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Charlotte Hornets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Basketball Insiders

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As splashier offseasons from some of their Eastern Conference competitors stole most of the summer headlines, the Charlotte Hornets quietly went about their business.

They replaced outgoing Jeremy Lin with understated veteran Ramon Sessions at a much lower price tag, plus grabbed one of the standouts of NBA Summer League in high-upside big man Christian Wood on a team-friendly deal. They fleeced the rest of the market in re-signing two incumbent unrestricted free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who now check in at moderately and comically underpaid, respectively. To cap it off, they used some of the extra space from Williams’ bargain deal to nab forgotten rim protector Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal, replacing outgoing Al Jefferson with a more defensive-minded anchor.

Much like their on-court product the last couple seasons, the moves predictably fell mostly under the radar as other contenders flashed their expensive feathers. Those who did give the Hornets a second look focused more on offseason departures like Lin, Jefferson and Courtney Lee, all of who were nice pieces but were nonetheless a bit overrated as drivers of Charlotte’s success. Lin and Lee both saw the team perform better when they sat than when they played, and Jefferson’s fit in the modern NBA grows worse and worse by the year. Smart additions to fill whatever holes were left, plus the return of plus-minus star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a season mostly lost to injury, make worries surrounding outgoing players a bit overdone.

A group that technically finished third in the conference last year in a four-way tie is commonly being picked at the back of the East’s playoff picture or even out of it altogether. Have their competitors behind Cleveland – including teams the Hornets were clearly better than last season with the same core group – truly distanced themselves that much in such short order, or is Charlotte being shortchanged?

Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Hornets had a sneaky good (though not perfect) offseason. Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams were big wins considering how important they are to the team’s overall success. Batum’s playmaking skills complement Kemba Walker’s well and allow him to play off the ball at times. Also, the additions of Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert help to, at least partially, offset the losses of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson. I will say that I wasn’t a fan of the Hornets trading the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to the Sacramento Kings for swingman Marco Belinelli. Belinelli has been very inefficient since leaving the San Antonio Spurs and that was a steep price to pay for a player who has been a net negative on the court recently. Having said all of that, the biggest change next season for the Hornets will be the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Though shooting has never been a strength for Kidd-Gilchrist, his relentless perimeter defense, versatility and slashing ability makes him one of the Hornets’ most important players. Charlotte is simply a much better team when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, so hopefully he can avoid the injury bug this upcoming season.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

While the Hornets didn’t do a lot to drastically improve this offseason, they are plenty talented enough to win a weak Southeast with essentially the same group that made such a big step forward last season. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson are out, but Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in. Not to mention, getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy is obviously big too. Kemba Walker is really, really close to being an All-Star, and Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are proven commodities at this point. With this lineup and Steve Clifford at the helm, the Hornets look poised for a strong year.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

This past summer, the Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin. The three were important pieces of their team, and some might say the team will take a step back. Of course, they could, but if there is one thing that the Portland Trail Blazers taught us last season, it’s that there are exceptions to the rule. Those departures will create more minutes for the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can return to being the player he was prior to his injury, then the additions of Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions will actually count for something. It’s pretty well documented that I’m a big believer in Kemba Walker. I first met him the night he was drafted and quickly became convinced of his potential as a professional. I think he is realizing it. He and Steve Clifford have a great relationship and, based on their performance and experience last year, I think the best is ahead. I wouldn’t be shocked if they walked away with the division this year, but on paper, I’d still favor the Wizards because of their superior talent and improved coaching.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Steve Clifford is a fantastic coach and there is a lot to be excited about for the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is huge for this team, and their offseason additions were solid (although I would’ve liked to see them re-sign Courtney Lee). While I have the Atlanta Hawks winning the Southeast Division, I believe Charlotte will take a step forward this year and win a lot of games during the regular season. Whether they’re ready to make any noise in the playoffs remains to be seen, but I do think the Hornets are poised for a strong season and are heading in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker

Walker is the unquestioned offensive captain for this team, fresh off a career year in which he easily led the Hornets in usage percentage and attempted nearly 500 more shots than second-place Nicolas Batum. His playmaking-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the NBA among volume guards, as noted previously in this space. Major progression with his open jump-shooting allowed for a big leap in his three-point percentage last season, one that feels at least mostly sustainable if the quality of his looks maintains.

A big part of this is Batum, whose presence or absence next to Walker last season came with a pretty noticeable swing in Kemba’s production – especially as a shooter. Walker shot over 41 percent from deep on a diet of mostly open looks while he and Batum shared the court, a figure that dropped precipitously to just over 28 percent when Batum sat and took his gravity with him. Space on the floor for Walker disappeared without the French marksman, a fact hammered home by Kemba’s increased turnover numbers during these minutes and nearly a five point reduction in his overall field-goal percentage. Any significant absence for either player is probably the biggest realistic worry for this team, and perhaps the only occurrence that should really threaten their playoff hopes.

