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What’s It Like To Be a Teenager in the NBA?

What is it like to enter the NBA as a teenager? Aaron Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Dorell Wright discuss.

Alex Kennedy

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We often hear about the rise and fall of child stars in the entertainment industry. Tabloids love to cover a prodigy’s ascent to stardom, and then eventually chronicle their missteps, destructive behavior and downward spiral. This leads many to believe that teenagers can’t possibly succeed when put in these situations with millions of dollars, immense pressure, worldwide fame and a ballooned ego. It seems to spell disaster for young, impressionable individuals.

However, the entertainment industry isn’t the only field investing a lot of time and money into teenagers. Each year, a new wave of teens enters the NBA. Even though the league’s age limit has prohibited players from jumping directly to the NBA from high school since 2005, there are still plenty of prospects who enter the world’s top basketball league at 18 or 19 years old after one collegiate season.

Look no further than the 2014 NBA Draft for evidence, as four of the top five selections were 19-year-olds (and the lone exception, Joel Embiid, had just turned 20 years old three months earlier). In fact, 40 percent of the first-round selections in the 2014 draft were teenagers as of draft night.

Being a teenager can be tough, even if you’re just an average kid dealing with everyday issues and trying to blend in at high school. Being a teenager who is constantly under the microscope and has a ridiculous amount of money, fame and temptations can be quite the experience – good and bad – as well.

There have been many teenagers who have thrived in the league, including superstars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. But for every success story, there are many players who failed to make the transition to the NBA as teenagers – for reasons on the court, off the court or sometimes both.

NBA executives have plenty of horror stories about teens who had all of the athletic talent necessary to play in the NBA, but didn’t make it because they weren’t mature enough. The individuals who struggle are often the ones who continue acting like a typical teenager rather than growing up and being a professional. They oversleep, eat fast food and have their priorities out of order. Many mismanage their money, especially when they are trying to keep up with the spending habits of their veteran teammates who have much larger contracts and much more saved up from their time in the league. For many, it’s also the first time they’ve lived on their own and had any freedom, which can lead to issues as well. One executive described a high-profile prospect who had issues with basic things like paying his bills and opening a bank account.

Some players who enter the NBA too young make mistakes that ruin their career; some even ruin their life. Robert Swift, who entered the NBA as a teenager in 2004, is a self-described heroin addict who made headlines recently after being arrested following an armed home invasion attempt. Swift’s issues began as his professional basketball career flamed out, and now his life is a mess at 29 years old.

Every teenager who enters the league has a different experience. Many have succeeded, many have failed, many have landed somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. While they all have their rookie age in common, each situation is unique with different circumstances that affect their career trajectory. Basketball Insiders wanted to find out exactly what it’s like to be a teenager in the NBA, so we spoke to Aaron Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Dorell Wright – all of whom entered the league during their teen years – about their experiences.

***

Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon strutted into the locker room, bobbing his head to music coming from his headphones and donning his game face. He sat down in front of his locker and was clearly trying to focus on that evening’s game, which was set to tip off in less than an hour. There was game film of that night’s opponent playing on a big screen television in the middle of the locker room and he watched intently, while continuing to listen to his music. Gordon just turned 19 years old in September, but he carries himself like a professional.

However, one small detail made it very hard to take Gordon seriously. He was wearing a bright pink backpack with an enormous picture of Barbie on it. As serious and in the zone as he was, it’s pretty hard for anyone other than an elementary school girl to look cool while wearing that backpack.

This is the life of an NBA rookie. Early in the season, Gordon had to wear his Barbie backpack everywhere – to hotels, on the plane, in the locker room – otherwise he would be in trouble with the team’s veterans. Elfrid Payton had to do the same with a pink Minnie Mouse backpack and Devyn Marble had to sport a purple Frozen bag featuring Anna and Elsa. Channing Frye, a nine-year NBA veteran, was the one who came up with the idea and enforced it. Gordon actually had it easy compared to some first-year players, considering when Frye was on the Phoenix Suns he made rookie Earl Clark wear a large banana costume out in public.

“It was just the Barbie backpack, that’s mainly it,” Gordon said with a laugh when asked about the extent of his rookie hazing. “It was really just in the beginning of the season. I think they just wanted to see if we would do it. And we did it, so they’ve kind of taken it easy on us from there.”

Around this time last year, Gordon had a backpack full of college textbooks and homework (and without Barbie, I’m assuming), since he was attending the University of Arizona. In addition to living the college life, he was trying to showcase his skill set to NBA decision-makers so that he’d be mentioned as a top prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft and in the same sentence as elite freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid. He was trying to prove that he wasn’t a tweener without a position, and that he had a quality arsenal of skills to go along with his phenomenal athleticism.

