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Los Angeles Clippers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Basketball Insiders

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With a reportedly healthy team and the strongest supporting cast they’ve had under Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers are perhaps more equipped than ever to finally challenge the Golden State Warriors for both the Pacific Division and, more importantly, the Western Conference crown. The only problem, of course, is that the Warriors look better than ever as well.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without rehashing the obvious, Rivers and the rest of the front office hadn’t done a great job of surrounding their talented starting lineup with the right combination of players over these past few seasons. While titles clearly aren’t won over the summer and these Clippers have given us every reason to hold off any premature celebration, some praise is in order for the work the front office was able to do in recent months. They didn’t have a ton of cap space or flexibility, but they did a solid job of adding promising prospects like Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone, re-signing their own free agents and mixing in a few veteran additions who should be able to bolster their rotation.

Some may have expected the Clippers to seriously consider changes to the core with so many potential free agents next summer (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have early termination clauses and J.J. Redick will be unrestricted), but few can fault the organization for wanting at least one more attempt at getting over the hump given all the talent this roster features. It may, somewhat naturally, generate a “now or never” mentality among this team, but that sense of urgency shouldn’t have a negative impact on such a veteran group.

We’ll see if the combination of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alan Anderson (who should move over to the three) can finally be the answer at small forward since the team has been in search of an upgrade at that position for several seasons. Matt Barnes, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and others have tried to provide the balance they desire on the wing, but the Clippers still needed a multi-functional player (a floor-spacer, slasher and versatile defender) to help alleviate some of the wear-and-tear on the other starters. This coaching staff has done a much better job of monitoring the overall playing time of the roster, but the actual workload of guys like Paul, Griffin and even Redick is of more concern in the grand scheme of things. An 82-game regular season should provide plenty of opportunities to keep the main guys sharp while allowing the supporting cast to do a bit of the heavy lifting along the way, and these Clippers finally seem equipped to do just that.

Basketball Insiders previews the L.A. Clippers’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Clippers had a rough 2015-16 regular season as Blake Griffin suffered multiple injuries, one of which he brought upon himself in the well-documented incident involving a former team employee. Then, in the postseason, Griffin and Chris Paul both went down with injuries, which ultimately led to a first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. After swinging and missing on Kevin Durant in free agency, team president and head coach Doc Rivers decided to give this core another chance at winning it all and strengthened the supporting cast by bringing in veterans like Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson in addition to re-signing Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Luc Mbah a Moute. The team should be a top-level offensive team once again and solid defensively, but that may not be enough considering the already dominant Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant this offseason. You never know what can happen, and the Clippers have arguably as good a shot as anyone at upsetting Golden State, but the Warriors are and should be the heavy favorites in the Western Conference.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It seems unfathomable that the All-Star duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals. But after playoff collapses, various injuries and plenty of inconsistency, it is legitimate to wonder how much longer the team’s front office will allow this to go on without a major shake up. Two events from this past summer may help the Clippers’ road out West. The first being All-Star forward Kevin Durant’s free agency defection to Golden State, which lowered Oklahoma City’s ceiling in the short-term. The second was the retirement of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in San Antonio. These events present a window of opportunity for Los Angeles to take advantage of before younger cores such as Portland and Utah are truly ready to take the next step.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

If you thought the Oklahoma City Thunder had it bad last season, wait until Doc Rivers has to continuously answer questions related to the future of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul since both can be free agents next summer. Despite the fact that Rivers has already publicly stated that he believes he will retain them both, that won’t stop the tea leaves from being read, especially since the Clippers are returning pretty much the same core. In the NBA, teams have a shelf life, and if Paul and company aren’t able to do something significant this season, there may be some fallout. Notice that, to this point, I haven’t said anything about what will happen during the season? There’s good reason. Everyone knows that, in terms of talent, the Clippers are right up there with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. They are one of three teams out West that have a shot of winning the conference, so let’s not pretend otherwise. I don’t know if these guys will win the title, but I do know that they’re the second-best team in the Pacific Division and, so long as they stay healthy, no worse than third in the conference. Let’s also give Doc some credit for some sneaky good acquisition; Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson, Raymond Felton and Brandon Bass should be able to help these guys. So, as usual, I like the Clippers.

