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Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers

With a developing core, the Lakers’ new front office willl have tough choices to make, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte



The Los Angeles Lakers are a team and franchise in flux. The Lakers have gone through six head coaches since the 2010-11 season and have won 85 regular season games over the last four seasons combined. Los Angeles finally said farewell to Kobe Bryant at the end of last season, which officially launched a new era of Lakers basketball.

The Lakers have been accumulating young talent over the last few seasons, and now have a promising head coach in Luke Walton to guide the team forward. They have made some mistakes along the way (e.g., the contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) and they recently went through a significant shakeup in the front office, which has serious long-term implications. As things currently stand, the Lakers have an opportunity to take significant steps forward as a franchise. However, there is the potential to make some costly mistakes.

Executing the following four principles could help push the Lakers forward as they seek to reclaim their former glory.

Be Honest About the Core Young Players

The Lakers have several young players still playing on their rookie contracts, including guard D’Angelo Russell as well as forwards Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Additionally, Jordan Clarkson has three years remaining on his deal at a decent annual salary. Each player has shown varying degrees of promise and appears capable of being a valuable piece to a developing core of talent. However, none of these players have proven themselves to be unquestionable franchise players worthy of max-level contracts. Eventually, each of these young players will be positioned to earn a significant, long-term contract. When that time comes for each player, the Lakers need to be extremely calculated and shrewd, rather than being overly eager to hand out massive contracts to keep their players around.

With this in mind, the Lakers need to continue to evaluate which of these players are franchise cornerstones, and which are simply quality players that do not warrant a max-level commitment.

Walton has seemingly already started this process by benching veteran players like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in favor of his young players. In addition, at the trade deadline, the Lakers traded away Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round draft pick. The Lakers need to continue monitoring and executing on moves like these. Moving veterans like Williams generates additional future assets and opens up playing time for younger players to show what they can do, which must be the priority for Los Angeles over the next few seasons.

Clarkson is one of the more interesting talents for Los Angeles. He’s not a true point, is undersized for a wing player and has been disappointing as a defender. However, Clarkson has flashed the sort of skill and explosiveness that grabs the attention of each NBA team. The issue is, at this point, it’s not clear if Clarkson is a player worth making another significant investment in or just a promising, but limited contributor on the wing. This is a question the Lakers’ front office needs to determine before his current contract is set to expire.

Answering this question isn’t particularly easy. For example, on March 12, Clarkson contributed a career-high 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds to go along with 10-11 shooting from the free throw line. This is the kind of performance that leads many to believe that Clarkson could develop into one of the better guards in the NBA. However, at 6-foot-5, Clarkson is undersized as a wing-defender and hasn’t displayed the fundamentals or discipline to make up for this limitations. The result is that more often than not, Clarkson is a liability on defense, which is reflected in his on/off court numbers this season – he has the third-worst defensive rating on the team, per Basketball Reference. Despite his offensive talents, his poor has made him mostly a net negative for the Lakers.

The Lakers have seen flashes of brilliance from Russell, who has both wowed and frustrated fans in his short NBA career. At times, he displays the vision of a player like Chris Paul, and at other times he proves himself to be an underwhelming athlete who is often overmatched by opposing point guards.

So is Russell the point guard of the future? He may be, but it’s notable that Coach Walton has played started Clarkson at point guard recently. Walton offered an explanation for this move.

“Just to see what it looks like when he’s out there running the point guard position against starting groups and what not,” Walton explained. “Part of our evaluation is always seeing how players respond to different opportunities.”

It’s likely too early to tell just how good Russell could be. Russell struggled last season under ex-head coach Byron Scott, who seemingly prioritized trying to make the playoffs and celebrating Kobe’s final season over player development. In just his second season, Russell is showing that he has the tools to be worthy of a significant, long-term investment from the Lakers. But Russell has also been maddeningly inconsistent at various points and has displayed maturity issues, so the Lakers need to continue monitoring his development closely.

Julius Randle has teased with high impact games throughout his young NBA career, including a 25-point, 12-rebound effort against the Utah Jazz on December 27. In addition, Randle has upped his shooting from 42.9 percent last year to 48 percent this year. Notably, Randle is shooting 74.8 percent of his shots from 0-10 feet, per Basketball Reference.

While his shooting percentages have gone up overall, his shooting primarily takes place close to the basket. In the current era, where big men are increasingly expected to stretch the floor with their shooting, it’s imperative that Randle be able to expand his range. He is currently shooting 25 percent on three-pointers, down from 27.8 percent last year, on 0.6 attempts per game. In his third year on the Lakers, three-point shooting, unfortunately, remains outside of Randle’s arsenal. While Randle can put up strong statistics on any given night, the question remains if he has the overall skill set to be a premier player worthy of a significant investment.

Larry Nance Jr. has suffered multiple injuries throughout his young career. So far Nance has missed significant time both in his rookie season and this year specifically because of knee injuries. Nance has played well at times, and even started 22 games for the Lakers last season. However, in 49 games this season, Coach Walton has yet to insert Nance into the starting lineup. So far, Nance hasn’t made a significant statistical leap and it’s still unclear just where his ceiling may be.

Gifted with notable athleticism, Nance has the potential to be a nice contributor moving forward. But the Lakers need to remain grounded in how they evaluate him and refrain from giving him an inflated contract that exceeds his relative on-court impact and future potential.

