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How Key Buyout Players May Impact Playoffs

James Blancarte takes a look at how players from the buyout market may impact this year’s playoffs.

James Blancarte

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The NBA playoffs are looming.

Each season, after the trade deadline, several players are bought out of the remainder of their contracts, allowing them to sign with other teams. These buyout players tend to go from poorly performing teams that do not have playoff aspirations, and may be aiming for a better position in the draft lottery, to teams competing for an NBA championship. During buyout season, good teams (sometimes) get better, or as they say, the rich get richer.

With this in mind, we turn to this year’s key buyout acquisitions to see how they may affect the upcoming 2016-2017 playoffs:

Deron Williams, Cleveland Cavaliers

On January 23rd, when speaking to the media, LeBron James stated “We need a fu—-g playmaker. …I’m not saying you can just go find one like you can go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that.”

While speaking to Zach Lowe of ESPN on March 6, Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin echoed these sentiments, stating the team searched for a capable guard throughout the season.

“We certainly tried all year to add a point guard and a big,” Griffin said. “I think we were at a point at the [trade] deadline where we knew we could acquire someone and made a value judgment [that it was] worth waiting to wait for [the] buyout market.”

With the trade deadline passed, the type of player both James and Griffin sought suddenly became available.

“Deron [Williams] literally fell in our lap that way,” Griffin said.

With that, the Cavaliers found the additional playmaker James had publicly requested.

In 40 games with the Dallas Mavericks this season, Williams averaged 12.8 points (his lowest scoring average since his rookie season) and 6.9 assists per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range. Williams’ assist and shooting percentages are on par with recent years, although his overall scoring decreased significantly in his 12th season in the NBA.

In five games with the Cavaliers, Williams is playing 20.2 minutes compared to 29.3 minutes per game with the Mavericks. In addition, he has only hit one three-pointer with the Cavaliers despite his 1.6 attempts per game. These misfires include a potential go-ahead corner three-pointer directly from LeBron James. Although the shot didn’t go in, Williams is already gaining valuable crunch time experience playing alongside James, which could prove valuable in the postseason.

Williams has struggled with injuries throughout his career, so his durability will be a concern going forward. However, based on talent and experience, Williams is clearly an upgrade over the Cavaliers’ other options at backup point guard and will likely play a crucial role for Cleveland as they make another run for an NBA title.

Matt Barnes, Golden State Warriors

Matt Barnes joins the Warriors after an interesting series of events. The team had previously committed to recent buyout guard Jose Calderon. However, on February 28, Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury, which forced a change of plans and led to the signing of Barnes, who had recently been released by the Sacramento Kings.

Although it has been almost 10 years since he previously played with the Warriors, Barnes expressed his excitement upon signing.

“I’m at a loss for words right now, next to the birth of my children this is the happiest day of my life!! Coming back to where it all started,” Barnes exclaimed.

With the Kings, Barnes averaged 7.6 points on 38.4 percent shooting and 32.3 percent on three-pointers — relatively low marks for a wing player. However, Barnes had been rebounding (5.5 per game) and assisting (2.8 per game) at near career-high levels in 25.3 minutes per game.

Through four games, Barnes has played a total of 62 minutes for the Warriors. He is averaging 2.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists and is shooting 25 percent from the field and 22 percent on three-pointers. Obviously, this is a very, very small sample size, but Barnes hasn’t necessarily hit the ground running in Golden State. As Barnes gets more acclimated to his new team, its system and builds some confidence, he’ll likely get closer to his career averages.

So while it’s abundantly clear that Barnes simply cannot replace Durant’s production, Barnes can contribute in other ways. Former teammate Los Angeles Clippers Forward Blake Griffin explained some of what Barnes brings to the table.

“He was kind of a guy you could always count on to be in the right spot at the right time,” Griffin said. “There were a couple of plays I’d be trapped in the post and he’d cut down the middle, perfect timing. Things like that.”

Ideally, Durant will be healthy in time for the playoffs and Barnes will simply serve as an insurance policy. However, if Durant is limited or can’t return in time, Barnes will need to sharpen his game and be prepared to play a crucial role for the league’s best team.

Brandon Jennings, Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards have been a pleasant surprise this season. They have rebounded from missing the playoffs last season to currently being third in the Eastern Conference. With a potential deep playoff run looming, the team has been bolstered by the return of big man Ian Mahinmi, the trade for Bojan Bogdanovic and the buyout acquisition of Brandon Jennings.

