptable defense at the NBA level is one of the toughest aspects of the pro game for younger players to grasp and Prince made an immediate impact as a rookie – despite limited playing time early on.

The Hawks will likely expect Prince to guard opposing teams’ top perimeter player next season. Prince finished fifth in the league among small forwards in the plus-minus rankings ahead of more prominent players such as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Obviously, Prince doesn’t have the offensive responsibilities the aforementioned three players have but he is positioned strongly to make improvements with a year under his belt.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Schroder

Schroder is unquestionably the Hawks’ floor general and top playmaker as the roster is currently constructed. While there are valid concerns about Schroder’s penchant for erratic ball control and turnovers (3.3 per game in 2017), the fifth-year guard managed to average 7.2 assists per game on a per 36 minute basis last season.

Schroder will be asked to score more this season and will enter the campaign without proven scorers such as Howard, Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. as options for the assist, but the Hawks’ offense is predicated on spacing and ball movement while exploiting defensive holes. Schroder finished second in the league in drives into the lane last season and is one of the elite penetrators in the game today. The ability to get into the paint and create havoc will continue to open up passing windows and create easy scoring opportunities for teammates. With the Hawks lacking many players on this roster that can create their own offense off the bounce, Schroder will be under even more pressure to deliver and keep the offense flowing.

Top Clutch Player: Kent Bazemore

For clarity, we’re defining clutch as the game point differential being five points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — whether the team is ahead or behind.

The Hawks had multiple players perform above average in the clutch last season. Departed shooting guard Hardaway Jr. was one of the league’s best two guards in late game clutch situations in 2017 and most of the Hawks’ offense in these situations flowed through Millsap. Both are gone.

Logically, we could easily assign this to Schroder, but the fifth-year guard will likely be the focal point of opposing defenses this season and double-teamed at every opportunity. The Hawks will need someone else to step up and hit late game shots.

Incoming shooting guard Marco Belinelli sank 50 percent of his three-point shots in clutch situations last season, so he’s a sneaky option in the Hawks’ offense which is based on spacing. However, Kent Bazemore may be the man for the job. To be clear, Bazemore was abysmal last season in these situations. Bazemore shot just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range last season in similar situations. To make matters worse, Bazemore only connected on 46 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.

But let’s assume the 2016-17 season was an outlier. In 2015-16, Bazemore shot 46 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three-point range while connecting on 92 percent of his attempts from the free throw line.

Will the real Bazemore please stand up? We believe a return to late game form, for Bazemore, is on the horizon.

The Unheralded Player: Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova won’t win any popularity contests, but he has proven to be a very consistent performer throughout his career. Think about this: Ilyasova has averaged at least 10 points per game in seven out of nine pro seasons, including the past six years despite never averaging more than 28 minutes in any campaign.

For his career, Ilyasova has averaged 16.2 points per 36 minutes on the floor. The biggest drawback to Ilyasova is his defense, which is a liability. But to end things on a positive, Ilyasova has shot at least 36 percent from three-point range in five of the past six seasons, a trend that should continue in 2018.

Best New Addition: Dewayne Dedmon

Rookie John Collins received plenty of consideration here (and we’ll get to him in a minute), but Dedmon also has a decent amount of upside. Dedmon averaged 5.1 points and 6.5 rebounds last season in San Antonio. Those numbers look pedestrian until you consider he only received 18 minutes of action per night. On a per-36-minute basis, his numbers jump to double-double territory over the past two seasons with the Spurs and Orlando Magic (sample size: 134 games).

Dedmon has played behind Nikola Vucevic and Pau Gasol the past two seasons so there’s a legitimate reason why the minutes have been scarce. The Hawks signed Dedmon to a two-year $12.3 million deal this summer with a player option for the 2018-19 campaign. With Howard traded to the Charlotte Hornets, Dedmon should enter training camp with the starting center position his to lose.

— Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

1. Travis Schlenk

The Hawks announced the hiring of Schlenk as their new general manager and head of basketball operations in May. Schlenk spent the past 12 seasons in the Golden State Warriors’ front office, with the last five serving as assistant general manager. This means Schlenk was a valuable part of the Warriors brain trust that constructed one of the best rosters in the game today.

