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Head to Head: Best of the West

Bill Ingram, Tommy Beer, Moke Hamilton and Jabari Davis debate which teams have the best shot at winning the Western Conference this season.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2014 NBA trade deadline has passed, which means we have a pretty good idea of what teams will look like down the stretch. With that in mind, four of Basketball Insiders’ writers take a look at a few teams in the Western Conference that may make some noise come postseason time.

There is no question that Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is having an MVP season. The way he kept his team winning at an elite level despite the absence of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook was incredibly impressive. With Westbrook back, the Thunder should finish with the best record in the Western Conference and find themselves back in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, there is one opponent that will still stand between the Thunder and the NBA Finals, and that opponent is likely to prove to be insurmountable.

The San Antonio Spurs never cease to amaze. Though Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are well past their primes, they continue to contribute in significant ways to a team that has grown far beyond the need for either of them to dominate. Tony Parker has proven that he is the franchise player in San Antonio, and management has shown a propensity for finding help in the most unlikely of places. Players like Danny Green, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli have been great additions to the Spurs’ supporting cast in recent years and they help the team win as one unified collective. In a league driven by superstars, the Spurs continue to buck the system. They no longer have superstars, but together the Spurs are super, indeed.

Obviously, as the march toward the postseason continues, the Spurs will need to not only mend, they will need to stay healthy. During the team’s run to the 2013 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard played a major role, but he has already missed 15 games this season. They will need him healthy.

However, the emergence of both Mills and Bellineli adds additional weapons to Gregg Popovich’s arsenal, and for a team that has been there and done that, the Spurs still warrant the utmost respect as a team capable of winning the West, once again.

– Bill Ingram

 

When Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury back in December, there was some concern and consternation in Oklahoma City, as Thunder fans were worried that their team would slip back toward the middle of the pack out West.

Instead, Kevin Durant went into the telephone booth, donned his superman cape and put the team on his back for the better part of two months. As Durant was compiling MVP-type numbers, the Thunder were notching win after win. When Westbrook returned to the lineup this past Thursday, the Thunder had actually expanded its lead atop the Western Conference. While some pundits point out that Westbrook’s return may dampen Durant’s MVP chances, this team is not at all concerned about individual honors. For the Thunder, it’s about getting back to the Finals.

With more than 25 games remaining in which to re-acclimate Westbrook, the Thunder hope to be hitting their stride and playing their best basketball of the season when it counts most—just as the postseason is beginning.

The first important step is finishing the regular season with the best record in the West, if not the entire league. That would secure home court advantage for the Thunder throughout the West playoffs, and would make riding into the 2014 NBA Finals all the more plausible. The Thunder currently have a three-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs, as well as a slight lead over the Indiana Pacers for the NBA’s best record.

We can safely assume we’ll continue to witness herculean efforts on a nightly basis from Durant, but the team will need its role players to continue to contribute. Reggie Jackson stepped up in Westbrook’s absence over the last couple of months and even though his role will now be reduced, Thunder coach Scott Brooks needs Jackson to play well in the minutes he receives. Ditto for youngsters Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones. They are the wildcards for the Thunder. If they exceed expectations, this team should be able to lock down the much-desired No. 1 seed and perhaps make another run to the NBA Finals.

At the end of the day, Westbrook will remain the crucial “X-Factor.” When he is healthy and at his athletic, aggressive best, Oklahoma City is the best team in the West. And for that reason, the smart money says the tag-team of Durant and Westbrook carries the Thunder all the way to the Finals in June.

– Tommy Beer

 

Head scratching and deep-thought aren’t required to draw at least one easy conclusion about the Western Conference this postseason: It’s gonna be a dogfight.

Aside from the Spurs and Thunder, the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers have each made tremendous strides as basketball teams and it is amazing to consider that one of those five-mentioned teams will not even get as far as the second round of the playoffs.

Everything depends on how the seeds break down in the West, first and foremost. If the playoffs began on Feb. 23, the Rockets would battle the Phoenix Suns in the first round while the Clippers and Trail Blazers would engage as the four and five seeds. Of those three teams, it is a tough task to choose one who may emerge as a legitimate contender, so I’ll cheat and make the case for two of them.

Sorry Trail Blazers, but you are the weakest link.

