From 2008 to 2017 the Atlanta Hawks reached the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons. During this time the team never seemed to get the mainstream respect it deserved, but the wins kept flowing. From head coaches Mike Woodson to Larry Drew to Mike Budenholzer. From the team’s revolving door of key players such as Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Josh Smith and Kyle Korver. The Hawks were able to become playoff fixtures amid a sea of constant change.
But the 2017-18 campaign ushered in the beginning of a lengthy rebuild as general manager and head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk elected to take the franchise into a new direction. Year one of the project wasn’t anywhere close to pretty as the Hawks stumbled to just 24 wins – their lowest victory total since the 2005 campaign. To be fair, massive rebuilding projects, especially at the beginning are rarely attractive to fans.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Hawks have major question marks surrounding the team. The Hawks will look to break in first time head coach Lloyd Pierce and must somehow overcome the departure of last season’s leading scorer and primary floor general Dennis Schroder. The Hawks have a promising mix of youth and a solid mix of veteran contributors but unless the young guns grow up in a hurry, the road back to the land of playoff contention is likely years away.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
In a league where very few teams are truly entering the season already in tank mode, the Hawks are something of an exception. Where even other bottom-feeders from last season have at least made token attempts at on-court improvements, the Hawks have gone the other way entirely. They used big open cap space to absorb and then waive Carmelo Anthony from the Thunder, acquiring a future first-rounder and shedding Dennis Schroder’s contract simultaneously in the process. They acquired another first (top-5 protected from Dallas in 2019) in a draft day trade that saw them move down a couple spots to take Trae Young while sending Luka Doncic to the Mavericks. They mitigated things to a small degree by acquiring Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter in later summer moves to bolster their veteran presence a bit, but the message is clear: The Hawks are building around Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and their other youth, and their development is the clear priority over winning games in 2018-19.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
First-year head coach Lloyd Pierce has a project ahead of him when it comes to flipping the script with these Hawks. That’s not to say they don’t have talent. Granted he stays the course, Taurean Price is a real candidate for most improved player in my eyes. If healthy, Jeremy Lin is one of the more underrated point guards in the league. John Collins is going to blossom into a walking double-double before we even know it. Adding college basketball star Trae Young and national champion Omari Spellman to the squad should excite fans. Even with all of that said, however, the rebuild is only beginning in Atlanta.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
With Coach Bud and Dennis Schroder out of the picture, the rebuild is in full swing in Atlanta. There’s not much to say about the Hawks at the moment since they’re going to be one of the league’s worst teams. Their whole season pretty much revolves around Trae Young, the most polarizing prospect to come out of the draft, along with their other young talent such as Taurean Prince and John Collins. The Hawks as of now don’t have a young franchise cornerstone until Young proves otherwise, but they have reason to hope for their future.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
The Hawks lived the NBA purgatory of being just good enough not to be great for too many years not to see something like the rebuild they are in the middle of coming. While no NBA team is going to be as brazen about tanking as the Philadelphia 76ers were under Sam Hinkie, the Hawks are coming in as a close second under current GM Travis Schlenk. The good news is the last two runs through the NBA draft have yielded gems with great upside and the Hawks found a way out of their ugly contract money, clearing the way for the young players to get minutes while not accumulating a lot of wins. The Hawks should be in the Eastern Conference basement for another year at best, so we’ll see if those draft gems turn into cornerstones and how patient ownership will be with a prolonged rebuild. Few front offices survive the tank-method, let alone tanks that don’t produce cornerstones.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
Last year the Atlanta Hawks committed to rebuilding its roster from top to bottom. This offseason, general manager Travis Schlenk made some bold moves, such as trading the rights to Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks for Trae Young and Dallas’ 2019 first-round draft pick (top-5 protected). Atlanta may come to regret that move if Doncic proves to be a star player and Young’s dynamic skill set doesn’t fully translate to the NBA. Young is now a major part of the young core of talent Atlanta is trying to bolster, which includes John Collins and Taurean Prince, among a few others. Player development and moving forward in their long-term rebuild will be the main focus of the upcoming season, so don’t expect Atlanta to hang around in the playoff race too long. But this team now has a long-term vision and is now fully committed to executing it. So while the team will struggle on the court this season, Atlanta’s fans should take solace in the fact that there is a plan in place to rebuild this roster and a front office that is committed to seeing it through.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Trae Young
In 32 collegiate games for Oklahoma, Young averaged a whopping 27.4 points per outing on 42 percent shooting from the floor, 36 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the charity stripe. The dynamic guard was chosen with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Dallas Mavericks and then traded to Atlanta for the rights to Luka Doncic. There are legitimate questions on whether Young’s scoring prowess will translate at the next level and how much time he will need to develop. But since the Hawks shipped Schroder to Oklahoma City during the offseason, playing time won’t be an issue in Atlanta’s backcourt.
