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Basketball Insiders: Week in Review

Basketball Insiders takes a look back at some of the articles of the past week in case you missed them the first time around.

Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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Afflalo Opens Up About Breakout Season

By Alex Kennedy

It’s no surprise to Arron Afflalo’s Orlando Magic teammates that he’s having the best season of his seven-year NBA career at 28 years old. Over the offseason, Magic players were predicting that Afflalo would have a breakout season.

If you asked Magic players which player was most impressive during their voluntary summer workouts, they all had the same answer: Afflalo. They would talk about how he was unstoppable during pick-up games – scoring on everyone and looking like a different player. They would talk about how he’d lecture young players when they weren’t putting the team first or working their hardest. They would talk about how he was ready to make the jump to elite status.

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San Antonio Spurs Cruising to Finals?

By Bill Ingram

Ask the average NBA fan what they think about the San Antonio Spurs and you are far too likely to hear that person talk about the age of the team and how boring they are to watch. After all, those have been the talking points regarding the Spurs for the past four or five seasons despite the fact that San Antonio has consistently been at or near the top of the Western Conference, age and all. This season has been no different, and for those who don’t watch the Spurs on a regular basis, there are some reasons to start preparing yourselves for another title shot by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the boys in black.

First of all, the Spurs currently hold the West’s top record despite the fact that those “older” players are hardly breaking a sweat. Better than anyone in the league, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich knows how to pace his players and spare their aging bodies by giving them plenty of rest. If resting someone means the team is more likely to lose a game, so be it. The Spurs are not concerned about regular season records, division titles or individual awards. The only thing that matters is being healthy come playoff time and competing for another championship.

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Fantasy Focus: Waiver Wire Watch

By Susan Bible

It’s close to the halfway mark in a long 82-game NBA season; so barring injuries or unexpected trades – maybe a few other variables – fantasy basketball owners know what kind of team they have by now.  Devoted owners are always looking ahead to the playoff rounds and wondering if their team is good enough to carry them all the way.  If that answer is unclear, it’s probably time to carefully analyze the waiver wire for gems.

Basketball Insiders is here to help you out in your waiver wire endeavors.  We’ve compiled a list of players who are showing signs of real improvement and just may be available in your league.  We suggest you find out sooner rather than later.

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Six Things to Know About the Blazers

By Kyle Cape-Lindelin

As the NBA season nears the halfway mark it’s time to look at the six things you should know about the Portland Trail Blazers as they begin the second half of the season.

After a three-season playoff drought and being a lottery team last season, the Blazers have exploded onto the national scene and are proving to be one of the surprise stories in the NBA. At 29-9, the Blazers currently own the third-best record in the NBA and sit just a game and half behind the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs for best record in the West.

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Big Decision Looms for Raptors’ Masai Ujiri

By Lang Greene

Quiet as kept, the Toronto Raptors (19-18) are one of the hottest teams in the league posting a 10-4 record since December 20.

Toronto currently sits atop the Atlantic Division standings and if the playoffs were to begin today, the team would be the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference – marking their first postseason appearance since 2008. But despite the team’s recent success, the franchise remains at a pivotal crossroads as we peek into the future direction of the organization.

The fate of the franchise is now in the hands of newly crowned president and general manager Masai Ujiri.

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Kobe Vows to Play For Lakers Again This Season

By Jessica Camerato

The Los Angeles Lakers record is just a number for Kobe Bryant.

Regardless of how many losses overshadow those in the win column, Bryant is determined to return this season from a fractured left knee injury. Sitting out the remainder of the year is not a consideration for him.

“The only thing I can consider, the only thing I can afford to consider, is getting better and getting strong,” he said prior to the Los Angeles Lakers game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next day. To do anything else becomes distracting. You give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. If I think that I’m going to sit out or this that and the other, then the motivation is gone. I refuse to have that happen.”

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Warriors’ #Fullsquad Only Works With Bogut

By Nate Duncan

After a 10-game win streak that spawned the #fullsquad meme, the Golden State Warriors have now lost three of four.  Their previously excellent defense has fallen on hard times, giving up points at a rate of 112.9 points per 100 possessions, and the squad as a whole has been outscored by 6.7 points/100 during that time frame.  That decline has coincided with a very worrying tendency: Mark Jackson has played Andrew Bogut much less. Even worse Bogut has not played down the stretch of the last three games.  In all of these games, the Warriors faltered in the fourth quarter without their best rim protector on the floor.

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Is It Time For Minnesota To Trade Kevin Love?