He did all of the above throughout his lone collegiate season with the Wildcats, which is why the Magic selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He’s now viewed as a franchise cornerstone for the Magic, and he’ll earn $3,992,040 to play the game he loves this season (more than every 2014-15 rookie aside from Wiggins, Parker and Embiid).

He remembers his high school days like they were yesterday and he’s not old enough to legally drink or reserve many hotel rooms on his own. Yet, he’s viewed as a potential savior of a billion-dollar organization. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid and he admits he’s had to mature a lot faster than most of his peers – many of whom are still cramming for exams and trying to find their next party.

“There are definitely some aspects that you need to mature quicker about – when it comes to money, when it comes to taking care of your body, when it comes to making good use of your time,” Gordon said. “But at the end of the day, I’m still a teenager. And I’m always going to be a kid at heart.”

One of the biggest changes in Gordon’s life is obviously the number of zeros in his bank account. He has always wanted to play in the NBA because it is his dream job, and he insists the lucrative salary is just a bonus on top of that. Most 19-year-olds would make some questionable purchases if they suddenly had nearly $4 million at their fingertips, but Gordon has tried to be responsible with his money. His priority is taking care of his family, but he does admit that it’s nice being able to afford most things and having that financial safety net.

“It’s really cool to not really have to stress about how you’re going to buy a gift for your sister or how you’re going to pay your bills or how you’re going to help your mom if she is struggling,” Gordon said. “But from the moment I started playing basketball, I never played for money. I’m going to keep that mentality until I stop playing. I’m never playing for money.”

While the Magic are a very young team, Gordon is the only teenager on the roster. He has a number of younger friends on the team that he spends his free time with, such as Elfrid Payton (20), Victor Oladipo (21), Maurice Harkless (22), Tobias Harris (22) and Kyle O’Quinn (24). Harkless and Harris each entered the league as teens too, so they understand what he’s going through.

Gordon also tries to spend time with the team’s older players and learn as much as possible from them, but he has noticed that it’s sometimes difficult for him to relate to the veterans since their lifestyle differs from his. Many of them have a wife and kids, businesses outside of basketball and a very different set of priorities.

“We see the world from different perspectives,” Gordon said of the team’s veterans. “That’s just a part of me being an individual and also being younger and not being around [that lifestyle]. There definitely is age gap, but when you go on the court it really doesn’t matter at all. They have really helped me too. Channing Frye, who also went to Arizona, has been great. Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Willie Green too. Those are the four veterans on our team and they take good care of me.”

It’s not just the veterans who have been friendly to Gordon and welcomed the rookie with open arms. He has been very impressed with the Magic organization as a whole, because everyone has treated him better than he ever could’ve anticipated and helped him with his adjustment to the league. It seems he heard many stories of the NBA being a ruthless business and was expecting a dog-eat-dog mentality, but that hasn’t been the case thus far. He has been pleasantly surprised by the family-like atmosphere in Orlando, where everyone has been friendly.

“I think one of the biggest surprises has just been the amount of good people I have in my organization,” Gordon said. “You almost feel like the NBA is strictly 100 percent business, but the people on my team have been real nice to me, real cool and just good teammates.”

Being a top-four draft pick and signing a lucrative contract brings on high expectations. A player picked as high as Gordon is typically expected to become a star. However, Gordon has tried not to think about where he was selected and just play his game.

“I think once you get drafted, after about two weeks you stop having a number and you start just being a basketball player again,” Gordon said. “You know? There have been great players in this league that have been second-round picks and there have been great players in this league that have been No. 1 picks. At the same time, there have been No. 1 picks that haven’t been so good. So once you get past the draft and you get to your team, it really doesn’t matter anymore.”

Gordon’s transition from college to the NBA was temporarily sidetracked when he injured his left foot on Nov. 15 and then he needed surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Having to sit out and watch has been very hard for Gordon, who desperately wants to be on the court. He’s done his best to stay positive and take something away from the situation.

“It’s really difficult,” Gordon said of being sidelined. “I don’t like to see my team struggle if I’m not out there struggling with them or helping them out of the struggle. But at the same time, it’s been a little bit of a silver lining because I’ve been able to see the game from a different perspective and kind of learn. Now, we are half way through the season and I’m almost ready to come back, rejuvenated.”

Gordon is exceptionally mature for his age, which is something that all of his teammates point out when discussing his transition to the NBA.