Young was up and down during summer league play and its clear opponents’ game plan will be geared toward being physical and not letting him reach his sweet spots. Despite the offensive shakiness, Young still managed to snag second-team All-NBA Summer League honors in Las Vegas.
There are a couple of veterans on the Hawks’ roster with a more refined offensive arsenal, but none possess the immense upside Young has when it comes to putting the ball into the hoop.
Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon
Last season Dedmon made the transition from promising journeyman to nightly contributor – with relative ease. Dedmon led the team with 7.9 rebounds per contest and finished second in blocks behind rookie John Collins. From a defensive standpoint, Dedmon finished with a team-leading defensive rating of 107 per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference. Heading into last season most would have projected Taurean Prince would occupy this space, however, after a campaign full of defensive lapses, Dedmon proved to be the most consistent Hawks defender.
Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin
Lin, entering his ninth season, has experienced almost all the game has to offer. From being an undrafted afterthought to a taste of superstardom (Linsanity), to becoming a full-time starter and playoff contributor. Lin is in the final year of his current deal and will presumably be asked to be a veteran presence with Schroder now in Oklahoma City and while Young navigates treacherous rookie campaign terrain. Lin will never be a high volume assist guy but for this young Hawks team and rookie head coach, he just may become a calming influence in the midst of the rebuilding project.
Top Clutch Player: Jeremy Lin
Eventually, the team hopes Young will be the go-to guy down the stretch. But until that time comes to fruition, you can expect the ball to be in the hands of Lin in late game situations. The Hawks are an extremely young team filled of players with less than three years of experience. Veterans such as Lin, Kent Bazemore and to a smaller degree Vince Carter, will be counted on to help cultivate Atlanta’s youth movement.
The Unheralded Player: Dewayne Dedmon
Dedmon easily was the Hawks’ biggest acquisition in 2017. The center attempted only one three-pointer is his first four seasons as a professional. Last season, Dedmon attempted 141 shots beyond the arc and nailed 36 percent of them in an expanded role. Dedmon averaged 10 points and 7.9 rebounds for the campaign in under 25 minutes per contest. The veteran also plays a significant role in the team’s defensive efforts. Guys like Dedmon don’t get many headlines for doing the dirty work, but on a team with plenty of guys learning how to be pros, he provides a good example.
Best New Addition: Trae Young
Schlenk was in Golden State when the Warriors also drafted a guard with a smallish stature coming out of college in the lottery. You may have heard of him, his name is Stephen Curry. Obviously, Schlenk sees similarities between Curry and Young and their styles of play. No one is projecting Young to become Curry, but what the dynamic guard does represent is an explosive talent with very high upside.
Atlanta basketball has been accused in the past of being too conservative or playing it too safe. With the acquisition of Young, the team is swinging for the fences in what could be the ultimate boom or bust scenario in a few years.
— Lang Greene
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kent Bazemore
It’s hard to find much to dislike about Bazemore and his journey from being an undrafted fringe player to a bona fide full-time starter. Bazemore is on the books for $18 million this season and holds a player option for $19 million in the 2020 campaign. It’s unclear of the team’s long-term plans for Bazemore but after a down year in 2017, the veteran responded with a career high in points (12.9), assists (3.5) and three-point accuracy (39 percent) last season. Bazemore is the last holdover from Hawks of years past. When the wing came to Atlanta the team’s leading scorers were Millsap, Teague, Horford, DeMarre Carroll and Korver. Times have definitely changed, but expect the same Bazemore night in and night out.
