It’s been the summer of change for the Golden State Warriors. After helping them to back to back championships and three straight NBA Finals appearances, Kevin Durant left to the Brooklyn Nets. Not only that but longtime veterans Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, who were key players on title teams, are also gone. To make matters worse, Klay Thompson is expected to miss a good portion of the season while he recovers from an ACL injury.
It’s not all gloom and doom for the Warriors, however. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are still around. Thompson is probably going to be back sometime after the All-Star break. D’Angelo Russell, one of the top rising stars in the league is now in the Bay Area. There is enough left to still make the Warriors a formidable team. There’s going to be some question marks regarding the bench, but there’s no reason to believe this team still isn’t one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
How the mighty have fallen. The Warriors were seemingly set to rule the Western Conference, and the NBA, for quite a while. But a couple of injuries later, and everything changed. The Warriors have fallen back down to Earth and have rejoined the rest of the pack. That’s not to say they won’t still be among the NBA’s elite. As long as they have the core group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, they will be a contender. Thompson will likely be out until the All-Star Break at the earliest, but they have a replacement in D’Angelo Russell. The main area of concern, however, is going to be the bench. Their depth has been one of their strengths in years past, but this season it’s a bit of a question mark. They have players capable of playing big roles off the bench with Willie Cauley Stein, Alec Burks, Omari Spellman and Glenn Robinson III, but those players haven’t exactly been the models for consistency. Steve Kerr has seemingly managed to get the most out of his players though it’s possible they end up forming a good second unit.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Warriors dynasty seems to be a thing of the past. But that does not mean they’re in need of a rebuild. They still have their big-three under contract for the foreseeable future (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green). And while none of them are as durable and effective as they were a few years back, they are still all top-5 league-wide in their respective positions. They also made out pretty well in Durant’s departure – returning D’Angelo Russell; especially considering Durant could have walked for nothing. Unfortunately, that move also cost the Dubs Andre Iguodala. Shaun Livingston left, too – recently announcing his retirement. While the Warriors might be taking a wait-and-see approach with Russell, it might be in their best interest to swap him out for additional depth if they hope to continue to compete for championships with their current team.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Drew Maresca
With Kevin Durant off to Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala idle in Memphis and Shaun Livingston retired, the Golden State Warriors have had some major losses. Even Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the NBA Finals, is out until late winter or early spring. So the question everybody has is: Is the dynasty over? The Dubs don’t think so. We’ll see an unfamiliar duo with Stephen Curry and a rising star in D’Angelo Russell, which should make for a blazing backcourt. Looking at the additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Omari Spellman – along with the return of Kevon Looney – the big man situation is solidified on both ends. Draymond Green is still the straw that stirs the drink. There’s a possibility that Jacob Evans breaks out as a second unit sensation, in addition to Summer League starling Alen Smailagic and Villanova standout Eric Paschall. Steve Kerr still has two-thirds of his original core to work with, so let’s not be foolish and eliminate Golden State from the playoffs in our minds. The five-game NBA Finals appearance streak though? That could be in jeopardy.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
Eventually, every NBA dynasty comes to an end. While the Warriors still have Steph Curry and Draymond Green and that is a ton more than some teams have, the juggernaut is no more and the Warriors are mortal again. Klay Thompson will likely miss most if not all of the 2019-20 NBA season, which means if the Warriors are smart about their long-term future, this season will be more about “load management” with an emphasis on developing their newfound youth. The surprise addition of D’Angelo Russell gives the Warriors an interesting All-Star level guy to look at before the trade deadline, so it’s not as if the Warriors will head to the NBA basement, but winning more than 45-50 games seems unlikely given the circumstances.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
It’s unfortunate that the Golden State Warriors were hit with several devastating injuries to key players in the 2018-19 playoffs. In the aftermath, Kevin Durant is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Klay Thompson is still a Warrior but will be rehabbing well into the season and Golden State is now led by just Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Any team would be thrilled to have Curry and Green leading the team, but these are the Warriors, who have been historically dominant and talented over the last few seasons. Despite having very little depth on the roster, I do believe that Curry, Green and new addition D’Angelo Russell could lead the Warriors into the playoffs. However, I also will not be surprised if this team underperforms or is edged out of the postseason by a dangerous, fringe playoff team like the Sacramento Kings. The first six spots in the Western Conference place are, as of now, seemingly locked in by the top teams in the West. There are two spots open for a few teams to fight over and I’m just not sure where Golden State will end up. A lot will depend on how quickly Klay Thompson can return to action and play at his usual levels.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Warriors responded quickly to Kevin Durant’s intention to leave for the Brooklyn Nets, orchestrating a dual sign and trade that brought in All-Star D’Angelo Russell on a five-year $117.3 million max contract. The goal is to integrate Russell into the team’s core, but if he doesn’t fit their style of play, he can be traded after December 15. The Russell deal also triggered a hard cap for the Warriors at $138.9 million, which is why the team felt compelled first to deal Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Golden State will pay the repeater tax after this season, should they remain over the $132.6 million threshold. Currently, the team has roughly $138.6 million in guaranteed salary in just 13 players. Should they finish the year at $138.9 million in payroll, they’ll pay $16 million in tax. Given the team had initially prepared to pay Durant the maximum (while retaining Iguodala), the tax bill is probably a relief to what the team had originally expected.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry
Curry remains a top 5-6 player in the league and one of the most explosive offensive threats. He is a threat to score from literally anywhere on the court. He is the motor that has kept the Warriors running the past few seasons and the driving force behind their championship teams. He obviously hasn’t had to shoulder the offensive load as much when Durant was on the team, but this season is going to be different.