With this acquisition, the Wizards have added a reliable lead guard and talented scorer. For reference, on January 31, Jennings scored 32 points in a road game against the Houston Rockets. With the New York Knicks, Jennings, in 23.8 minutes per game, averaged 8.6 points while shooting 38 percent from the field and 34 percent on three-point attempts. Although his shooting percentages have remained stable over his career, he is far removed from the first six seasons of his career where he averaged between 15.4 and 19.1 points per game. Part of that dip in scoring is likely a result of Jennings’ Achilles injury in 2015, but he has shown that he is still capable of putting up meaningful numbers with some regularity.

In four games, Jennings is averaging two points on 25 percent shooting and has yet to hit a three in 12.3 minutes of action per game. This sample size is quite small and with 20 games remaining, there is time to ease Jennings into the mix and unlock his scoring potential.

For more insight on Washington’s acquisition of Jennings, take a look at this article by Basketball Insider’s Benny Nadeau.

Jose Calderon, Atlanta Hawks

Jose Calderon made headlines when the Warriors signed Matt Barnes due to the injury Durant suffered the day before Calderon was supposed to sign with Golden State. The Warriors signed Calderon to ensure that he would be paid then subsequently waived him.

On March 3, the Atlanta Hawks claimed Calderon off waivers.

“We feel fortunate to be able to add a player of Jose’s caliber at this point in the season,” Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer said shortly after acquiring Calderon.

In his 24 games with the Lakers, Calderon averaged 3.3 points and 2.1 assists per game. His per-minute averages aren’t particularly great either, as he averaged just 9.5 points and 6.2 assists per 36 minutes. In his 12th season and at 35 years old, there is plenty of reason to question Calderon’s ability to contribute moving forward.

Malcolm Delaney, a 27-year-old rookie point guard, has played a significant backup role for the Hawks this season. In 63 games, Delaney is averaging 5.6 points and 2.7 assists on 38.2 percent shooting. These numbers aren’t great and Coach Budenholzer was clearly looking for some veteran experience at point guard, which explains his interest in Calderon.

With Budenholzer talking about Calderon’s shooting and experience while remaining noncommittal regarding the position, there appears to be an open competition leading into the playoffs. Although Calderon’s statistics have not been great this season, he did shoot 42 percent on three-pointers with the Lakers.

Recently, Coach Budenholzer benched starting point guard Dennis Schroder in a competitive game against the Warriors when Schroder and Hawks center Dwight Howard began to exchange words on the court. The exchange, during live play, led to a wide open three-pointer for Warriors point guard Stephen Curry. Between this recent issue with Schroder and the need for more production at backup point guard, Calderon has a potential role to fill for Atlanta. However, based on his recent production, his age, lack of defensive impact and recent arrival, it’s not likely that he’ll be the solution for Atlanta.

Andrew Bogut, Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers landed Bogut in the buyout market as a potential rim protector and anchor on defense. Bogut was considering several teams but ultimately chose Cleveland, later explaining that he felt it was the best fit for him.

Bogut had been dealing with nagging injuries and had only started 21 games for the Dallas Mavericks. Per 36 minutes, Bogut was contributing 4.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks per game. While his scoring and shooting percentages weren’t particularly impressive, he could still rebound the ball and protect the rim effectively. Though he wasn’t a perfect fit for Cleveland, his veteran experience and defensive skills were a nice addition, especially at this point in the season.

Unfortunately, these plans very quickly went awry for the Cavaliers when, less than two minutes into Bogut’s first game, he fractured his left tibia, which will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the season and playoffs.

Derrick Williams, Cleveland Cavaliers

Assuming the Cavaliers do not sign an additional big man in preparation for the playoffs, the team will continue to rely on fifth-year journeyman Derrick Williams. The Cavaliers signed Williams on February 22 and although this signing garnered less acclaim than the Deron Williams and Bogut signings, Derrick Williams has made nice contributions on the court in his short time with Cleveland. Williams joined the Cavaliers having played with four teams in six seasons, including the Miami HEAT earlier this season.

For his career, Williams has averaged 9.1 points on 43 percent shooting, 4.1 rebounds and a PER of 13.6. He has played well enough to stay in the league but has not remained in any team’s long term plans, having never spent more than two seasons with any team. With the HEAT this season, he had started 11 of 25 games but averaged only 15.1 minutes and scored 5.9 points per game, all well below career averages.

With the Cavaliers, he has been able to contribute in 12 games off the bench and has averaged near career highs in multiple categories. This includes nine points while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range on 2.9 attempts per game. For comparison, Williams has never shot better than 33.2 percent from beyond the arc in a season. Although these statistics may come back closer to his career averages, Williams has adjusted quite well to his new role with the Cavaliers.

Williams may never live up to the expectations of being selected second overall in the 2011 draft, but he has a chance to be a significant contributor to Cleveland’s run for another championship this season. His ability to play both forward positions, as well as his improved shooting, makes him a nice addition for a team that has had limited flexibility to make notable additions this season.

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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

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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

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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 NBA.com’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

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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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