The Charlotte Hornets appeared to be on their way to another mediocre season and low-to-middling playoff seed. Point guard Kemba Walker made a somewhat-surprising, yet deserved All-Star appearance, but the team was only 3-17 in games breakout center Cody Zeller missed due to injury. In the offseason, Charlotte took a massive risk by trading for center Dwight Howard, who has departed his last three NBA stops under a cloud of controversy. Coach Steve Clifford was an assistant during Howard’s previous stops with the Lakers and Magic, and undoubtedly had input on the decision to add Howard. Both Cho and Clifford will be on the hot seat this season if the move doesn’t result in a return to the playoffs.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, the Hornets have a big, imposing front line. On paper, Howard seems to be the type of player that could excel playing with Kemba Walker, but I think Walker’s game still has another level or two to go to before I’d consider him a dynamic playmaker. I’d also have to admit that I would have thought that Howard would have had an easier time finding a consistent niche in Mike Budenholzer’s offense than I think he will in Steve Clifford’s, so I do certainly have some concerns about his fit in Charlotte.
Malik Monk will form a natural backcourt with Walker, but a team built around a scoring backcourt will only go so far in today’s NBA (ask the Trail Blazers about that). Still, with Frank Kaminsky coming on, if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Michael Carter-Williams can each stay somewhat healthy, I like the Hornets’ odds of returning to the playoffs this season. They finished 11th in the conference last season but got a few pieces that should help, plus with the Hawks, Pacers and Bulls perhaps falling out, it would seem the Hornets should be the beneficiary.
3rd Place — Southeast Division
— Moke Hamilton
After missing out on the playoffs last season, the Charlotte Hornets addressed their biggest need upfront in hopes to get themselves back in the postseason mix this year amongst a weakened Eastern Conference.
Charlotte added former all-star center Dwight Howard via trade, and then drafted scoring specialist Malik Monk in June’s draft lottery. In two moves, the Hornets delivered their roster some much needed help. Howard addresses the lack of an inside presence that Charlotte struggled with last season; his broad shoulders should be more than capable of pulling down double digit rebounds next season. Monk, on the other hand, provides another legitimate scoring threat to go alongside Kemba Walker.
Steve Clifford looks to have a squad capable enough of making a run at postseason play this season, and their offseason acquisitions are going to be a big part of that.
3rd place — Southeast Division
— Dennis Chambers
With the Eastern Conference taking a massive hit and Charlotte being one of the few middling East teams to actually improve this summer, it sure looks as if they’ll end up in the bottom half of the East’s playoff seeding this coming spring. Dwight Howard isn’t the All-Star that he used to be, but he’s a huge improvement at the center position, while rookie Malik Monk should add a lot to the backcourt in terms of bench scoring. Kemba Walker is still the star of the show, however, and he’s at a place in his career where he’s ready to take his big scoring numbers and translate that into actual team success. If not now, when?
2nd Place – Southeast Division
— Joel Brigham
The Charlotte Hornets are one of the tougher teams to make a prediction for this season. Last year, the Hornets fell well below my own expectations for them and they are bringing back mostly the same group. The addition of Dwight Howard could have a serious impact for this team, especially given his previous success working with Steve Clifford. However, Howard’s physical limitations in previous seasons are something to be concerned about and could continue to plague him this upcoming season as well. Despite this, the Hornets still have Kemba Walker and plenty of other talented players that collectively could perform at a higher level than they did last season. I am optimistic that this team can bounce back from last season, but I would not be surprised if they fall short of expectations again.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
After a year where many (this pen included) had them projected as a much better team than they ended up being, the Hornets are flying relatively under the radar in the East. They definitely aren’t talked about as part of the group of true contenders or even pseudo-contenders like Milwaukee, and they definitely aren’t part of the wasteland that occupies the bottom of the conference. Could this team surprise some people a year late? It’s always possible – they bring back a very similar roster to last season, only with the addition of Dwight Howard and new draft pick Malik Monk, and they’ll be hoping a few things around the margins go a bit better. Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller are all still very serviceable or better players, and youngsters Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky could be ready to contribute a bit more. The Hornets will compete with the HEAT for the second seed in the Southeast, and could surprise a few people.