By Steve Kyler

In January of 2012, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love inked a four-year, $62 million contract extension to remain in Minnesota. The deal did not include the Wolves one time franchise designation and gave Love a player option for free agency in July of 2015.

At the time the belief was the Wolves would need that one time roster designation for incoming guard Ricky Rubio and that extending Love down the road would be the way to keep the Wolves’ budding core together. The problem for the Wolves is as much as the plan seemed to make some sense on the surface, in practice the Wolves now find themselves in a tough spot.

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NBA Power Rankings: Pacers Regain Top Spot

By Moke Hamilton

Few things feel better than making a long-awaited return. As Basketball Insiders brings you its first Weekly Power Rankings, we understand that quite well. But it is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics who is the catalyst behind that declaration. Though it was far from an auspicious 2013-14 season debut, Rondo returned to the lineup for the Celtics on Friday night, almost a full year after tearing the ACL in his right knee back on January 27, 2013.

And therein lies one of the major story lines of the New Year: Returns.

Down in Memphis, Marc Gasol is helping the Grizzlies reaffirm their status as one of the conference’s tougher teams. After missing 23 games, Gasol returned to the lineup for the Grizzlies on Tuesday and helped his team take down the Oklahoma City Thunder—who have been playing tough, even with Russell Westbrook.

But the biggest return of them all? That distinction goes to New York’s other team—the Brooklyn Nets.

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10 Players Who Shouldn’t Have Stayed in School

By Joel Brigham

If it seems like there are more NBA fans this year rooting for their teams to lose than there are NBA fans rooting for their teams to win, the 2014 NBA Draft class is probably to blame. With so many potentially franchise-altering players up for grabs, teams view this season as the one to blow in favor of young talent in the draft, but a couple of recent reports indicate that the pool of talent may get a little shallower.

According to Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com, University of Kansas star Joel Embiid, considered by many to be the most likely No. 1 overall selection in this summer’s draft, could return to the Jayhawks for at least another year, while Sam Smith of Bulls.com believes that many NBA executives are getting the impression that Duke’s Jabari Parker—another top-three hopeful—also will not declare for the 2014 draft.

Both guys have their reasons. Embiid, for one, is extremely raw and can’t even drive a car yet. Parker, meanwhile, is not a typical blue-chipper in that he sincerely values education more than many realize.

Whatever the case may be, these are two guys who could opt out of heading into the draft despite a near-guarantee that they’d be top-three picks. Chances are, they’d be top-three picks again next year, but history has proven that this isn’t always the case. Here is a look at a handful of players that lost money and slipped down draft boards because of where they were selected.

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Six Things to Know About the Los Angeles Lakers

 By Jabari Davis

The Los Angeles Lakers continue to fluctuate somewhere between a state of the ‘walking wounded’ and the ‘Walking Dead’ as we inch closer the February 20th trade deadline. After a surprising 10-9 start, the injury bug simply hasn’t stopped biting them at every opportunity. The players should absolutely be commended for maintaining to fight in most contests, but the front office has some work to do in the coming months.

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End of an Era? Time for NY to Move Carmelo

By Tommy Beer

In the tricky terrain that is today’s NBA, there are only two destinations worth travelling toward.

Smart, successful organizations are fully, wholly committed to one of two goals: Finishing first or finishing last. The teams that know they have a legitimate shot to capture the crown can, without regret, dedicate their resources to acquiring assets that pay immediate dividends, placing ultimate importance on short-term success. On the other hand, organizations that recognize they don’t yet have the pieces in place to win it all as currently constructed will think long-term and focus on the future.

If an organization hasn’t set up camp at either oasis (potential title contender or lottery loser) they find themselves sinking in the deadly quicksand that is the middle-ground of the NBA’s vast desert.

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The Strength of Team USA

By Yannis Koutroupis

After faltering for a short period of time, the United States has re-established its global dominance in the game of basketball. Jerry Colangelo became the head of the USA National Team Program in 2005 and since then the senior national team has compiled a 62-1 record with first place finishes at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2010 FIBA world Championships and 2012 London Olympics.

Becoming content and feeling like they could beat any other country with little preparation was the downfall of USA Basketball in the 2004 Athens Olympics. As preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain begin, it’s clear that Colangelo and company is intent on not letting history repeat itself. A 28-player pool was released Wednesday and according to Colangelo it’s the best pool they’ve ever assembled.

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Kyle Cape-Lindelin is based out of Portland, OR covering the NBA while being one of the newsline editors and contributor to "Out of Bounds."

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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