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Fixing The Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets have some big choices ahead of them this summer and onward, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard



The Long Rebuild

In the summer of 2013, the Brooklyn Nets tried to cut in line for an NBA championship. The team sent Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — as well as the right to swap picks in the upcoming 2017 draft — to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. The Nets likely thought those picks would be late first rounders since the team was set to contend for years to come. Instead, Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot 17 games into the 2013-14 season and the assembled core peaked with a 4-1 second round playoff series loss to LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Paul Pierce departed to the Washington Wizards the following summer after Brooklyn declined to offer him a contract. Thus began one of the most painful and prolonged rebuilds in NBA history. The Celtics used the 2014 pick to draft James Young 17th. But with the Nets refusing to commit to the core it invested so much in, Brooklyn finished 21-61 last season and surrendered the third pick, which Boston used to draft Jaylen Brown.

The Youth Route

Oddly, despite not owning its first round pick outright until 2019, the Nets are still having some success in building through the draft.

Last summer, Brooklyn traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the 20th pick, which was used on former Michigan shooting guard Caris LeVert. As Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett noted Wednesday, LeVert has flashed huge potential on both ends of the court. He leads the Nets in deflections per minute while contributing to gaudy efficiency numbers for roll men and spot up shooters he connects with. As Dowsett noted, his 30 percent three-point shooting isn’t all that was hoped, but he shot 40 percent from three from his sophomore season onward. There’s a strong possibility that his shot will round into form at the NBA level.

LeVert was considered to have lottery talent ahead of last summer’s draft, but recurrent foot issues caused him to drop and allowed Brooklyn to get him late in the first round. It seemed like a risky strategy to trade a known quantity in Young for a college prospect with an extensive injury history, but LeVert has played so well as a rookie that Nets’ GM Sean Marks’ decision is looking better by the day.

In addition to LeVert, one positive holdover from former GM Billy King’s regime is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 small forward who finished fifth in defensive real plus-minus among NBA small forwards as a rookie. Known as a defensive specialist, Hollis-Jefferson is shooting only 23 percent from three-point range for his career. But with the opportunity to play for Kenny Atkinson, a coach famous for his talents in player development, Hollis-Jefferson could eventually develop a reliable shot that would open up the game for him and unlock his full potential.

Besides identifying wing contributors late in the first round, the Nets also had success in targeting undrafted free agent shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick. In one of Marks’ first acts as Brooklyn GM, he signed Kilpatrick to a three-year deal in March of last year. Kilpatrick is currently third on the team in scoring behind Lopez (20.4) and Jeremy Lin (13.8) with 13.5 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting from three. Free agency has otherwise been a mixed bag for Brooklyn, as Lin has only been available for 21 games and power forward Trevor Booker has failed to take a major step forward, languishing in the bottom five of the roster in net rating.

Looking Forward

Several big questions face the Nets in the coming months. The team already traded Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards for a lottery-protected first round pick that will almost certainly convey for this summer’s draft. That gives the Nets a pair of first rounders when combined with the late first rounder the team will receive from the Celtics via the previously-mentioned swap. With those picks in hand, Marks should continue what he’s already done by seeking more hidden gems outside the lottery. The team must also decide if it wishes to seek additional draft assets in a Lopez trade or enter next season with Lopez on an expiring contract. The Nets have already explored the market for Lopez, and retained him, in part, because no sufficiently attractive offer was presented. That could change as the draft approaches.

The Nets may have dodged a bullet when Portland and Miami matched massive offer sheets on Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last summer. Since both teams retained their players, the Nets are faced with the decision to either continue to gun for free agents this summer or hoard cap space for 2018’s spectacular free agent class. The class of 2018 could include Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick Favors. If two or more of those stars want to congregate on a single team — as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami — Brooklyn could position itself as the most viable destination.

Lopez and Booker are set to expire after 2017-18. If Jeremy Lin declines his player option for 2018-19 and the Nets make no major salary commitments beyond next season, Brooklyn could hit the summer of 2018 with Andrew Nicholson’s $6.6 million as the largest contract on its books. The Nets might be able to trade Nicholson’s contract to a team seeking to reach the NBA’s salary floor, leaving enough cap space to court multiple stars.

It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky strategy, but Brooklyn’s front office must decide by the end of the season if it wants to shoot for the stars in 2018 or continue firing off huge offers to free agents this summer. It’s a valid question as, by committing $145 million to Crabbe and Evan Turner, the Trail Blazers have become a cautionary tale about how the sort of unrestrained spending Brooklyn attempted last summer can go wrong. Only Noah Vonleh had a worse net rating last season than Crabbe among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes of action. Crabbe has failed to take a significant step forward this season, remaining firmly in the bottom half of Portland’s roster in net rating. Meanwhile, Turner’s contract was even more questionable after he posted the second-worst net rating for Boston last season (minimum 500 minutes). Turner is a known quantity. This season only Ed Davis has a worse net rating among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes.

