The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes. The team had played well in the previous postseason and made headlines last summer by signing big man Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons. However, the Bucks failed to live up to last year’s high expectations, finishing the season with a 33-49 record (12th-best in the Eastern Conference).
Now, Milwaukee is hoping to return to form and look more like the successful team from two seasons ago. Their young core has another year of experience under their belt and they’ve added players like Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.
FIVE GUYS THINK
With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and these Milwaukee Bucks, the Central seems poised to be one of the toughest divisions in the NBA this year. Over the last two seasons, all five of these teams made the playoffs at least once and each squad enters the 2016-17 campaign with postseason expectations. I love Milwaukee’s young core and I was shocked by last year’s regression. I expected them to take a step forward with Jabari Parker back in the lineup and Greg Monroe added to the roster. Instead, we saw that while their length and athleticism and mismatch potential make them scary on paper, this team does have a number of issues such as their defensive consistency and shooting. Two years ago, the Bucks had the second-best defense in the NBA; last year, they were ranked 22nd. This team’s turnaround starts with their defense improving again. I have them finishing fourth in the division ahead of the Bulls.
4th Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
Talk about crashing and burning. The Bucks had plenty of momentum entering last season, but managed to win just 33 games and struggled to find any sort of consistency. The team added guards Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry to help steady some of their backcourt struggles, while also drafting forward Thon Maker in a dare-to-be-great move. Maker is a prospect who most scouts were all over the board evaluating, o we’ll see how that works out. A return to the playoffs is a possibility, but the Central Division figures to be one of the league’s toughest to navigate so don’t bet the farm on postseason activities for Milwaukee.
5th Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
The Bucks, also known as the Wingspan-Clan, simply couldn’t resist adding more length this offseason and selected Thon Maker with the 10th overall pick in the draft. Standing at nearly 7’1 with a 7’3 wingspan, Maker is one of the most intriguing prospects from this year’s rookie class, but he may need some time to develop physically before he can be a consistent contributor.
While it may not be clear what Maker can bring to the Bucks this season, they did bring in some sharp-shooting veterans like Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova. Each of these players has limitations, but they bring more shooting, which is what the Bucks are in sore need of. If head coach Jason Kidd can utilize the added shooting and recapture the defensive efficiency the Bucks established two seasons ago, they could bounce back next season and make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The biggest factor in that equation will be the development of budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came on strong toward the end of last season and started putting up monster numbers consistently. Antetokounmpo trying to be a primary playmaker for the Bucks will be one of the things I will be watching closely this upcoming season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jabari Parker a bit and there is no doubt that he is a great kid whose personality makes you want to root for him. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t a tad critical of him. Last season, Parker seemed to be carrying a little too much weight around and I think he would be served well by trimming down. The Bucks need good on-court leadership from one of their young guns in order to go to the next level, and Parker, in my opinion, absolutely has the qualities of an effective leader. I look directly at him when I think of what it will take for the Bucks to get to take the next step. Aside from him, the Bucks have a ton of young talent and a smart head coach. They have everything they need to make noise and I’d be willing to bet that they find themselves competing for a playoff spot in the East this season.
Of course, that isn’t necessarily saying much; there will likely be 12 teams “competing” for eight playoff spots. The Central Division could be the most difficult to predict in all of basketball, in fact. I think last season was a bit of an aberration for Jason Kidd’s team and I think they have every shot of competing, neck and neck, with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. At this point, though, I have to put them fifth since they’re still collectively inexperienced.
5th Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
Pretty much everybody of note on this team has the wingspan of a Learjet, which is impressive, but so far hasn’t translated to the kind of success that fans and the front office would like to have seen by now. After falling short of 50-win expectations a year ago, the Bucks head into this season tasked with trying to get Jabari Parker to meet his potential, helping Greg Monroe find his way in this offense and ushering Giannis Antetokounmpo toward legitimate superstardom. Matthew Dellavedova should add something interesting to the point guard rotation, which has been pretty bad in recent years, and rookie Thon Maker has a lot to live up to if he hopes to prove himself worthy of his surprising draft position. Despite all the questions, this is a team that should be really fun to watch as they grow and develop. But in a tough Central Division, it may still prove too challenging to see a big improvement in wins this season.