2nd Place — Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

It’s no secret that the Clippers are as loaded with talent as any team outside of the Bay Area, and they once again start a season with a roster stacked with studs. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all are elite at their positions, while the ageless Jamal Crawford still pours in points as the league’s three-time Sixth Man of the Year. Adding Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights and Ray Felton only serve as whipped cream on this sundae, and rookies Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone could drastically outplay their draft positions too. So yeah, the Clippers are talented and well-coached, but so far that hasn’t translated to much deep postseason success. Maybe this is the year they break through?

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

I believe there’s a significant drop off after the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference. That means the Clippers have a very good shot at being a top-three team in the West as long as they can stay healthy. The only problem is that the Warriors – the clear-cut favorite to win it all this season – play in their division and there’s a pretty big gap between them and every other team in the West (and the whole league, if we’re being honest). That’s what happens when you take a 73-win team and add Kevin Durant to the mix. But if things don’t work out in Golden State due to injuries, chemistry issues or some other unexpected setback, the Clippers will be right there to pounce and try to win a title before their window closes – mainly due to their stars approaching free agency, but also because the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going anywhere and the Warriors have to figure things out eventually, right? There’s definitely a sense of urgency in Los Angeles, for quite a few reasons.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

This is an opportunity for Griffin to have a bit of a redemption story following a disappointing 2015-16 season of personal issues and unfortunate injuries. Griffin remains one of the league’s most talented offensive big men and best power forwards (in general) heading into a potential summer of free agency. If ever there were a time to continue proving why the Clippers would be absolutely foolish to let him wind up on another roster next season, that time is now for Griffin. He reportedly took just one week away from training following a bone marrow procedure back in April, and we fully expect to see Griffin at his most dynamic and dominant once he’s back at full strength.

He’s a well-rounded scorer – vastly superior to the high-flying version that entered the NBA – and is also one of the better passing and playmaking big men currently in the league. Griffin has clearly put everything together in terms of his skills, although he could provide a more consistent effort on the defensive end. With that said, these Clippers need him to also accept the challenge of being a playmaker and more assertive scorer down the stretch of games. A player with his wide array of tools should absolutely be utilized more in key junctures of the game.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

Jordan is still the team’s only true rim protector and he will continue to be called upon to patrol the paint for the Clippers. Last year, Jordan had the NBA’s third-highest Real Plus/Minus Rating, fifth-best defensive rating (96.9), second-best defensive rebounding percentage (32.7) and sixth-most blocks per 48 minutes (3.3). Jordan’s athleticism also allows him to be effective when defending the pick-and-roll or guarding a player from 15 feet and beyond. Jordan was put in that position 34.7 percent of the time in 2015-16 and while he wasn’t quite as impactful as when defending the paint (36.6 percent), that was still more effective than contemporaries like Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Clint Capela among others.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

You can go ahead and label this under the “Captain Obvious” section, but the responsibilities haven’t changed for one of the league’s best floor generals. Whether you currently place him at the head of the class or somewhere near it, Paul is still in his prime as a playmaker and will be leaned upon somewhat heavily once again. It wouldn’t hurt to ask others to help lighten the load in terms of actual on-court duties, but the 12th-year point guard (yes, it feels crazy to type that) is coming off his third consecutive season of averaging a double-double (19.5 points and 10 assists last year). That’s the sixth time he’s done that in his career, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin

Paul may have the ball in his hands and be in position to come through in clutch moments a bit easier than Griffin, but make no mistake that this team needs their playmaking power forward to also embrace this role. Per NBA.com’s Clutch Stats for ‘15-16 (determined by the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less on either side), Griffin was actually more effective than Paul. In fact, unless the situation called for a three-point attempt (in which case Paul was actually very strong, shooting 44 percent in those instances), Griffin was considerably better as he shot 52.6 percent from the floor and 92.3 percent from the line compared to Paul’s 46 percent from the field and 82.9 percent from the line.

Not only does the 6’10 Griffin have the ability to score on most of his counterparts, he also clearly has the ability to generate offense for his teammates. Realizing “clutchness” is generally something that we bestow upon the person that makes (or misses) the final shot, but there is absolutely something to making the timely pass or acting as the decoy so that someone else can score a key bucket in a big moment. Beyond Griffin’s ability to handle the ball and the fact that he generally makes wise decisions when asserting himself, asking less of Paul in crunch-time situations along the way – or, at least, providing more balance to ward off predictability in those instances – could lead to more production from the future Hall-of-Fame point guard when it counts the most.