Crabbe might have made a leap with a bigger role in Brooklyn, or he could have been the same cap-clogging underachiever he currently is in Portland. Johnson would likely have been a more positive addition, but since he stayed in Miami, the Nets can explore their options. Even if Brooklyn avoids long-term salary commitments this summer but fails to attract stars in 2018, the team could retain full Bird rights for Lopez and early Bird rights for Lin. A core of Lopez and Lin along with a corps of developing wings and whatever impact free agents are inevitably attracted by cap space is a foundation Brooklyn can build on. The Nets are in the NBA’s top media market with a top five arena. If the Warriors win another championship after obtaining Kevin Durant, the super team trend could continue and Brooklyn would be poised as a potential destination.

More Conservative Options

One thing that would undoubtedly help the Nets would be doing a better job of recognizing the talent that’s already on the roster. Yogi Ferrell’s success in Dallas has been salt in the wounds of a Brooklyn fan base already robbed of talent by King’s disastrous trade. But in addition to Ferrell, the Nets also waived Willie Reed, who is exactly the sort of young, rim-protecting big man the franchise desperately needs.

If the Nets want to throw a big contract at a wing coming off his rookie deal, the franchise could do a lot worse than current Atlanta Hawk Tim Hardaway Jr. Once derided for his defensive shortcomings as a Knick, Hardaway has become one of the Hawks’ most consistent two-way players. His plus-5.4 on-court net rating through 64 games is second on the team. Bench players often benefit from playing fewer minutes against opposing starters. But when Thabo Sefolosha lost time to injury and Hardaway was pressed into service as Atlanta’s starting shooting guard, his net rating improved. Opponents are shooting just 39.7 percent overall when guarded by Hardaway, per optical tracking data on, and only 32 percent on three-pointers.

But if the Nets go the route of hoarding cap space, the biggest short-term need is a physical power forward who can rebound but also stretch the floor. There are several undervalued options to fill this role for Brooklyn that include another current Hawk, Ersan Ilyasova. Linsanity happened when — with Carmelo Anthony out — Mike D’Antoni surrounded Amar’e Stoudemire-Lin pick and rolls with three-point shooters. Ilyasova fits that configuration and he defends and kills opponents’ possessions with his rebounding.

Other options could include Nikola Mirotic, who has struggled mightily this season. Despite these struggles, Mirotic has a better on-court net rating than any Bull except Jimmy Butler this season. For all his struggles, the Bulls are still performing better as a team with Mirotic on the court than almost any other player. This speaks to the value of stretch big men in the pace-and-space era. Even with Mirotic shooting a career-low 30 percent from three, he still pulls an opposing big man away from the basket, opening the driving lanes that Lin thrives in. If there was ever a player whose value seems so low that his team might let him walk rather than match a modest offer in restricted free agency, Mirotic is that player. Brooklyn could steal Mirotic on a bargain contract and then watch him flourish in a new role away from Chicago’s dysfunction.

Two other players that could get overlooked due to their current teams’ salary cap crunch are Clipper forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and current Raptor forward Patrick Patterson. Mbah a Moute would be an exceptional addition for the Nets as he can play either forward position at both ends. Known as an elite defender, he has worked on his outside shot and is currently hitting a career-best 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. This makes him a perfect frontcourt partner for Lopez and an ideal candidate to improve Brooklyn’s porous defense.

Patterson isn’t exactly the banger that Brooklyn needs, but he’s another under-the-radar commodity that could be available. Toronto made a major commitment to Serge Ibaka by trading away Terrence Ross, a legitimate rotation piece. With Kyle Lowry possibly commanding the max and the luxury tax looming, Patterson will almost certainly change teams this summer. Toronto is plus-11.5 per 100 with Patterson on the court, easily a team-best among Raptors to play meaningful minutes.

Finally, two players the Nets should consider are a pair of teammates on the Serbian national team. Miroslav Raduljica (rad-oo-LEETS-uh) is an overlooked, bruising big man who would give the Nets the enforcer it needs. He doesn’t stretch the floor to the three-point line like countryman Nikola Jokic, but he absolutely has a face-up game. As seen in these highlights, Raduljica can pull up from the elbow and baseline, has a dribble-drive game, and a penchant for thunderous dunks and the occasional highlight assist. In 53 career games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Raduljica averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes. Don’t let the snarling biker look fool you: Raduljica speaks or understands five languages.

The other Serbian national team member the Nets are already rumored to be interested in is current CSKA Moscow point guard Milos Teodosic. His contract expires July 1, and he has expressed interest in making the jump to the NBA. Teodosic gained wide acclaim by leading Serbia to the silver medal in last summer’s Rio Olympics. Serbia fell to the United States 94-91 in the gold medal game and Teodosic has been coveted by NBA teams ever since. Sportando recently reported that the Nets are among the teams that plan to pursue him. Teodosic is not noted for his defense but he has a flair for dramatic passes and an elite feel for the game.

This summer’s free agent class isn’t as star-studded as 2018’s, but it’s fair to ask if Brooklyn should pass up so many players that could help now to chase a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, should the Nets continue to hoard cap space and keep the sheet clear for the summer of 2018 or look more toward short-term improvement via players who are more attainable? If Marks has the right answers, he could transform the Nets from one of the NBA’s most painful fan experiences to an unexpected success story. But if he chooses unwisely, history is unlikely to let him or Brooklyn’s fans forget.

Buddy Grizzard has written for and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.


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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



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



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’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



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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