This past season, at the age of 30, he continued his efficient scoring, He averaged 27.3 points per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the field, 43.7 percent from the three-point line, and 91.6 percent from the free-throw line. During the 2015-16 season, the season before Durant arrived, Curry vaulted himself into the vaunted 50/40/90 club while averaging a career-high 30.1 points per game. Now with Durant gone, and Thompson out to start the season, don’t be shocked to see Curry return to those levels of scoring. Sure he has a little more wear and tear on his body, but he’s still in the prime of his career. Look for some big offensive performances from him this season.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
There’s no question about it, Green is the heart and soul of the Warriors defense. He’s been the catalyst that’s made the Warriors one of the best defensive teams in the league. He’s arguably the most versatile defensive player in the league right now, capable of bodying up big men in the post, being an interior shot blocker, and able to cover guard and wings on the perimeter.
Green will also have some help behind him with Kevon Looney expected to be the full-time starter at center. Together the duo will be one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league. Green will have a legit shot blocker behind him, so he can afford to be a little bit more aggressive on the perimeter. Green has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and with many predicting the Warriors demise, it’s just the sort of thing to light another fire under him and see his name mentioned again in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell
Yes, I know Curry is still on the team and is one of the best in the league with ball in his hands. But things are different in the Bay this season. Adjustments are going to have to be made and Steve Kerr is going to have to put his players in the best possible situations to succeed. Curry is also one of, if not the best off-ball player in the NBA. It’s a nightmare for defenders to chase him around multiple screens as he looks to get open. Russell has emerged as one of the better playmakers in the league. It’s not at all farfetched to imagine Russell being the primary ball-handler.
Russell thrives with the ball in his hands and he averaged 7.0 assists last season; more than Curry. He also isn’t as good a catch and shoot player as Curry is, nor is he as efficient moving without the ball. It might be in Golden State’s best interest to shake things up a little bit and allow Russell to facilitate the offense while Curry plays more off-ball. If that happens, look for Russell’s assist numbers to shoot up.
Top Clutch Player: Klay Thompson
Sure he’s going to be out for the first half of the season, but Thompson is arguably the most clutch player on the team, and certainly one of the best in the league. His 41 points in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, with the Warriors facing elimination, is legendary. Last season, before he got hurt in Game 5 of the Finals, he was well on his way to another amazing elimination game performance.
Clutch doesn’t just mean hitting big shots in the fourth quarter — clutch is also measured by a player’s overall performance in big games. Thompson is certainly capable of hitting big shots down the stretch, he’s done it multiple times. But he seemingly rises to the occasion in the playoff when the Warriors have needed a huge game. He’s going to have that extra motivation when he returns to the court, and the Warriors will be well off for it.
The Unheralded Player: Jacob Evans III
Evans rarely saw the court last season as a rookie and he spent most of his time in the G League with the Santa Cruz Warriors. But with the overhaul of the Warriors bench, Evans is going to be called upon to give the team some quality production. He’s primarily a wing player who can split time at both shooting guard and small forward, but he’s going to be leaned upon to provide minutes at point guard this season.