That’s intriguing for sure, but the reason Schlenk makes this list has been his ability from day one to make the tough call. The first decision was to completely revamp the team’s roster. Then the club drafted rookie John Collins. In free agency, the team could have opted to give Millsap, a four-time All-Star, a maximum contract extension worth over $100 million. Schlenk didn’t. The Hawks could have matched the New York Knicks four-year $71 million deal for Hardaway Jr., a restricted free agent. Schlenk allowed him to walk. The franchise could have attempted another year with Howard manning the interior, but Schlenk dealt the former Defensive Player of the Year to Charlotte.

This will be a long rebuilding process, but Schlenk appears to have a clear direction in mind. Keep cap space flexibility, evaluate young talent and protect draft picks.

2. John Collins

The former Wake Forest University product was selected by the Hawks with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Collins quickly turned heads in Las Vegas this summer and was named to the NBA Summer League first-team after averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 59 percent shooting from the field.

Collins was Schlenk’s first draft pick at the helm of the franchise and the big man produced more than a few flashes of explosiveness. Collins’ defense and passing are two question marks heading into his rookie season, but those two traits plague many a young player entering the association.

3. Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer has compiled a 189-139 (.576) record in four seasons pacing the sidelines in Atlanta. All four of those campaigns resulted in a trip to the postseason. The 2017-18 season will undoubtedly be Budenholzer’s stiffest test as a head coach. The Hawks have a proven system but no longer feature All-Star level talent at key positions. It’s hard to imagine a Budenholzer team not playing with grit and determination, so effort won’t be the problem.

One area where Budenholzer has excelled since joining the franchise is talent development. DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Bazemore, Hardaway Jr., Millsap and Schroder all took their games to the next level under Budenholzer. Who will be the next player that benefits from Budenholzer?

— Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Hawks are still under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, with up to $5.0 million to spend. Quinn Cook’s salary guarantee will increase from $100,000 to $500,000 if he’s still on the roster by opening night. Luke Babbitt has an even healthier promise with $987,080 of his $1.5 million locked in. Atlanta also has its $4.3 million Room Exception still available.

The team needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry before November. Looking ahead to next summer, the Hawks can get under the cap by roughly $36 million – assuming both Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala opt out of their respective options of $6.3 million and $5.0 million. Currently, Kent Bazemore is Atlanta’s highest-paid player at $16.9 million for the coming season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hawks are entering into uncharted territory they haven’t experienced in over a decade. On most nights the team will enter an arena as an underdog. One of the strengths this unit has is their athleticism and youth. While youth laden teams don’t typically rack up wins, the Hawks current situation will provide the organization with an opportunity to evaluate the future. Collins, Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry could be potential building blocks. Prince could develop into a fine two-way player, while Collins should be in the nightly rotation playing bigger minutes near the All-Star break (if not sooner). Throw in Schroder, who hasn’t reached his ceiling, and Dedmon with an opportunity to finally earn big minutes, the Hawks have a lot of young and motivated guys with something to prove.

— Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

The team’s frontcourt depth, specifically at power forward and center, is extremely thin. The collection of Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Collins, Dedmon and Miles Plumlee have never been entrusted to play major minutes at any time in their respective pro careers. Outside of Ilyasova, none of these guys have put together a season averaging at least 10 points per game. That’s just looking at scoring. None of these players have averaged more than seven rebounds in any of the past three seasons. Of course this trickles down to rim protection, where the team will struggle on a nightly basis. For all of Howard’s issues (and steady decline), he always demanded some respect in the paint from opposing teams. This year’s unit will have to earn theirs.

— Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Dennis Schroder handle the increased workload, scrutiny and pressure?

Schroder successfully transitioned from top reserve to full-time starter last season in a pretty seamless manner. But now the fifth-year guard will be the team’s focal point and unquestionable best player. Previous security blankets such as Horford, Millsap and Teague are gone. This is Schroder’s show, Schroder’s time to shine. But how will he handle the increased pressure? Many a man has been humbled by moving from the co-pilot to the pilot’s seat. All eyes will be on Schroder until Schlenk and the front office bring in the cavalry.

— Lang Greene

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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