5th Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Khris Middleton
While the star of this show in Milwaukee at this point is pretty well established as the “Greek Freak,” Middleton has been the picture of consistency the last few years and in fact did lead Milwaukee in scoring last season with just over 18 points per game. While Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker could potentially leapfrog Middleton this year, it seems just as likely that Middleton once again leads the team offensively – perhaps this year even topping 20 per contest. He’s a great secondary ball handler for this team no matter who Jason Kidd drops in at point guard, and his jump shot is as reliable and gorgeous as anybody’s on the roster. For now, he’s the steadiest guy this team has on the offensive end.
Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It only takes a couple minutes on YouTube to see the massive defensive potential of Antetokounmpo, as there are several videos of him creeping up on fast-breakers like a predator stalking its prey and then swatting away their sad little layup attempts with the sort of unforgiving punishment only known previously by the enemies of Spartan soldiers. He’s nasty on defense, having averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season thanks in large part to his California Condor wingspan. But nobody seems to think he’s anywhere close to his prime yet, so expect him to wreak even more havoc with those long arms this season.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It took a Michael Carter-Williams injury last season for Jason Kidd to give “Point Giannis” a shot, but almost immediately the entire NBA world fell in love with the gimmick. At 6’11, he’s tall enough to see over pretty much anybody who would try to guard him at the top of the key in a half-court set, and that plus his natural feel for the game means initiating offense is no problem. If the defense throws a smaller, quicker guard at him, he’ll just post up and create that way; if they stick a stronger, slower player on him, he’ll use his length and athleticism to blow right by him. On defense, he can pull down a rebound and then blast down the court for a fastbreak, taking about five long steps to get from baseline to baseline. He’s almost unfair from a gene perspective. While we won’t necessarily see him play point guard exclusively this year, he’s going to initiate a ton of the offense. That, obviously, is a good thing for the Bucks.
Top Clutch Player: Khris Middleton
This isn’t even a hypothetical at this point, as it would be for some other teams. “Who do you want shooting the ball when you need a big-time last-second shot?” is a question that could lead to all sorts of different answers on different teams, but in Milwaukee it’s been Middleton taking (and making) those shots the last couple of seasons. Two seasons ago, he had a couple of dirty last-second thrillers against Miami and Phoenix. Coach Kidd likely will keep putting the ball in his hands when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Jason Terry
It feels like Jason Terry is about a million years old, and the chances are pretty good that he won’t be a massive on-court contributor for the Bucks in his age-39 season. But anybody who’s seen Terry work with younger players in a locker room knows what kind of asset he can be for a team behind the scenes. Terry almost certainly will get into coaching once his playing career is over, but in the meantime he’ll do great things not only for Antetokounmpo and Parker, but also the more inexperienced players on the roster like Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon. He’s not going to score a ton of points, but his presence on this team matters immensely.
Top New Addition: Matthew Dellavedova
We’ll have to see how Dellavedova transitions to a team that doesn’t feature LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but despite his somewhat limited skill set, he does bring some things to this team that they were sorely missing a year ago. First and foremost, he shores up a weird and sort of sad point guard rotation as someone who can both initiate the offense and knock down an open three-pointer. Beyond that, he adds a measure of scrappy toughness to a team that lost track of itself defensively last year. They need a little more actual grit in their locker room, and no, Antetokounmpo stink-faces don’t necessarily count as “grit.” He should help with their dismal three-point shooting and shore up that point guard rotation, and we’re all looking forward to the blind alley-oops he’s sure to throw to Antetokounmpo and John Henson.
– Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
There isn’t an NBA fan alive who isn’t absolutely enthralled by this young man – regardless of what position he plays. Physically he’s just on a different level than just about anybody else in the game, with arms that stretch out like a praying mantis and legs that look like they’re on stilts. His athleticism, competitive nature and versatility all suggest we’re in for a fun year with the “Greek Freak.” No matter what happens with Milwaukee this season, he’ll be a treat to watch.
2. Jabari Parker
It’s sort of shocking how little buzz Parker is generating ahead of this season considering how well he finished the 2015-2016 campaign. In his last 29 games of the year, Parker averaged 18.8 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. And since last season was essentially his true rookie year, that projects well for where the former No. 2 overall pick may be headed in upcoming campaign. Based on reputation, Middleton has been the team’s top offensive player, but Parker has 20 points-per-game potential and could even be in line for some All-Star votes this year. Year three looks like Parker’s time to shine.