2nd place – Southeast Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Walker is Charlotte’s engine and Howard is the major addition that could make or break this team, but the player that could have the greatest influence on this year’s eddition is Nicolas Batum. Cho scored a coup by obtaining Batum from the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 2015, then signed him to a massive five-year, $120 million contract the following season. In his first season in Charlotte, Batum had career highs in points (14.9) and assists (5.8), adding 6.1 rebounds, but last season his three-point shooting fell well below his career average to 33 percent.
With the addition of Howard — who presents significant spacing issues — Charlotte will need a bounce-back season from Batum from deep. More importantly, the Hornets will need Batum to employ his best quality — playmaking — to help incorporate Howard into Charlotte’s offense. Batum hasn’t lived up to the billing as a number two scoring option, but if he can help turn Howard into a consistent pick and roll threat, it could be as valuable as his role as a scorer.
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
Walker is an absolute beast and one of the most exciting players in the NBA, which is saying something. Unfortunately, with Batum’s shooting struggles and the spatially-challenged Howard now teaming up with the spatially-challenged Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in Charlotte, the Hornets do not have the ideal personnel to compliment Walker. Lanes to the basket will be extraordinarily difficult to find and a return to the All-Star game may prove difficult as well. As much as Batum’s proficiency at getting others involved will be a key to unlock this season’s Hornets, Walker is the unquestioned leader. It will fall to Walker to keep the team organized on the floor and ensure that the chemistry doesn’t fracture with Howard stealing some of the emergent Zeller’s thunder.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Every year Hornets observers ask the question: Will this be the year Kidd-Gilchrist breaks out and becomes something more than a defensively-exceptional role player? It’s probably time to accept that Kidd-Gilchrist is what he is. Clifford recently announced at a media luncheon that Kidd-Gilchrist will remain a starter, citing his competitiveness and feel for the game. Howard is expected to supplant Zeller as the starting center, although things can obviously change in training camp. Every minute Howard and MKG spend on the floor together could be ugly basketball, with teams collapsing in the lane to take advantage of Kidd-Gilchrist and Howard’s inability to stretch the floor.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
You could easily go with Walker here, but Batum’s greatest feature as a player is his ability to involve his teammates. Even with Batum struggling offensively, most team stats improve when he’s on the floor because of his all-around talent and ability to improve the flow of an offense. With Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist expected to share significant minutes, Charlotte has never needed a player like Batum more.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
While it is hoped that rookie combo guard Malik Monk will eventually become a player the team can turn to when it absolutely has to have a bucket, Monk continues to be slowed by an ankle sprain that kept him out of NBA Summer League. For now, in must-score situations, Walker will have to call his own number.
The Unheralded Player: Michael Carter-Williams
Cody Zeller is a player advanced stats geeks love, and few NBA fans who don’t specifically follow the Hornets realize how good he was last year. But as much as Charlotte fell off a cliff in games when Zeller was unavailable due to injury, point guard depth was just as much of an issue. Ramon Sessions had his own injury issues last season and contributed little when he was available. Charlotte had nobody to pick up the slack when Walker needed a rest. Thus, this season’s unheralded player is former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who signed with Charlotte on a one-year, $2.7 million free agent deal this summer. Unfortunately, MCW could miss the season opener while recovering from a knee procedure. Charlotte really needs him to get healthy and contribute to shore up the backup point guard position.
Best New Addition: Malik Monk
Monk enters the NBA as possibly the best high-volume, off-the-bounce jump shooters to leave college in the last decade. His slow recovery from an ankle injury has been frustrating, as Hornets observers are eager to see what he can become. Can he give Charlotte minutes as a backup point guard? His slight frame will make it difficult for Monk to guard NBA wings, so it will present significant challenges if his role is ultimately confined primarily to scoring. If Monk has the handle to at least bring the ball up against NBA defenses, incorporating him becomes much easier. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.