“He’s only 19 years old, but he understands that he has to be a sponge and he has that willingness to learn and take advice,” Ben Gordon said of the rookie. “I think he’s more mature than some of the guys [on the team] who are a little bit older than him. He has the right approach. He’s one of those guys who only did one year of college, but he’s more mature than his age would [indicate]. I think he has the right make-up to succeed. He’s learning as a rookie and has that great work ethic, so I think he will have a bright future.”

***

Being a 19-year-old rookie on a team full of young players certainly has its benefits. Someone like Aaron Gordon is always surrounded by players who are close to his age. They have similar interests and can relate to him. In other words, he rarely feels like a kid sitting at the adult table.

Trevor Ariza didn’t have that luxury. While he also landed in the NBA at 19 years old after one year of college, he entered a situation with very different circumstances. Ariza was drafted in the second round of the 2004 NBA Draft, going 43rd overall to the New York Knicks.

During his 2004-05 rookie season with the Knicks, he joined a team that was coming off of a playoff berth and entered the year expecting to compete with veterans like Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Kurt Thomas, Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway, Malik Rose, Tim Thomas, Nazr Mohammed, Jerome Williams and Vin Baker among others. He was playing in the intense New York market, where players are constantly under the microscope and the media is highly critical. He was one of only two rookies on the team, and the only one who was drafted since Jackie Butler joined the squad as undrafted free agent.

In addition to adjusting to a new lifestyle, city, team, competition level and set of responsibilities, Ariza was also trying his best not to get too emotional about living away from home for the first time. He grew up in California and then attended UCLA, so he had always been in the area and surrounded by family and friends. As a rookie in New York, that was no longer the case and it affected him.

“Probably the biggest adjustment that I had to make was being so far away from home at such a young age,” Ariza said. “I got a little home sick because I had never been away from home for a long period of time. I [grew up] in California and then went to high school and college in California, so I had never really been away from home for an extended period of time. That was one of the adjustments.

“Finding something to do with my free time was another thing that I had to adjust to – there’s only so many hours you can spend in the gym, especially playing 80-plus games. I had trouble finding things to do with all the spare time we had.”

Ariza also admits he struggled with the rigorous schedule throughout his rookie campaign. He had played a high school schedule just two years earlier, and even his season at UCLA felt long. Then, he was suddenly expected to play 90 games (preseason and regular season) and travel non-stop, which was hard on him physically and mentally.

“That’s tough, man,” Ariza said. “[Teenagers] aren’t used to playing 82 games plus eight preseason games – and if your team makes it to the playoffs, you add however many games that is. That’s tough for any young player mentally to have to adjust to that because you’re a young kid and you want to have a good time. You want to play and play well, but you also want to enjoy the lifestyle that you made for yourself, so it’s a tough adjustment.”

While Ariza was doing his best to adjust to his situation, there was certainly some added stress due to the fact that there was no guarantee that he was going to make the Knicks’ roster or remain on the squad for the duration of the season. Unlike someone like Aaron Gordon, who has a large guaranteed contract and multi-year commitment from his team, a mid-second-round pick like Ariza had very little job security. Ariza knew this, and he says it kept him from getting cocky – as some kids would if they were playing for the Knicks and living out their dream. While it may seem like he was living the good life, he pointed out that getting big headed was nearly impossible considering he was constantly being reminded that he was at the bottom of the totem pole and that he could be off of the team at any moment.

“It wasn’t guaranteed that I was going to be in the NBA for long, you know? I was a second-round pick so one thing that I always knew was that if I wanted to be here, wanted to stay here, I had to work hard at my game,” Ariza said. “Our team wasn’t that great, as far as the record that we had, and I knew not too many young players or second-round players get to play in this league a long time anyways, especially not ones on a team that wasn’t that good. So I had to continue to work, continue to listen to my older veterans, continue to figure out ways that I could get better and stay in the league. That’s all I was focused on.”

Having so many veterans on the team was initially intimidating for Ariza, but he quickly realized the benefits that come with having so many experienced players around in the locker room. He developed relationships with some of the older players on the team, which significantly helped his development. On some squads, young players and veteran players aren’t particularly close. Some rookies just want to party, meet girls and, as Ariza said, “enjoy the lifestyle that you made for yourself.” Meanwhile, the veteran has been in this position for years and oftentimes has a family at home. They also tend to be more focused on winning, especially when playing for a veteran-laden team with lofty goals, while young players typically try to prove they belong in the league and often worry about themselves. As the only draft pick on New York’s roster, Ariza could’ve found himself being the loner on the team while all of the older players bonded and left him out. Instead, he says that he got along very well with his veteran teammates, mainly because he has always gravitated to older individuals.