Contemporary history has shown us a few times over that teams that rely on midrange jump-shooting and porous defenses do not typically excel in the NBA playoffs. The games inevitably slow down, getting stops is necessary and a lucid head coach who has an opportunity to study a high-powered offense over a seven-game series will usually find some way to slow it down—even if Damian Lillard is leading it.

That’s why it is difficult to buy the Blazers as a true contender at this moment.

But the Rockets and Clippers? It is impossible to discount either of them.

With Doc Rivers manning the sidelines, the Clippers have put together an overall tremendous season, despite being without both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for extended periods of time. The reason why is simple: Blake Griffin. He has received ample assistance from Jamal Crawford, but Griffin has simply taken his game to another level. Though his post-moves are still somewhat raw, he has figured out how to use his athleticism to take full advantage of the gifts he has over the conference’s other power forward. His mid-range jumper has become more reliable, and most impressively, he has become one of the game’s premier passers from the power forward spot.

What’s been difficult to ignore with Griffin is how opposing defenses have begun playing him—they know he is a willing passer and have to worry about covering passing lanes as well as his forays to the basket. It is something that has made a tiny difference in the Clippers’ offensive flow, but a major difference in their on-court product.

With Paul and Rivers steering the ship and DeAndre Jordan to defend some of the conference’s other elite big men, the Clippers have a legitimate shot to win the conference crown, though the Rockets do, as well.

The Rockets checked in last week as the No. 3 team in Basketball Insiders’ Power Rankings, and in a nutshell, they are a team that is built for the playoffs.

As Dwight Howard’s health continues to improve, he will once again emerge as a nearly indomitable post presence on each end of the floor, and we have seen flashes of that over the past few weeks.

With James Harden being one of the best one-on-one players in the entire league and their awesome depth featuring the likes of Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, the Rockets could make a serious run in the Western Conference this season, depending on how the brackets shake out.

With less than 30 games remaining in the regular season, we will be watching with curious eyes.

– Moke Hamilton

 

A case for which team may eventually rise to the top of the West should also be made for the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors appear to be the wild card of the bunch. Even though injuries and an understandable period of adjustment with Andre Iguodala’s addition may have limited them at the beginning of the season, they’ve gone 20-9 since mid-December. Although they were just 1-6 against the teams that currently occupy the top-four Western Conference playoff slots (Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers) prior to December 20, they have gone 3-1 against them since that point. In fact, they also had a 10-game winning streak during that period that also featured a win over an upstart Suns team, and seven straight road victories including one in Miami.

MVP candidate Steph Curry has been a large part of that, but one of the more impressive and refreshing aspects of the fifth-year point guard is the fact that he is so quick to credit their balanced attack and overall chemistry for the team’s success. If at full strength, they are one of the few teams constructed for both a fast-paced, high scoring affair as well as having the capability to slow it down and still execute in the half-court set.

As with any team, health is always a key component to sustaining and even building upon momentum, and these Warriors are no exception to that rule. Curry is the engine that powers the vehicle, but Golden State relies upon consistent contributions from everyone within Mark Jackson’s rotation. From David Lee’s perpetual 20-point, 10-rebound nights to Klay Thompson’s ability to balance the court as the Splash Brothers’ other member to varied contributions of guys like Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and the bench, the Warriors have quietly developed into one of the more complete rosters and most cohesive units in the league.

Additions like recently acquired reserve guard Steve Blake only bolster that mix, as the 11-year veteran brings an added toughness and playmaking ability they’ve lacked since Jarrett Jack’s departure to Cleveland last offseason. Make no mistake, Curry has developed the playmaking aspect of his game quite impressively, but Blake provides Coach Jackson with a nice luxury of being able to utilize Curry primarily as an offensive, off-screen catch-and-shoot weapon during certain periods. Jackson tended to do just that last season by utilizing a three-guard lineup that included Jack during last year’s playoff run. With Blake, they now have that option again.

Ultimately, while anything is certainly possible with such a deep race, the matchups are still most likely to be the determining factor. At 34-22 and only two games beneath the fourth-seeded Clippers in the loss column, the idea of potentially hosting a playoff series is still well within reach for the Warriors.

As a team that can match up favorably against much of the league, all these Warriors need is relative health when all is said and done in order to stand a good chance versus anyone the West throws their way.

– Jabari Davis

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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