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Dallas Mavericks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Dallas Mavericks in an interesting 2017-18 transitional season.

Basketball Insiders

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With a similar roster and young talent continuing to develop in preparation for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are in the middle of a rebuild while also being a team that’s hungry to compete. Returning the majority of their core from last year, they’ll look to move past a disappointing season and into a better direction.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

In some ways, when I look at the Mavs, I see a team in almost the same predicament as the Sacramento Kings. The Mavs have seemingly lost their way over the past few years, but are still widely considered to be a well-run team led by an intelligent front office. Unfortunately for them, the golden era of the franchise is behind. As Dirk rides off into the sunset, the hope for Mark Cuban is that Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith, Jr. can prove themselves capable building blocks to help his team get to the next level out West.

Obviously, I would have included Nerlens Noel in that conversation, but history has shown us that players seldom accept a one-year qualifying offer only to re-sign with their incumbent team the following season. Fortunately for the Mavs, they will enjoy the benefit of Noel attempting to prove himself worthy of a max deal this coming season. I doubt it’ll be enough to make them competitive in the tough Southwest, though, and am sure this season will be the first time the Mavs fail to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years since they failed to do so in 1999 and 2000.

5th Place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

The days of Dirk Nowitzki dominating for the Dallas Mavericks are gone, but by early accounts, the next face of the Mavs franchise is already in the building. Dallas selected point guard Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in June’s draft, and the uber-athletic North Carolina State product put on a show during the Las Vegas Summer League.

While much of next season will be spent battling to keep themselves out of the Southwest Division’s basement, Dallas appears to have a nice core of young players to finally bridge over into the post-Dirk era. Smith, along with Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Seth Curry, all look to have the makings of formidable group in the coming years.

However, that won’t be next year. The Mavs still have plenty of holes on their team and are stuck in a division where the four other teams will all be fighting their hardest for a playoff spot. In due time, though, Dallas.

5th place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

There are two things I feel fairly confident about this year when it comes to the Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki is more mascot than player at this point, and Dennis Smith, Jr. is going to be the Rookie of the Year. It’s a weird year of transition this season as the team moves away from an all-time Hall-of-Fame talent and sort of begins something of a rebuild in earnest, but it’s a transition year that should see some good wins, if not a ton of them. Dallas plays in the harder conference, which doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be an interesting year. Enjoy Nowitzki while he’s there, and gear up for the Dennis Smith experience. It’s all going to be fun, playoffs or not.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Mavs have spent years walking the tightrope between the end of the Dirk Nowitzki era and the start of a new one, and this year could follow a similar path. The Mavs may have found the steal of the 2017 draft in NC State guard Dennis Smith Jr., who impressed throughout summer play. They’re also still stocked with solid veterans like Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and even Seth Curry, though it’s questionable whether this kind of core on top of Nowitzki and the young Smith will be enough to really push for a playoff spot out West. Nerlens Noel also returns to the fold, though issues in the rookie extension process and his subsequent signature of Dallas’ qualifying offer could mean this is his last year in town. Barring an additional move or two, the Mavs feel like they’ll be just short of the group that competes for those final few seeds in the West – though we should never count out Rick Carlisle. Unfortunately, the Mavs feel like the favorites to finish last in the Southwest.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

The Dallas Mavericks have some nice players in Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, Seth Curry and the exciting rookie Dennis Smith Jr. However, this team doesn’t have the elite talent or depth to make a serious playoff push, which means this year is more about developing the young core players and laying the groundwork for long term success. Dirk Nowitzki is on the tail end of his career, but he is still capable of putting together some impressive performances. For Mavericks fans, this season should be about developing players like Smith Jr. and enjoying the final stage of Nowitzki’s hall of fame career. However, it should be noted that with Rick Carlisle at head coach, the Mavericks are always a threat to outplay expectations. While that isn’t likely to translate into a playoff berth for Dallas this upcoming season, it’s something to consider.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Harrison Barnes

After signing a four-year, $94 million max contract with the Mavericks, it was obvious the franchise was putting a lot of stock into Barnes as their next superstar. The first season of his career for Dallas went pretty much as anticipated for a starter transitioning into a “go-to guy.”