As for Brandon Ingram, this is just his rookie season and he is barely 20 years old, so it’s much too early to make any sweeping determinations about what kind of player he can ultimately become. It will be up to Coach Walton and his staff to closely monitor and mentor Ingram, to help him develop his body and refine his game. Ingram’s potential is arguably higher than any other Laker, but he has a long way to go before coming close to it.

The Lakers have done a good job putting together a nice core of young talent. However, as these players inch close to their next contracts, it will be imperative for the Lakers’ front office to maintain proper perspective. If a player doesn’t fit or isn’t developing, it may make sense to move them before their respective contract is set to expire – similar to how the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel earlier this season. Committing significant money to players that are unlikely to ever play up to a max-level deal could hamper the Lakers and squander their chance at assembling a roster with the talent and range of experience to return to the top of the Western Conference.

Draft the Best Player Available

No single event would be more helpful than if the Lakers were to get lucky and again keep this year’s protected draft pick. With the league’s second-worst record (they won’t catch the Brooklyn Nets), the Lakers will have a 55.8 percent chance of retaining the pick rather than sending it to the 76ers, who will receive it if it falls outside the top three. Fingers crossed.

In the draft, the Lakers could find a star point guard. Although a point guard may not a constitute a perfect fit for the roster, it’s not clear if any of the Lakers young guards currently represents an untouchable cornerstone. Point guard prospects Markell Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA are projected as top two picks in the upcoming draft, and each could be a franchise-level talent.

Additionally, the Lakers should take the best talent available and don’t be overly concerned about the fit. For example, in 2003, the Detroit Pistons took European prospect Darko Milicic. Milicic had a decently serviceable career. However, that pick, which was seemingly a nice fit with the Pistons championship core at the time, came at the expense of draft prospect and current New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony.

Too often teams become overly concerned about drafting for need. When a franchise-worthy talent comes your way, the best approach is usually to take that player and figure out roster composition later. Like the 76ers, you can always trade players later to reassemble a roster.

Gamble on Young Talent

By most measures, the Lakers are simply not a good team right now. They have the potential ingredients for success going forward, but the likelihood is they are still a few years away from being a high-level playoff team in the West. Thus, it makes sense for the Lakers to gamble on investing in young talent that may have been overlooked by the rest of the league, rather than investing in over the hill veterans whose respective salaries will likely exceed their production.

This season, the Dallas Mavericks have been rewarded for taking a few chances. Two notable successes include guard Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, a mid-season D-League signing. These players have bolstered Dallas’ collection of young talent and are significant contributors to Dallas’ current push for the playoffs. Finding gems like Curry and Ferrell could go a long way towards accelerating the Lakers’ rebuild, especially compared to signing veterans like Deng and Mozgov to massive deals. These sort of inflated deals can hamper a franchise for years and carry little upside.

The Lakers should be willing to pass on these sort of veteran deals, and should allocate their resources towards scouting and acquiring young talents that may have been overlooked. This is especially true since it will help the Lakers avoid taking on long-term salary and it will bolster their collection of young talent.

Create and Maintain a Unified and Stable Front Office

The Lakers already have many of the essential ingredients to be successful going forward. The team has a smart head coach who gets along with his players, a number of good, young players and now, a seemingly unified front office after the franchise instilled Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka as the president of basketball operations and general manager, respectively.

This transition marks the end of a tumultuous period for the Lakers’ front office, which has struggled to work cohesively together since the passing of Jerry Buss.

One illustration of this dysfunction came out in a recent report. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently reported that ex-Coach Bryon Scott and Lakers’ part owner and President Jeanie Buss never spoke.

“I never talked to Jeanie. It just felt like it’d be a betrayal of Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss],” Scott stated.

It’s clear that the Lakers’ front office has been fractured for years, and has harmed the team as a result. Whether it was Jim Buss hiring Mike D’Antoni while passing on Phil Jackson, or Buss and Kupchak putting on notoriously ineffective free agent pitches, there was always something negative happening in the Lakers’ front office.

As a former high-profile agent, Pelinka expressed recently the importance of unity.

“The one thing I’ve seen with the great organizations that have had success recently [is] that the coach, general manager, the president, the basketball operations folks have to be in lockstep and have to be collaborating and sharing,” Pelinka stated.

This change in personnel and unity in upper management could help make it clear that the Lakers have a clear direction going forward and together can create a winning culture. This perception could aid in attracting marquee free agents. One of the Lakers’ most recent high-profile targets, prior All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, cited a misguided pitch as a primary reason for passing on Los Angeles. Lakers former head coach Bryon Scott explained.

“I think we looked at it more as a business presentation. It wasn’t basketball, and that’s probably where we made our mistake,” Scott said.

With a new approach, the Lakers can potentially leverage Johnson’s legendary status and Pelinka’s relationships with players across the league to give the Lakers a better chance to put together well-rounded roster that features a few star players. However, it will be up to Johnson and Pelinka to be very selective in chasing these star players, and to do so when it makes sense for the franchise. The Lakers have seemingly suffered from a constant desire to bring stars to the team, which hasn’t worked out so well in recent years. This new regime needs to keep the long-term outlook in mind and follow a plan that is reasonably calculated to create a roster that is capable of contending both in the short and long-term.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.


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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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