2. Vince Carter
The Hall of Fame will one day likely come calling for Carter. Until then, Atlanta is the latest stop for the 41-year-old guard out of the University of North Carolina. Carter is just 132 points shy of 25,000 for his career, a milestone he should hit within 40 games played based off of last year’s production. Carter is no longer the high flying franchise player he was during his prime years, but he is the perfect elder statesman for a team of young guys still learning how to be pros. Temper your expectations and don’t expect high usage from Carter on a nightly basis. His role in Atlanta is about veteran leadership and mentorship to the young guys.
3. Lloyd Pierce
Pierce, a former college backcourt mate of impending Hall of Famer Steve Nash, is in his first stint as a head coach after previous stops around the league as an assistant. Pierce worked as an assistant coach with Cleveland, Golden State and Memphis before a five-year stint in Philadelphia. The similarity between the Hawks’ current rebuilding situation and Philadelphia’s own restructuring efforts undoubtedly played a role in his hire with Atlanta. Pierce is Schlenk’s guy and that’s always important for a new general manager implementing a rebuild. The 42-year-old promises to bring a defensive mindset and energy to the team.
4. John Collins
Collins was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team last season and became the first Hawks player since Al Horford to be named All-Rookie. Selected No. 19 overall in 2017, Collins averaged 10.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 74 appearances.
The potential for Collins to take another jump in 2019 is there for the taking, especially with a new head coach preaching energy and defense. Collins led the Hawks in blocked shots and finished second on the team in rebounding. And when you look at advanced stats such as PER (18.3), true shooting percentage (62 percent) and win shares (5.4) it becomes clear that the Hawks may have found something special outside of the lottery in 2017.
Youth. These young Hawks are going to sneak up on plenty of older teams throughout the season, especially on back-to-backs or short road swings. The reason? Young legs and new head coach Lloyd Pierce’s commitment to defensive intensity. The Hawks are simply too young to know any better and will push teams up and down the court. Atlanta will have its fair share of upsets this season because of their youthful exuberance.
— Lang Greene
Experience. The lack of experience will ultimately hinder the flight of these young Hawks. Jeremy Lin figures to play a prominent role in the starting backcourt, but he played in just one game last season due to a ruptured patella. The team traded away its leading scorer and primary ball handler, Dennis Schroder, in order to make room for rookie Trae Young. Vince Carter is a future Hall of Famer with loads of experience but can no longer be counted on to carry a heavy load nightly. Even rookie head coach Lloyd Pierce, despite plenty of stops around the league, is in his first role as the leading shot caller. The roster is loaded with promising (and unproven) young talent. The Hawks will show flashes of the future, but winning in the NBA comes down to veteran laden teams winning down the stretch. This is where the Hawks will struggle.
— Lang Greene
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will the Atlanta Hawks’ rebuilding project last?
Rebuilding projects are ugly. Rebuilding projects are painful for the fans to endure. Rebuilding projects don’t help franchises land marquee free agents. Rebuilding projects don’t necessarily equate into securing a franchise player in the draft. So the question is, how long will the Hawks’ project last? It took Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers four seasons to reach the playoffs. But the Sixers also have two generational type of talents at the top of its roster in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Hawks don’t have a player close to that pedigree in the fold just yet. Rookie Trae Young is the wildcard. If Young is ready right out of the cereal box to perform and John Collins doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump the team will be on a positive trajectory. However, any slippage from these two pillars could derail some of the early positives gained from Schlenk’s short tenure at the helm.
— Lang Greene
NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch
Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.
The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.
And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.
The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?
The Eastern Conference Arms Race
The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.
With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.
While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.
The Competitive Postseason Bubble
There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.
In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.
Out West, it’s more of the same.
Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.
The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.
Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.
The Three-Man Race for the MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.
But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?
Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.
As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.
The Anthony Davis Situation
The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.
So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.
The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.
The Battle for Zion
Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.
The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.
As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.
NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders
Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.
The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.
“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”
It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?
Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.
It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.
In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.
The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2
They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5
Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7
We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.
MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3
The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.
MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?
Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.
With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.
If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.
Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.
NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?
As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.
Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.
For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?
The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.
Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.
What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.
Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.
While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.
Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.
One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.
As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.
The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.
Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”
Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.
As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.
Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.
Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.
But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.