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Grades at 20 Games: Southeast Division

Twenty games into the season, we check in on the Southeast Division and how the teams stack up.

Cody Taylor

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Prior to the start of the season, the Southeast Division looked as though it could have been one of the deepest divisions in the league. The Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks looked poised to return to the playoffs, while the Charlotte Hornets seemed destined to improve on last season’s playoff run with the addition of Lance Stephenson. The Miami HEAT responded to LeBron James leaving by adding veteran players in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger and even the Orlando Magic looked like they could finally begin to win closer to 30 games with a young, promising roster.

With about 20 games in the books, some of those early season predictions have panned out while others haven’t. The Wizards and Hawks are leading the pack while the HEAT are in a distant third place with the Magic and Hornets rounding out the division. The Hornets have been the biggest disappointment and are struggling to put together wins. With that said, let’s take a closer look at each team’s situation after 20 games.

1. Atlanta Hawks (13-6)

Heading into Monday night, the Hawks have become one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, winning their last six games in a row. The Hawks ultimately got the nod over the Wizards in our quarterly checkup due to their recent hot streak and their head-to-head win over the Wizards back on Nov. 25.

The Hawks are off to a good start this season due to contributions on both sides of the ball. The team’s offense is ranked sixth in the league and the defense is 10th in terms of efficiency. The offense is playing very well despite former All-Star Al Horford being just their fourth-best offensive weapon thus far. Heading into the season, Horford was projected to be one of the top weapons for the Hawks, but so far it has been Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap leading the way with solid contributions from Kyle Korver and reserve players Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott and Pero Antic. Schroder, in particular, has played well during the Hawks’ winning streak, averaging 12 points during those six games.

At this point, the only thing that will hold the Hawks back is whether they can remain consistent. It has been pleasant to see Horford start off the season healthy after missing most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.

Grade: A

2. Washington Wizards (13-6)

The Wizards have achieved early success due to a top-five defense anchored by Marcin Gortat and John Wall. The Wizards are holding opponents to just 95.8 points per game and the fourth-lowest field goal percentage in the league at 42 percent. Gortat is blocking 1.32 shots per game and Wall is second in the league in steals with 2.16 per game. Wall’s presence on the floor at times can be huge because he can get the offense rolling in transition off of turnovers. The team has greatly benefited from the return of Bradley Beal. While Beal is still getting acclimated to game speed and trusting his wrist again, he is averaging 14.2 points, three assists and 2.5 rebounds per game.

While the defense is in the top five in efficiency, the offense isn’t quite there yet. The Wizards’ offense is 18th in offensive efficiency and are the same rank in points per game. Surely the addition of Beal will only strengthen the offense as he regains his shooting touch, but there will need to be others who step up to help them score more points. The team seems to be heading in the right direction. The Wizards are averaging 107.5 points per game since the start of December and put up 119 on the Denver Nuggets on Friday. Once the offense really starts clicking, the Wizards should be full steam ahead for the top seed in the conference.

Grade: B+

3. Miami HEAT (9-11)

The HEAT are proving that replacing LeBron James is no easy task. Losing one of the best players in world has taken its toll on the HEAT as the team is ranked 17th in offense and 26th in defense. While the offense has proved to be average, the defense has been flat-out bad. The HEAT are allowing opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field, which is third-worst in the league and only better than the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.

During Miami’s current four-game losing streak, teams have scored at least 103 points while all shooting at least 54 percent from the field. Probably the worst part of the team’s defensive woes is they know they’re bad, but they just can’t seem to get anything going. Odds are the team isn’t going to remain this bad on defense with veterans like Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts on the team, but they’ll remain in the bottom half of the division and in the Eastern Conference until they can put something together defensively.

Grade: C

4. Orlando Magic (9-14)

At the beginning of the season, the Magic were almost guaranteed a spot at the bottom of the division given how good the rest of the teams were, but an underwhelming start from the Charlotte Hornets has the Magic fourth at the quarter mark of the season. The Magic have been rather inconsistent so far as they’ve battled through several injuries. Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn, Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye have all missed time due to various injuries leaving head coach Jacque Vaughn in a position to try to pick the best rotations on a nightly basis. The results have been questionable at times, but other times they seem to work.

One of the early season storylines is how well they’ve played on the road. The team won just four games on the road all of last season while they’ve gone 7-9 on the road already this season and finished 3-3 on a recent six-game road trip. The team seems to have gotten a little more consistent with the return of O’Quinn to the lineup, but it’s clear Oladipo is still getting back into a rhythm after missing the first nine games of the season with a facial fracture. Fourth-year players in Harris and Vucevic have become options the team can count on to score. Harris currently leads the Magic with 18.9 points while Vucevic is just behind him at 18.6. Missing Gordon with a broken bone in his foot has proved costly on the defensive side as Gordon has the quickness and speed to matchup with opposing forwards. The Magic are maintaining ground in the playoff hunt and look to stay alive with players continuing to get healthy and improve.

Grade: C-

5. Charlotte Hornets (5-15)

One of the biggest surprises of the season thus far has been the Hornets’ start. This is a team that was expecting to compete for a playoff spot and possibly home-court advantage given their success last season and the addition of Lance Stephenson. This season has proven that nothing is a given in the NBA as the team has struggled to this point.

The offense is ranked 26th in the league in efficiency and 25th in the league in points scored per game at 94. The defense is giving up 101.2 points per game and is 25th in efficiency. Kemba Walker is averaging 14.3 points per game on a career-low 36 percent shooting from the field. Stephenson’s points per game are down from 13.8 last season to 10.4 this season while his field goal percentage has dropped from 49 percent to 39 percent. His three-point percentage has fallen from 35 percent to 16 percent.

It’s clear that head coach Steve Clifford will have his work cut out getting his players better looks from the floor. If the Hornets’ struggles continue, they could be a team to make a move around the trade deadline. Trade talks heat up after Dec. 15 when players signed over the offseason can be traded so the Hornets may look to move a couple of younger players if it means acquiring more proven players that can help them win now.

Grade: D-

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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