Depending on who you ask, he even exceeded those expectations. Strictly as a scorer, the Mavericks can count on Barnes to put the ball in the basket. His 19.2 points per game led the way by far for a team that was lacking offensive production to put it lightly. He’ll need to work on snatching up boards and sharing the wealth more to be considered an all-around player, but things are looking up for the 25-year-old going into year two.

Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel

By acquiring Noel at the trade deadline in February, Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson addressed a desperate need and came through with flying colors. For most players in the NBA, it takes a minute to get used to a new system and different teammates. That was not the case for the 6-foot-11, 228-pound Kentucky alum.

Noel hit the ground running as soon as he arrived. His athleticism and constant activity brought a new dimension to the Mavericks on both ends of the floor. Noel’s leaping ability makes him a dual-threat as a shot blocker and rebounder. Expect him to really come through playing a full season with this team, especially since he’s betting on himself to earn a maximum contract next offseason.

Top Playmaker: Seth Curry

Up until last summer, Curry was a journeyman guard who had played for four teams in three years. His breakout season with the Mavericks may have finally been what he needed to stay put with a franchise or find a home for the long term, at the least.

Similar to his brother in The Bay, the 27-year-old is a three-point assassin. On nearly five attempts per game, “the other Curry” shot 42.5 percent from the perimeter. His skill set isn’t limited or one-dimensional, either. He has the skills to create his own shot as an efficient scorer. Just like Noel, he is also pegged for a solid campaign in a contract year.

Top Clutch Player: Dirk Nowitzki

Father time is undefeated, but Dirk Nowitzki isn’t being put out to pasture quite yet. The golden boy of Dallas has plenty left in the tank to contribute. It’s all about staying on the court and taking care of his body this year. He missed 28 games last season, which is the least he’s played since 2012-13.

Make no mistake about it, though: If there’s a high-leverage situation at the end of a game in a two-to-three point affair, Nowitzki’s getting the look. And in all likelihood, that vintage fade away mid-ranger basketball fans are all too familiar with will go through the net.

The Unheralded Player: Dwight Powell

Powell probably won’t cut it as an every day starting big in this league, but off the bench, he is constantly full of energy and makes a huge difference. Each and every night he hits the floor, you know you’re getting 110 percent of his effort.

The 26-year-old center is aggressive hitting the glass, giving Dallas second chances on the offensive end. He’s solid at finishing inside and has great leaping ability. Hopefully, the addition of Jeff Withey doesn’t take away from his playing time too much because he’s really blossoming into a good rotational player.

Best New Addition: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith made this past July’s summer league his personal coming out party, displaying his versatile skill set and incredible 48-inch vertical on multiple occasions. Averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, he was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team due to his efforts.

Picked by his fellow peers in the 2017 NBA Draft class as the pre-season favorite for Rookie of the Year, all eyes are on Smith to be the future of the Mavericks. The confidence is there. The natural ability is obvious. It’s on him to deliver, and chances are the former N.C. State star won’t disappoint.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Barea

Riddled with injuries all throughout the 2016-17 season, Barea was never able to truly get a feel for his game. Towards the end of the year, his presence was felt, but the veteran was also fighting for consistent playing time due to the emergence of the young Dallas guards. With a fresh start going into the upcoming campaign, things should return to normal for the 33-year-old to be able to play a significant role for this team.

2. Rick Carlisle

Last year had to be a taxing one on Carlisle, who experienced his worst season as a head coach in his 15-year career. Considering the conditions, from roster turnover to debilitating injuries, the Mavericks tried to grind through to the best of their abilities in an extremely difficult Western Conference. Things won’t get any easier going into next season, but at least they’ve got a sense of direction with a good mix of veteran and young talent. If anybody can bounce back from adversity, it’s an elite basketball mind like Carlisle.

3. Yogi Ferrell

Due to a depleted roster and unforeseen circumstances arising in Dallas, the 23-year-old Ferrell was thrown into the proverbial fire with just 10 games of previous professional experience under his belt. Carlisle stuck him into the starting lineup immediately after signing a 10-day contract and looked like a genius for doing so. From that point on, Ferrell showed that he shined when the lights were shining brightest. He earned Rookie of the Month honors for February and turned that temporary deal into a permanent one because of his hard work. There is no indication that he’ll take a step back in his sophomore year with better talent around him.