— Buddy Grizzard
WHO WE LIKE
Walker is obviously a player any true NBA fan should love. He’s clutch and he’s fearless. When he gets it going, Charlotte is a team worth watching. You also have to appreciate the fact that Rich Cho hasn’t sat on his hands as a GM. He went out and got Batum, made sure he would be with the franchise long term and made a huge gamble in trading for Howard. It could all blow up in his face, but you have to appreciate an executive with the guts to go for it.
You also have to appreciate an owner who hires the right people and puts them in a position to succeed. Michael Jordan is known for declining media interviews during the season. His preference is to stay in the background and give his people room to work. This is both a blessing and a source of pressure to perform for both Cho and Clifford. And, as mentioned, Cody Zeller is an advanced stats darling. It will be fascinating to see if the team turns to him to right the ship if the Howard experiment fails to produce wins.
— Buddy Grizzard
SALARY CAP 101
The Hornets are near the NBA’s $119.2 million luxury tax threshold, at $116 million locked in to 13 guaranteed players. Non-Guaranteed Treveon Graham, T.J. Williams and Isaiah Hicks are hoping to round out the roster at 15, which could put Charlotte on the brink of the tax. That likely limits the team’s incentive to use their remaining Room Exception at $4.9 million and Bi-Annual Exception at $3.3 million.
Charlotte needs to pick up Frank Kaminsky’s team option for 2018-19 before November. The Pelicans should be well above next summer’s salary cap (with a $102 million projection), heavily invested in Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker – all earning eight-figure salaries.
— Eric Pincus
The greatest strength for the Hornets is new found depth. Although the backup point guard position remains unsettled due to injuries to additions Carter-Williams and Monk, Cho has taken steps to address what was one of the biggest issues for last season’s team. Additionally, while chemistry remains a huge question mark, there’s no doubt that adding Howard has dramatically improved the depth of Charlotte’s power rotation. Kidd-Gilchrist, Batum and Marvin Williams have all started at small forward. Depth at power forward shouldn’t be an issue.
— Buddy Grizzard
Chemistry, however, could be this team’s Achilles heel. Howard blames the Hawks for not giving him a large enough role in the offense. Zeller, who had the Hornets playing at an above-.500 pace last season, must now sacrifice to open that role for Howard. And until all the pieces finally get healthy, injury issues will remain a limiting factor for Charlotte.
— Buddy Grizzard
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Howard experiment work?
The best way to answer this question is to ask, did it work in Los Angeles? Did it work in Houston and Atlanta? You can argue that Howard had some success in Houston with the Rockets making a conference finals appearance. But every time Howard departs a franchise, there’s a cloud of controversy and an endless stream of finger-pointing. Clifford knows Howard well, having coached him as an assistant for the Lakers and Magic. If anyone can help Howard turn back the clock it, it’s him. But the reality is that the NBA has passed plodding post players like Howard behind. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
— Buddy Grizzard
Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency
Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.
When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.
But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.
Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.
“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.
The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.
“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.
“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”
Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.
When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.
“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.
“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”
Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.
However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.
“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.
“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”
The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”
In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.
“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”
Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.
“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”
Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.
Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.
“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.
“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”
Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.
“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.
“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”
In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.
“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.
“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”
Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.
“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”
So far, so good.
NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018
Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.
With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.
Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.
Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.
The Playoff Contenders
Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.
Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
The Pistons have announced an update on Reggie Jackson's status. He's been cleared to begin light running, shooting and continued ankle strengthening exercises, and his progress will be monitored this week. No timetable for a return to practice.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 21, 2018
Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.
In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.
Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.
Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.
New York Knicks, 24-36
The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.
Chicago Bulls, 20-38
The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.
Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38
While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.
Orlando Magic, 18-40
The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.
Sacramento Kings, 18-40
The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.
Dallas Mavericks, 18-40
No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.
Atlanta Hawks, 18-41
Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.
As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.
Phoenix Suns, 18-41
When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.
Second Half NBA Story lines
With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.
The long winter has ended.
Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.
Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.
Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.
So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.
Houston Rockets can make the Finals
When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.
After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.
But things may be different this year.
The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.
At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.
For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.
Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.
Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.
These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.
LeBron’s new teammates
The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.
Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.
So far, so good.
The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.
But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.
Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.
As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.
Tight Playoff Races
For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.
In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.
Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.
That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.
The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.
Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.
At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.
With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.
In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.