The Unheralded Player: J.J. Redick

Redick’s contributions go beyond the obvious counting numbers and can sometimes go unnoticed since much of the focus is often directed to his star teammates. Redick obviously spaces the floor as a shooter from the perimeter (hitting 43.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per contest in 2015-16), but he is also highly effective coming off screens from inside the arc and plays the two-man game remarkably well whether paired with a fellow playmaking guard or one of their bigs. He also, while lacking the “lockdown defender” label other swingmen may have, has routinely done a positive job or at least made things difficult for Western Conference scoring threats like James Harden and Klay Thompson. It’s not said enough, but Redick is absolutely vital to the Clippers’ success.

Best New Addition: Marreese Speights

Speights may not have been one of the top players in Oakland, but his contributions were absolutely a part of what made the Warriors such a well-oiled machine over these last couple years. Adding a big man with such scoring versatility to this mix is key enough, but taking a contributor from a Pacific Division rival in the process is never a bad thing either. Alongside fellow veteran big man Brandon Bass, Speights adds a certain frontcourt flexibility the Clippers haven’t had (and have been desperately searching for) over the last few seasons. Not only can those guys can hit the mid-range jumper, Speights also shot 38.7 percent on his 62 three-point attempts last season and can generally be relied upon from the charity stripe (79.1 percent for his career). You obviously shouldn’t anticipate Speights usurping Jordan in the rotation in any way, but his experience and ability to space the floor could certainly come in handy in both short-clock and late-game offensive situations when Rivers might otherwise have concerns about using Jordan as a part of the action.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Chris Paul

Contributing to a potential sense of urgency surrounding this team is the fact that Paul is 31 years old, dealt with injuries at the worst times over the last few years and is heading into what could conceivably be his final season with the Clippers. They have to find a way to limit his usage along the way, as the objective must be to remain as fresh as possible for April and May. Even if that means limiting some of his regular-season productivity, the Clippers would much prefer to enter the postseason with as close to their full bevy of stars as possible.

Regardless of how much others have developed and grown as players, Paul remains the straw that stirs the drink in L.A. It still appears that this team will only go as far as he leads them. That’s specifically why the added roster depth and flexibility should help this year. With a returning Austin Rivers and the addition of veteran point guard Raymond Felton this summer, this team has no excuse but to monitor Paul along the way.

2. The Shooters

Last season, the Clippers ranked eighth in the NBA with 9.4 three-point makes per contest and sixth overall in three-point percentage (36 percent). Outside of Jordan and Brandon Bass, just about everyone on the roster can conceivably spread the floor out to the three-point line, which creates even more potential matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

They may not ultimately shoot them with quite the frequency as the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers, but with Redick (47.5 percent from deep last year), Paul (37.1 percent), Crawford (34 percent), Speights (38.7 percent) all in the mix, the Clippers will likely rank somewhere near the top-five in most three-point categories once again in 2016-17. Don’t be shocked to see this roster flexibility and shooting around the perimeter lead to even more lobs and easier set-up opportunities for Jordan and Griffin due to cross-matches and defenses being on their collective heels against the Clippers.

3. DeAndre Jordan

Unlike some of the other bigs around the league, the shift in play hasn’t caused a negative impact on Jordan’s game. If anything, coupled with his continued dedication to improve, it has led us to appreciate his agility and athleticism that much more as the former 35th overall pick has developed into one of the game’s best defensive centers. After previous summers were filled with drama and worrying about his future, Jordan is now coming off a successful stint with Team USA as a member of the gold medal winning group. Whether it’s simply because of the maintained conditioning or from actual lessons learned while playing with Team USA, these Clippers need Jordan to be at his very best and most efficient on both sides of the court once again this season. We’ve seen Jordan put up huge numbers in games where he’s the sole post option, so it would be nice to see this group find a way for him to be even more effective when playing alongside Griffin as well.