During Summer League, he was given an opportunity to ease into his new position. He did a solid job, showing off nice court vision and awareness with the ball in his hands as the primary facilitator. It’s going to be his job to step into the role Livingston has played for the past several seasons. That also includes being a good defender. He had a good summer league, now it’s time for that to translate to the regular season.
Best New Addition: Alec Burks
It wasn’t too long ago that Burks was seemingly a rising star in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. A few injuries later, however, and now he’s simply trying to show he can still be an effective NBA player. The Warriors bench is the biggest question mark heading into the season and Burks has a chance to solidify the second unit.
Coming to the Warriors was a great situation for him. He’s going to get the minutes to contribute right away and prove himself while also being on a winning team. He did average 11.6 points per game while shooting 37.8 percent from three last season in 34 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s always been a decent three-point shooter, and that’s what the Warriors are going to need from him, instant offense off the bench. He’s the best scorer in the second unit as of this moment.
– David Yapkowitz
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kevon Looney
Looney had a case for being listed as the team’s unheralded player. Last season, he was suffering from injuries too, but he toughed it out and gave the Warriors all he had in the Finals despite clearly being in pain. He’s been a part-time starter, and there isn’t any compelling reason why he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He’s a good rim protector and interior defender, and he can switch out on the perimeter like Green can. He’s an improving offensive player and is solid in the pick and roll. He should be able to have a career-year and really establish himself as a true difference-maker.
2. Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein is somewhat of an enigma. In his four years with the Sacramento Kings, he’s shown flashes of potential followed by inconsistency. He was a good defensive player in college, but that hasn’t always translated to the NBA for him. He is a mobile big though who has a decent offensive touch, and that’s what the Warriors will need from him. He can run the floor well in transition and finish plays as well as being the roller in the pick and roll. This is perhaps his last chance to prove he’s a consistent NBA player.
3. Omari Spellman
Spellman wasn’t exactly the model of consistency during his rookie season, and the Atlanta Hawks gave up on him after just one year in the NBA. On a Warriors team whose bench is full of question marks, he’s got the opportunity to show Atlanta that they gave up on him too early. He brings a different skill set to the team than the other bigs on the roster. He has the ability to stretch the floor and shoot from distance. He’s primarily a power forward, but he can shift over to center in small-ball lineups.
4. Alen Smailagic
Smailagic made a little bit of history this past season when he opted to play in the G League in anticipation of the NBA Draft. He was then drafted this past summer by the New Orleans Pelicans before they traded his rights to the Warriors. Watching him in person with Santa Cruz last season, he’s got all the tools to be a successful big man in today’s game. He is very athletic and can finish well in the paint, but he also stretches the floor and can shoot from three. He’s not bad defensively either. The Warriors won’t need contributions from him immediately and they can afford to be patient with him as he develops.
The Warriors are going to have to rely on the leadership of their key guys more than ever this season. Thankfully for them, they’ve got some of the best leaders in the league. Sure Iguodala and Livingston were highly respected players in the locker room, and they will certainly be missed, but they still have Curry, Thompson, and Green. With the core three still intact, there shouldn’t be any locker room issues or whatnot creeping up this season, those players will see to it. Along with Kerr, the trio will keep this team in line. While they are not the Warriors of seasons past, their key vets will ensure that this team doesn’t suffer much of a drop-off.
Although the Warriors have been top-heavy, one of their strengths during their title years has been the depth of their bench. Last season, their second unit was already starting to show some cracks, and now the armor has completely fallen off. If Kerr decides to start Cauley-Stein and bring Looney off the bench, then they’ll have some dependable play with the second unit. But everyone else remains a question mark. Can Evans adapt to point guard and take a big leap despite not playing much as a rookie? Can Spellman keep his weight down and be a consistent outside threat? Can Burks regain his prior form and be a legit wing scorer? What are they going to get from Glenn Robinson III? This is going to be an issue for the Warriors and whatever playoff success they hope to have, depends on it.
THE BURNING QUESTION
How far will the Warriors drop?
Golden State clearly isn’t going to be running roughshod through the NBA like they have in the past. Other teams in the West are feeling great about their chances of making it to the NBA Finals. But how much of a drop-off will the Warriors actually have? Of course, they’re going to miss the offensive dynamic that Durant brought to the team, but his departure might allow Curry to get back to his former level of scoring. Thompson’s presence will be missed while he recovers, but his absence is why Russell is now on the roster. There is enough on this team to keep them afloat until Thompson gets back. And once playoffs begin, anything can happen. The Warriors will be a team nobody wants to see in the postseason. They’re still good enough for a top 4-5 finish in the West. The rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland
The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.