With both healthy, though, Walker is primed to again approach All-Star level. He’s an underrated headache for defenders, running them enough to affect their performance on the other end of the floor. Now squarely in his physical prime, Walker should be in for a very nice year once again.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

If one of the elite offensive wings in the NBA, a recent top-three draft pick, had missed all but seven games with a non-career-threatening injury in his age-22 season, the summer preceding his return would likely be filled with ravings about his recovery and potential impact, right? Guys that age are often still improving, particularly if they’ve lost a year of development, and the expected added value for his team could be massive after they got so little production the year before.

Why, then, is Kidd-Gilchrist’s slated return drawing so little relative buzz?

Maybe some of it is a collectively faulty memory. It’s easy to forget how devastating a defender MKG was in his last healthy year – a 2014-15 season in which he trailed only two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards. (Not to mention, he was among the top 15 most impactful overall defenders in the league here, despite DRPM generally favoring big men). He has the quicks and length (a seven-foot wingspan) to check point guards as well as the strength to bang with many power forwards, and he’s arguably the strongest non-Leonard option in the league against stars at the shooting guard and small forward positions in between.

Critics point to his offensive game, a legitimate concern that nonetheless hasn’t had nearly the effect one might expect on his on-court impact. Kidd-Gilchrist’s presence or absence has consistently produced the sort of gap in team efficiency typically reserved for borderline star-level players at his position, and brief appearances last year were no exception. And if he’s this impactful as one of the worst offensive rotation wings in the league, what happens if he does what many talented 22-year-old NBA players do and improves even slightly on that end?

Health remains by far his largest concern after missing time in each of his first four seasons, but folks are sleeping on Kidd-Gilchrist if he can log 70-plus games. Along with incoming free agent Hibbert, he markedly raises the defensive ceiling of a team that was already in the league’s top 10 last year.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Batum is the catalyst who allows Walker and the rest of the scheme to operate at peak levels. He’s the perfect Kemba complement: Not in Walker’s stratosphere as a ball-handler, but a strong shooter and off-ball cutter who slices into the high-leverage areas of the floor and doubles as an underrated passer. Batum actually assisted on a higher percentage of Charlotte baskets while on the floor than Walker last season, with the two combined accounting for over 45 percent of the team’s dimes overall. Walker initiates more plays, but it’s Batum who often finds the incisive pass after moving the defense around with his gravity.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

This pick reflects the likely reality, but perhaps it’s not actually the optimal approach. Walker attempted nearly double the shots of any other Hornet during crunch time last year, but did so in a mostly fruitless manner – he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 27 percent from deep. He spent the entire year (and much of his career) as a relatively ineffective isolation option, per Synergy Sports, so it’s no surprise he had issues during iso-heavy clutch minutes. At the same time, the approach seemed to work: The Hornets were the league’s fifth-best per-possession team in the final five minutes of close games, though some of this certainly speaks to their defense.

Not a lot has happened with this roster to suggest big changes here, but perhaps coach Steve Clifford should consider some minor tweaks. Batum was even worse from the field than Walker down the stretch last season, but certain members of the supporting cast (Williams in particular) were actually really effective – suggesting the possibility that a more team-oriented approach might be even more useful. This can be tougher in practice than in theory, of course, and there will be times where they simply have to rely on Walker or Batum to make things happen themselves.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams

Williams has finally found his perfect niche under Coach Clifford: a stretchy power forward who does just enough defensively and is a huge spacing asset for a team with shooting imbalances in strange places. He was the team’s best high-volume spot-up shooter outside of Walker, and the fact that over 90 percent of his looks from three were classified as “Open” or “Wide Open” by SportVU data indicates just how often he was used as a safety valve when teams collapsed on the likes of Walker and Batum. The only major risk for Williams’ productivity is the chance that his body begins to break down in the power forward role as he crosses age 30, but he’s been very durable the past few years and doesn’t have to shoulder any huge offensive burden that might tax him further. He remains a vital complementary piece on a fantastic new contract.

Top New Addition: Roy Hibbert

It’s tempting to include Kidd-Gilchrist here after he played just 205 minutes last year, but Hibbert’s under-the-radar signing is more organic. Not even 18 months removed from a time when many still considered him among the league’s elite interior defenders, Hibbert has seen his reputation slide into the gutter after a year in the NBA’s worst defensive culture. Are we really already prepared to write him off after one throwaway season under Byron Scott with nothing to play for? This feels premature. It’s possible Hibbert’s best days are behind him at 29 years old, but with real defensive players and a real defensive scheme around him once again, this is a guy primed for a resurgent year. He’ll work well with a floor spacer like Frank Kaminsky in second units that can both stretch the court and protect the rim, and could even enter crunch time lineups to help protect leads when necessary.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Cody Zeller

Zeller will turn 24 years old in a couple weeks and is mostly a finished product at this point in his career, though he’s made solid improvements around the margins in recent years (lowering his turnovers, improving his scoring efficiency). He’s settled in as an above-average defensive center who makes up for a negative wingspan with strong instincts and good lateral mobility. He’s a very effective dive man in pick-and-roll sets, shooting nearly 60 percent on these plays and drawing a boatload of fouls as Charlotte’s most prolific rim runner. His 1.22 points scored per roll-man possession ranked fifth in the league last year among guys with at least 100 attempts, per Synergy. He’ll continue to serve as Walker’s most reliable screener and a solid, more-versatile-than-you-think defender.