4. Supporting Cast

A strong supporting cast has always been key to a team’s prolonged success and this unit needs consistent production throughout the season from guys like Crawford, Bass, Speights, Rivers and Felton if they are going to stand a chance to dethrone the back-to-back Western Conference champion Warriors. That doesn’t mean each of those guys need to be incredible on a nightly basis, but they’ll need to find the right combination of contributors with some consistency. For as much as this team has been woefully top-heavy (outside of three-time Sixth Man of the Year in Crawford, who must have felt like ‘a man alone’ on some nights) for the bulk of this group’s run, this is probably the deepest and most complete the roster has been.

Last year’s failed attempt to take a flyer on both Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith obviously didn’t work, but this year’s mix of free agent additions have far less of a “boom or bust” feel, as each have proven to be effective members of relatively successful rotations in the past. This team still needs to come together as a unit, but if the top nine or 10 guys can stay relatively healthy or find a way to balance things out when rest or time away is warranted, then it really could be a special rotation.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Clippers were one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap.  Instead, they used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Wesley Johnson and $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception on Luc Mbah a Moute.  Either move triggered a hard cap for the team at $117.3 million.  The Clippers also re-signed Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, while adding veterans like Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Marreese Speights on minimum contracts.  Now with 15 guaranteed contracts, the Clippers are at $114.7 million in payroll.

Next summer is a crucial time for the Clippers, as both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can opt out of their contracts.  So too can Johnson and Mbah a Moute, while Paul Pierce’s $3.7 million is only $1.1 million guaranteed.  The Clippers could get to almost $30 million in spending power, under a $102 million cap projection, but that’s without their two All-Stars.  While J.J. Redick, Paul and Blake are eligible to have their contracts restructured and extended, the Clippers do not have the necessary cap room.   Providing they make the playoffs this season, the Clippers will send their 2017 first-round pick to the Toronto Raptors.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Even though their high-powered offense and potential rotation depth will likely be their greatest strengths this year, it should be noted that the Clippers were an above-average defensive unit last season. They held the NBA’s fifth-best scoring margin (+4.1), while ranking 10th in team blocks and ninth in team steals. Offensively, their bigs are versatile enough to attack on the break or in secondary transition, in or around the post and above the rim. Their guards and swingmen can get into the teeth of the defense with either the two-man game or penetration and can obviously do damage from the perimeter. They may not be the perfect mix, but they have enough star power at just about every position and facet. Although no one within the locker room will want to focus on the uncertain future of this core group (or be singularly motivated by it), the reality of that situation can intrinsically cause a “now or never” mindset.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Defending the rim when Jordan isn’t on the court will always remain a concern, but the main issue with this team in 2015-16 was the fact that they simply didn’t rebound very well. They were missing Griffin for a good portion of the year, but that doesn’t excuse being 28th overall in total offensive rebounding and 16th overall in total defensive rebounding. Griffin hasn’t been a rebounding terror since his first couple years in the league, but if he can pay even slightly more attention to that aspect of his game while the rest of the group dedicates to team rebounding, it could make a significant difference this season. They were surprisingly mediocre (26th overall) in fast-break efficiency last year, which likely means they settled for more outside shots than you would anticipate from a team with big men that can finish at the rim so well. With Griffin back and moving forward, that’s another area they could improve upon.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Clippers compete at a high level while keeping everyone healthy for a playoff run?

The biggest question with this group is the same one they’ve faced over the past four or five seasons. Their 2016 playoff run was limited by injuries to Griffin (quad) and Paul (hand), 2015 featured Paul’s hamstring issues, and 2014 was marred by a total team collapse versus the Rockets that was also accompanied by issues with Paul’s hamstring and thumb. These aren’t necessarily excuses for this group, as injuries are always going to be the great equalizer when it comes to professional sports, but it is clear the team needed to at least consider limiting their exposure at times.

Austin Rivers and Ray Felton might not be the guys that you expect to lead a team to a title, but they can absolutely help balance things out and even be called upon for spot duty (combined) in the event the staff wants to rest Paul – utilizing an approach made popular by the rival San Antonio Spurs. Speights and Bass might not cause you to go running to the jeweler to size up the rings, but they’ve both been around the game for awhile and can also provide coverage (beyond alleviation throughout) in the event the staff wants to also do the same with the big men. They have all the depth and talent you could ask for and while championships simply aren’t won on paper – especially when you have a juggernaut within your division – this really could be the best chance the Clippers are going to have with this current core group.

– Jabari Davis

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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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NBA

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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