“I thought it was actually good for me,” Ariza said of joining a veteran-laden team. “Throughout my years, even when I was in high school or junior high school, I always hung around older people. I like to learn a lot of things and I always thought that hanging around older people would make it easier for me to learn things. The older guys that were on the team were great to me, helping me with everything that I needed or anything that I didn’t understand or was having trouble with. Every last one of them was there for me when I needed them. In my situation, being around a veteran team was a really good thing for me as a young player.”

The fact that Ariza played well as a rookie also helped him earn acceptance and respect from veteran teammates. He emerged as an athletic, high-energy swingman who could fill the stat sheet and contribute on both ends of the floor. It became clear that he could make a difference when given the opportunity to play, so he became a significant contributor and the second-youngest rookie in Knicks history to play in 80 games.

Looking back, Ariza believes he benefitted from the lack of expectations set for him. While he certainly felt pressure due to his limited job security, he always felt like he could just play his game and not force anything. After all, the 43rd overall pick isn’t brought in to be a team’s focal point or even a rotation player in many cases. There were no lofty goals set for him entering the year, and he took advantage of that by working hard, playing his game and surprising everyone. He became a fan favorite because they loved his underdog story (and because he made a habit of posterizing opponents and playing with an excellent motor).

“I didn’t feel any pressure because I wasn’t expected to come in and save a franchise or have to play big minutes or take on a heavy scoring load; that wasn’t my role on any team that I’ve been on,” Ariza said. “So as far as that goes, I didn’t feel pressure to do that. There is some pressure that comes with playing in New York, but for me it was something that I always dreamed about doing because what better to place to start your career off then in the Mecca of basketball? You’ll be playing in front of big sold-out crowds every night. You got Kobe Bryant coming into town one night, Carmelo Anthony the next, LeBron James after that and you’re the one that has to do your best to stop those type of guys. I took that as a challenge.”

Ariza says he’s glad he was a second-round pick and didn’t have to deal with being labeled a potential savior of a franchise. He can’t even imagine what someone like, say, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Aaron Gordon has to go through being a teenager and a top pick with those kind of expectations at the same time.

“For the guys who are coming up now and have the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, I don’t envy them,” Ariza said. “I don’t know what that is like. The players that do and are here now – guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins – those guys are extremely talented players with great work ethics. With their coaches and all the tools that they have, I don’t see anything but good things for them. Still, I would [advise them] to never get too high or never get too down on yourself because the NBA season is so long, there are so many things that you have to endure, there are so many obstacles that you have to overcome to become great. Don’t get frustrated with it – just continue to take your time, continue to work and everything will take care of itself.”

He also recommends having a strong support system, particularly made up of other players from around the league so they have someone to relate to and talk about what they’re going through. He was close with a number of players who were always there for him when he needed them.

“The lifestyle change definitely happened very fast, but one thing that was good for me was I had peers that I grew up with who were going through the same thing – like me and Dorell Wright, we are real tight,” Ariza said. “We grew up together, we’ve known each other for years so if we ever needed advice on anything or if we were in the same city, we would hang out together and just talk about the process, talk about each other’s veterans, talk about things that we liked, things that we didn’t like and it was good for us.”

Looking back, Ariza admits it was somewhat surreal being a teenager in the NBA, traveling all over the country, staying in the nicest hotels he had ever seen and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to do what he loved. However, he quickly learned that the NBA is a business, first and foremost. He was traded to the Orlando Magic during his second season in a deal that also involved Penny Hardaway and Steve Francis. The following year, the Magic traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans, and he would win a championship with the Lakers in 2009.

Now, Ariza is in his 11th NBA season and playing a key role on a contending Houston Rockets team. He has already earned over $44 million throughout his career, and inked a four-year deal worth $32 million this past offseason. He’s clearly a success story and role model for all NBA teenagers and second-round picks. The odds were against him when he slipped in the draft and played for three teams in his first four years. His career could’ve gone very differently, but he worked hard, carved out a role for himself and remains in the league a decade later with a championship ring, a lucrative contract and career averages of 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals. Not bad for a guy who thought he could be cut and out of the league as a rookie.

***

While Aaron Gordon and Trevor Ariza each had one year of college under their belt before entering the NBA, Dorell Wright made the leap to the league straight from high school.

Wright was absolutely dominant in high school, averaging 29.4 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks per game at South Kent Prep in Connecticut. He briefly committed to DePaul University, but then decided to go right to the NBA.

Like his close friend Ariza, Wright was part of the 2004 NBA Draft. He was one of eight high school prospects to be selected in the first round that year, alongside Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, (the aforementioned) Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith and J.R. Smith. He was picked last of the bunch, by the Miami HEAT at No. 19. The following year would be the last in which high school players were eligible to be drafted.