  1. Steve Clifford

Clifford has quietly been one of the most productive systems coaches in the league since arriving in Charlotte. His schemes have gotten the most out of Walker, Williams and others offensively while simultaneously covering career-long defensive warts for someone like Jefferson. His Hornets teams have been in the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency each year he’s been in town, and he preaches a ball control-centric offense that’s posted the lowest turnover rate in the NBA for those same three years running. Charlotte doesn’t give the opponent anything easy, and the system really started to hum when Williams and Batum came aboard and opened up the floor for Walker. The Hornets were one of just five teams to finish in the NBA’s top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, typically a mark of a contender. They should be in the same neighborhood this year.

  1. Ramon Sessions

Those looking past the Hornets this year are doing so in part due to concerns regarding Jeremy Lin’s departure, but are perhaps a step or two ahead of themselves. Sessions was a more efficient offensive player in Washington last season despite arguably a worse supporting cast during his minutes, and he comes at a much cheaper price tag (signing Hibbert almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if the Hornets had retained Lin at his eventual Brooklyn contract figure). He’s a downgrade on Lin defensively, to be sure, but additions like Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist should help cancel this out. Sessions is a perfectly acceptable backup point guard who can function mostly as a caretaker while Walker rests, and the need for two-point-guard lineups that featured Lin last year is greatly diminished with MKG’s return.

  1. Frank Kaminsky

Year two will be a big one for Frank the Tank, who had mostly a negative on-court impact as a rookie, but has several skills that could be vital for bench units now that Jefferson isn’t around to eat his share of possessions on the block. A slight uptick in Kaminsky’s three-point shooting could allow him to pair with Hibbert for a strong two-way lineup; defensive strides could allow Kaminsky himself to play center more often to juice spacing and bits of improvement in the post could make him more of a stand-alone option when Walker is off the floor. Kaminsky won’t check all these boxes at once, of course, but if he can nail one or two and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset. If not, he could lose minutes to Spencer Hawes, Hibbert or even youngster Wood.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Hornets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to acquire Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions, before re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Now over the cap, Charlotte still has their $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 13 guaranteed players, with five players fighting for two available roster spots (Aaron Harrison, Mike Tobey, Treveon Graham, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Andrews).

Next summer, the Hornets could have $21 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up Frank Kaminsky’s rookie-scale option before November. It also presumes Spencer Hawes opts out before next season, and that the team declines options on both Christian Wood and Sessions.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hornets under Clifford are built on discipline, smart systems and maximization of talent. Guys know their roles or they don’t play. This is most likely to show through on the defensive end this year, where Kidd-Gilchrist and Hibbert raise the ceiling significantly. The former in particular almost certainly gives Clifford his largest collection of defensive talent since taking over in Charlotte. The Hornets were also the best defensive rebounding team in the league last year despite starting a small lineup and not employing anyone with a reputation as a monster on the glass, which is another tribute to Clifford’s demand of attention to detail.

They should remain solid if not spectacular offensively barring key injuries, with shooting as a crux point. There’s certainly a chance guys like Walker or Williams see slight negative regression, but it’s also far from out of the question that Kaminsky or Kidd-Gilchrist improves some. Even Batum has been a shade below his career averages the last couple years – he’s not too old to creep back up toward the mean. Belinelli’s addition should also help (another candidate for a moderate resurgence in a productive culture), and there’s enough here for another borderline top-10 finish.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Things get a bit dicey offensively if Walker or Batum misses any time, and overall margin for error in that regard is relatively thin in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been very durable in his four NBA seasons. Depth and shot creation could quickly become a concern if a couple guys go down or heavily disappoint, and this is where Lin or Jefferson could be missed. The Hornets punt the offensive glass as much as virtually any team in the league, a tactic that shouldn’t change with Williams entrenched at starting power forward. If there’s an area truly poised for regression with this team, it’s their surprisingly strong showing in crunch time minutes last year.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Charlotte carry over their quiet success with improvements elsewhere in the East?

It’s a tough question, and for many the natural inclination is to look at larger surface changes to the Hornets’ competition and assume they’ve fallen behind.

Continuity doesn’t always mean stagnation in this league, though, particularly not with a strong coach and culture. Concerns regarding departures could be overstated, as we’ve discussed, especially if Kidd-Gilchrist has an impact anything like his age-21 season. A group that clearly has chemistry and a desire to win together – enough to get Batum and Williams back to a small-ish market for a bargain, at least – runs it back with a bit more talent in certain areas and another year of familiarity. They weren’t far at all from the East’s elite last season, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least come close again.

– Ben Dowsett

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Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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