The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.
The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.
The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.
Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.
The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.
Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.
Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.
A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.
The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.
So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.
It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.
Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.
As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.
In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.
Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.
A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.
A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — The Lottery Version
Most of the next six weeks will be spent focusing on the race for the West’s No. 8 seed, but don’t lose track of the annual plummet to the bottom while attention is diverted elsewhere.
Despite every vague description of the 2020 draft class as weak, despite the NBA flattening the lottery odds a year ago, despite the competitive instincts genuinely within each roster throughout the league, tanking in the final months of the season is inevitable.
It will not be as pervasive as it may be leading into the already-hyped 2021 draft, and it certainly will not be as rampant as in The Process-headlined mid-2010s, but the idea of increasing lottery odds still holds logical merit. With the flattened odds, four subsets exist within the odds:
Nos. 9-14: Odds from 1 percent to 3 percent of landing the top pick.
Nos. 7-8: Odds of 6 percent.
Nos. 4-6: Odds from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
Nos. 1-3: Odds of 14 percent.
In the run-up to May 19’s lottery, many will remind that both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies lept from those 6-percent slots into the top-two spots in the draft a year ago — but the focus should still be at the absolute bottom of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors may already have locked up one of the 14-percent opportunities.
The Warriors’ 44 losses are five ahead of — or is it behind? — the Detroit Pistons’ 39, which would necessitate quite a winning boost to overcome, even with Stephen Curry returning sometime next month. The better question is, who will spiral to the other two 14-percent chances? Basketball Insiders may be devoting much of the week to the “Stretch Run” as it applies to the league’s leaders, but five other teams will be racing down to only two spots:
Cleveland Cavaliers: 14-40 currently, 2-8 in their last 10.
Atlanta Hawks: 16-41, 4-6 in their last 10.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37, 1-9 in their last 10.
New York Knicks: 17-38, 5-5 in their last 10.
Detroit Pistons: 19-39, 2-8 in their last 10.
The trade deadline provided some clarity in these franchises’ grander plans, most specifically that the Pistons have little-to-no intent of competing in the near future. With Blake Griffin sidelined, Andre Drummond traded and Reggie Jackson bought out, Detroit’s starting lineup now features a pair of names that the more casual fan might struggle to spell — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya, for the record.
That three-game lead in the win column should not hold up for long. Consider their next six games: At Portland, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City and vs. Utah. To be blunt, the Pistons will likely lose all six.
If anyone will match Detroit, it may be the Timberwolves, particularly with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Minnesota’s next six games may include plausibly-winnable games at Orlando and against the Dallas Mavericks, but the Timberwolves have already strung together losing streaks of 11 and 13 games this season. The trade deadline may have reinvented most of Minnesota’s roster, but Towns’ absence may spur another notable losing streak.
If any of these teams might separate itself with wins, it would be the Knicks. They started 4-18 under David Fizdale but have gone 13-20 since under interim head coach Mike Miller. That latter winning rate would have New York at 21 or 22 wins currently, if spread across the entire season to date. Continuing at that pace should distance the Knicks from the best lottery odds, albeit just to still plenty desirable chances.
If such a shift occurs in Cleveland under freshly-instated head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then suddenly this lottery-driven stretch run may include only the Timberwolves and Pistons. The Hawks’ moves at the deadline — namely trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon — suggest their time pursuing the most ping-pong balls has ended. Their results underscore the value of rising in the lottery no matter the draft; landing Trae Young may be best remembered, but the less-heralded drafting of De’Andre Hunter is increasingly paying off.
The 2020 version of notable tanking is more a selective stagger, one likely to apply to only a couple franchises — currently squabbling over a mere 1.5 percent in lottery odds. In any other avenue of life, that would hardly be enough to fret over, but when it may be the difference in landing Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball, that 1.5 percent still means a great deal to these franchises.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division
Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.
The Stretch Run.
With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.
As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.
But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.
At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.
On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.
With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.
And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.
At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.
After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.
And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.
Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.
But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.
Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.
On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.
The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.
But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.
You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.
This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.
If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.
Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.
And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.
Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.
But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.
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