Wright joined a Miami team that had Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Keyon Dooling, Damon Jones and other veterans. They were a championship contender, winning 59 games and going to the Eastern Conference Finals during his rookie season and then hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy during his sophomore season. He was the youngest player on the roster during the championship campaign.

Unlike Gordon and Ariza, who each got to play a significant role during their rookie season because they were on struggling teams willing to develop the young talent, Wright spent just about every game on the bench.

He played three games and a total of 27 minutes as a rookie, and he didn’t see a single second of postseason action during his first two seasons. This was tough to deal with after being the big man on campus at South Kent Prep just one year before.

“It was definitely a tough process mainly because I was fresh out of high school,” Wright said. “I’ve been playing my whole life and I’ve always been the best player on my team, stuff like that and it’s just a sudden stop – you’re not playing, you’re not the best player on your team, you’re not the best player every night when you step out on the floor.

“I just had to realize how much work I had to do, how much stronger I had to get and just learn all of the small things. I had to learn the game, learn when to make the right pass, learn when to shoot the ball, learn clock management, all these different things that I had no idea about at the next level. It was definitely a hard process for me learning all of that, but I had the right supporting cast with the organization to keep me focused on the goal, which was to get better, get stronger and work on my shot.”

Wright attributes his success to his upbringing and his time spent at South Kent Prep.

“I come from a humble background, you know good parents,” Wright said. “And that year I spent at South Kent Prep away from my parents in Connecticut, that really helped me as far as getting up on my own, being on time, [growing up]. We had to wear blazers and ties every day, so I was dressing like a professional already. That was like my jumpstart. Before a lot of these kids made that jump, [they didn’t have that]. I was already polished so all I had to do was follow Pat Riley and the HEAT’s rules and I was fine.”

While Wright believes that players who are mature and ready should be able to enter the NBA out of high school like he did, he also understands why the NBA added the age limit. He sees both sides of the argument and has an interesting perspective on the debate.

“A lot of kids are so immature, so it’s hard,” Wright said. “With these big organizations, these big jobs, you’re investing in an 18-year-old and you don’t know which way they’re going to go or if they’re going to be mature or not. They try to do as many background reports and what not to make sure that you are a solid kid, but you could be good and then by the time you get to this level you could go another direction, so it’s definitely hard on them.

“I think the rule now of one year of college is awesome because these guys are getting to understand how the structure of this league works, especially the players going to these powerhouse colleges. If they were good enough to make this jump, then they are going to a powerhouse college where they have a good coach, a great organization, a great school. They get to learn all these things there so once they get here, they are prepared. No doubt, it’s [a good stepping stone]. A lot of scouts and GMs really respect who those coaches are too, so they are a phone call away if they want to know anything about a player too.”

Like Ariza, Wright realizes just how fortunate he is that he’s still playing in the NBA. He’s now in his 11th season and he has had a successful NBA journey, winning a championship ring in 2006, leading the league in three-point shots made in 2010 and emerging as a quality role player in stints with the HEAT, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and, currently, the Portland Trail Blazers. He has earned over $25 million throughout the course of his career, and has played in over 530 games with a career average of 8.5 points.

Wright is grateful that he entered the league with the HEAT, since they were willing to be patient with him and help him develop into a player who could have a long career. Even though they were in win-now mode when he arrived in Miami, he credits the individuals within that organization for molding him into the player he is today and showing what he had to do in order to have sustainable success.

“There were so many different [times] that they made me sit down and realize what I needed to do and who I needed to be if I wanted to be a successful NBA player and last [in the league],” Wright said of the HEAT officials. “A lot of people don’t understand it’s hard to get in the NBA, but it’s easy to get out of here. Not too many guys last. Me being in the league for 11 years and being a veteran now is something big.”

He’s now the elder statesman on a very young Blazers team – the third-oldest player on Portland’s roster – and doing his best to help the NBA’s next generation of young players get acclimated to the league and have a lengthy career of their own.

***

Being a teenager in the NBA obviously requires exceptional talent, but it also takes mental toughness and maturity. Teams do their best to help these young men develop and realize their full potential, but not every phenom can live up to the hype and handle the responsibilities associated with playing in the Association. These kids are living their dream and the lifestyle comes with many perks, but there are also are many challenges and it takes a certain type of person to thrive in such a pressurized situation.

 

Joel Brigham contributed to the reporting for this article.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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NBA

NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch

The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.

Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.

The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.

The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.

The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.

Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.

New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.

If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.

One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.

The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.

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