4. Salah Mejri

For somebody that doesn’t touch the ball too much, Mejri is extremely successful underneath. He’s had limited playing time, but when asked to step in for the Mavericks, he’s done his job well. He’s your more traditional big that stands there and contests shots, picks up the slack on the boards and scores inside. Of course, with his size, it’s difficult to keep Mejri in a lineup going with the speed of today’s game. Heading into his third season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more playing time, though.

5. Josh McRoberts

It’s no secret that the majority of McRoberts’ career has been plagued by setbacks left and right. Following a frustrating tenure with the Miami Heat, a fresh start is just what McRoberts needs. The last time he was truly impactful as a vital piece of a team was in 2013. To put that in perspective, that was on the Charlotte Bobcats, who hadn’t yet re-branded at the time. However, if McRoberts is able to stay immune to the injury bug, he’ll make an impact with the reserves. It’s a welcome addition to a club that needs a dual-threat frontcourt option.

– Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Mavericks have had the choice this summer to either stay over the $99.1 million salary cap or drop under. To date, they have stayed above by virtue of multiple trade exceptions (the highest at $1.5 million), their $8.4 million Mid-Level Exception and $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception. Dallas could get to roughly $17.5 million under by waiving non-guaranteed players and renouncing their exceptions. Twelve players have fully guaranteed contracts, with seven hoping to earn one of three open roster slots. The favorites are Devin Harris with $1.3 million locked in, Jeff Withey $350,000 and Dorian Finney-Smith at $100,000.

Next summer, the Mavericks could get under the cap by about $51 million, provided Wesley Matthews opts out of his final year at $18.6 million. Dallas also has a $5 million team option on Dirk Nowitzki. Throughout the 2017-18 season, Nerlens Noel can block any trade, since he re-signed with the team on a one-year qualifying offer of $4.2 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Aside from ranking fourth in the NBA with an 80.1 percent conversion rate at the free throw line and defensively only allowing 100.8 points per game, there wasn’t too much good last season for the Mavericks as a whole. Looking ahead, there’s plenty to look forward to. For one, they’re starting the season out with a healthy squad, which was a battle for the entire previous year. Secondly, having a dynamic back court coupled with Noel in the starting lineup should allow the pace to increase and scoring opportunities to open up for everybody, an area where they ranked dead last in the league. Carlisle isn’t one to throw in the white towel because of one sub-par season. Dallas probably won’t be seeing the postseason, but they’ll compete in every game as their young core continues to mesh.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

There’s inexperience with all of this young talent on the roster. Luckily for the Mavericks, they’ve got Nowitzki, Barnes, and Barea with meaningful postseason games under their belts. As the three-and-D wing, Wesley Matthews will have to step things up if he wants to keep his starting job. What also isn’t working in Dallas’ favor is a very crowded West. To say making the playoffs will be difficult is an understatement.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Rick Carlisle handle the logjam at guard?

It’s a great problem to have, but there’s some serious thinking to do in how these rotations will shake out for the backcourt. With Ferrell and Curry breaking out last year, you’ve got to give them the platform to contribute.

But at the same time, what about Barea who is a consistent option? Devin Harris was one of the best defensive players on the team post-All-Star break (99.6 DRTG on/110.7 DRTG off). Let’s not forget you’ve got a potential budding face of the organization in Smith. He absolutely has to see the floor. It will be interesting to follow along throughout the season with this situation because there has to be an odd man out at some point.

– Spencer Davies

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

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

Buddy Grizzard

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

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

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

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

The Playoff Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Knicks, 24-36

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

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

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

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

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

Orlando Magic, 18-40

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

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

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

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

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

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

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

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

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

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

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

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Second Half NBA Story lines

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

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

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

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

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

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

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

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

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

But things may be different this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LeBron’s new teammates

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

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

So far, so good.

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

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

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

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

Tight Playoff Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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