3. Khris Middleton
Criminally underrated, Middleton is now officially on one of the league’s most cap-friendly contracts, and he’s a key part of this team’s young core. He’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, but for the Bucks to improve their team three-point shooting (they were 21st in the league a year ago), he’ll need to increase his volume without a drop-off in efficiency. Middleton’s percentages sunk a little a year ago as he shot more, but if he can correct that in 2016-17, he’ll prove even more invaluable to his team than he already is.
4. John Henson
For the second year in a row, Henson’s minutes dropped in Milwaukee, leaving him off the floor for over 30 minutes a night. But what’s truly impressive is that despite playing only 16.8 minutes a game, Henson still managed to average 1.9 blocks – enough to place him among the league’s elite and certainly enough to put him in elite company in terms of per-36 minutes stats. In fact, Henson would average 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes, which is what makes it so easy to wonder what he could do with a little more playing time.
5. Miles Plumlee
As it stands, Henson is behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, but that’s fine considering how well Plumlee has played since coming over to the team in the Brandon Knight trade a year and a half ago. After the All-Star break last season, Plumlee saw his minutes jump to over 20 per game and he even started 11 of 28 games. He also received a huge $50 million deal from the Bucks this offseason, which suggests the team believes he’s ready to start full-time this year. He doesn’t score a lot (averaging just 6.6 points per game last season), but he’s efficient when he does. More importantly, he’s a much more natural defensive fit along the team’s talented young stars than Greg Monroe. That, added to his rebounding ability, make him an underrated player in this lineup who could be even better with a boost in minutes this year.
– Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bucks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using most of it to bring in Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova. Milwaukee now has $99.6 million in committed salaries with 15 guaranteed players, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Orlando Johnson and J.J. O’Brien. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, but no roster space (barring a trade or cutting a guaranteed player). Milwaukee has a hard cap at $117.3 million, by virtue of the Dellavedova sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re nowhere near that mark.
Next summer, the Bucks could get to roughly $24 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis before November. Milwaukee also has to decide on extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams by the end of October, otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents when the Bucks extend a qualifying offer next July.
– Eric Pincus
There’s no question that this team is insanely long and athletic, and when you combine all of that with the enthusiasm of youth, there’s a very good chance that Milwaukee will be one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch this year. They were efficient scoring a year ago, finishing fifth in the NBA in team field goal percentage (46.7 percent). They also moved the ball around well, finishing ninth in team assists. There is potential galore on this team and they may have an All-Star in Antetokounmpo, but youth and potential still remain their largest asset.
– Joel Brigham
A lot of things broke bad for the Bucks last year, as they finished 27th in rebounding, 21st in three-point shooting and 23rd in points allowed per game. Adding Dellavedova and Teletovic should help with the three-point shooting, but there’s a lot of work to be done with the other problems. They still don’t have a point guard who can create his own shot (not counting Giannis), and their wing rotation is incredibly young and unproven. It’s hard to see the team improving tremendously on their 33-win season, but the playoffs are not completely out of the realm of possibility.
– Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does Greg Monroe make this team better or worse?
Initially, the belief was that Monroe would bring some much-needed offense to what was, at the time, one of the scrappiest defensive teams in the NBA. What actually happened was that Monroe was utterly discordant on this roster in just about every conceivable way, and the team’s defense suffered drastically as a result. The second-ranked defense in the NBA in 2014-15 (according to points allowed per 100 possessions) dropped to 22nd a year ago.
With Plumlee looking like a much better fit defensively alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, the answer probably is going to be bringing Monroe off the bench. Monroe’s post scoring against second units could prove a tremendous boon to that Milwaukee second unit, especially with Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls and Monroe helping to create that offense. It’s very likely Milwaukee will continue to shop Monroe, but for as long as they have him, it’s probably best to use him in a reserve role. Giving him minutes alongside Parker and Antetokounmpo just doesn’t make enough sense for the team, particularly defensively, and as a demolisher of second-unit defenders, Monroe could actually still be a helpful part of this team.
– Joel Brigham
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.
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.
NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018
Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.
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.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
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.
The Pistons have announced an update on Reggie Jackson's status. He's been cleared to begin light running, shooting and continued ankle strengthening exercises, and his progress will be monitored this week. No timetable for a return to practice.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 21, 2018
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.
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.
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.