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Milwaukee Bucks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Milwaukee Bucks, who feature tantalizing talent and could be a threat in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders

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For a team that did not make any major offseason splashes, (their only new summer addition is rookie D.J. Wilson), the Milwaukee Bucks are counting on internal development to help them build on what was a highly successful 2016-2017 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a legitimate franchise superstar, and he isn’t anywhere close to being a finished product. The Bucks front office also hit big in last summer’s draft with Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom became starters by the season’s end and played crucial roles in the Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

The Bucks surprised many and put quite a scare into the Raptors in the playoffs. They even led the series, 2-1, at one point. Simply making the playoffs was the goal last season. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of what the postseason feels like, they’ll have to take that next step of winning a round and making an extended playoff run.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

A time is coming when Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the MVP conversation every single year — likely starting this season. Players that good are enough to make a team competitive regardless of who else is on the roster, but Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is far from mediocre. Malcolm Brogdon was last season’s Rookie of the Year, Khris Middleton is still among the league’s most underrated scorers, Thon Maker’s rookie season exceeded expectations and Jabari Parker is a former No. 2 overall pick that, when healthy, is yet another scorer to fear. The youth on this team is getting older, which is why it feels like the Bucks will make a jump. The rest of the Central is falling apart, so if nothing else Milwaukee has a great chance to be opportunistic.

2nd Place – Central Division

Joel Brigham

Few teams have as much tantalizing talent as the Milwaukee Bucks. However, each season the Bucks seem to fall at least a bit below everyone’s collective expectations. Some of this has been a result of injuries. Some of it has been a result of shaky coaching and poor chemistry. However, this young team now has the collective experience and the overall talent to really distinguish itself in the weak Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the engine that drives this team, but Milwaukee will need a healthy Jabari Parker to have any hope of keeping pace with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Parker hasn’t always produced a winning brand of basketball for Milwaukee, but his talent is considerable.

2nd Place – Central Division

Jesse Blancarte

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place – Central division

— Moke Hamilton

We all look for sleepers every year, and the Bucks might be the best possible candidate for this role. While much of the talk out East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, with token mention given to the Wizards and Raptors as conference mainstays, the folks in Milwaukee are quietly biding their time. They’ll bring back Giannis Antetokounmpo, a trendy dark horse pick for MVP in some circles, and should be looking forward to a fully healthy year from Khris Middleton. Rookie of the Year winner Malcolm Brogdon will reprise his role as a caretaker with strong defensive chops, and whatever positive growth the Bucks get out of Thon Maker will be a cherry on top. If they can keep everyone healthy, watch for this group to make some noise and surprise a few people in the East.

2nd place – Central Division

Ben Dowsett

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place — Central division

Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last season was Antetokounmpo’s breakout year. Dubbed ‘The Greek Freak,’ he posted career-highs in every major statistical category including points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). What was more impressive was that he also was the Bucks leader in these particular areas. He also shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the field. He can get to the rim at will and his length and athleticism allow him to seemingly finish in traffic over anybody. He’s a capable ball handler who had major success while playing a point forward role last season.

There are still aspects of his offensive game he could stand to work on, however. He’s an improving shooter, but his outside shot is still not as consistent as it should be. For a forward in today’s NBA, a consistent perimeter jumper is a must as is range out to three-point territory. He shot only 27.2 percent from behind the arc. The Raptors defense had some success against him when they collapsed and took away his drives to the rim and forced him into becoming a jump shooter. He’s still only 22-years-old though. He has plenty of time to become a complete package offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Thon Maker

When the Bucks selected Maker with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the move was widely regarded as a major reach. With one year passed since then, it’s become evident why the Bucks were so high on him. Jason Kidd trusted the rookie with the starting center spot over the more talented and higher paid Greg Monroe, and by the time the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs, it was obvious why.

Maker’s interior defense was a major reason why the Bucks put such a scare into the Raptors. Whether it was challenging the Raptors drives to the rim or recovering on a switch and contesting a jump shot, Maker’s defense had the Raptors second guessing themselves at times. He has the skills and abilities to become an elite interior defender. He has good quickness for a big man allowing him to keep up with guards on drives to the basket and being able to recover fast enough on open shooters. With Maker anchoring the inside, the Bucks should have an elite defensive team for years to come.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season, as a second round pick, Brogdon wasn’t expected to contribute much, if at all. He ended up starting at one of the most important positions on the floor and won the Rookie of the Year award. As the floor general, Brogdon did a solid job throughout the season keeping the offense flowing and getting other players involved. It helped that he spent a full four years in college and was much more developed and ready to contribute than most young rookies. His 4.2 assists per game were good enough for third on the team behind Antetokounmpo (5.4) and Matthew Dellavedova (4.7).

During the playoffs, his assist numbers (3.5) dropped as bit as the Raptors defense began to force him into looking for his shot rather than moving the ball around. For the most part, though, he kept up his steady play and overall playmaking duties. As he heads into his second season, he’ll be asked to do more of the same. He’ll need to continue to move the ball around and not let it stagnate which happened at times in the playoffs and to keep other guys involved in the offense while taking his shot as he sees fit. With one of the best point guards in NBA history in Jason Kidd, guiding him as the coach, he should do just fine.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Already the best offensive player on the team, Anteotokounmpo is also the player you want the ball in the hands of during crunch time. His length just allows him to get his shot off over anyone as well as attack the rim and finish over anyone. He has such great body control that when attacking the rim, he’s able to hold on and finish with contact.

Against the Raptors in the playoffs, it was Antetokounmpo who sparked a Bucks run in the fourth quarter of Game 1 that turned an otherwise close game into a blowout win Milwaukee. In Game 2, it was also Antetokounmpo that led a furious fourth quarter rally to whittle away the Raptor’s double digit lead to the point where the Bucks had a chance to go up 2-0. As he continues to improve, so will his decision making in the clutch, and he’ll take his place among the elite with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Matthew Dellavedova

Before the start of last season, the Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams to the Chicago Bulls. They had already signed Dellavedova in the offseason and with Brogdon being the only other point guard on the roster, it was assumed that Dellavedova would be the starter. He did start off and on throughout the season, but Kidd eventually gave the reins to Brogdon and kept Dellavedova with the second unit.

Coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off of winning a championship, Dellavedova provided some much needed veteran leadership to the young Bucks. He was second on the team in assists with 4.7 per game, and he shot a decent 36.7 percent from three-point range. During the playoffs, when Brogdon struggled at times, he gave the team a steady veteran hand off the bench. His pesky defense frustrated the Raptors at times, and he made the most of his open looks upping his three-point percentage to 37.5 percent. This upcoming season, he’ll reprise his role as a veteran leader off the bench. A lot of the little things he does like taking charges and hounding his opponent defensively, don’t show up on the stat sheet, but they sure do make a difference on a team with big playoff aspirations.

Best New Addition: Jabari Parker

So Parker really isn’t a new addition so to speak, he’s been on the team since 2014, but he missed the second half of the season and the playoffs due to an ACL tear. He’s supposed to miss the start of this upcoming season and be out of game action until at least February. The Bucks didn’t make any offseason moves except for re-signing their own free agent (Tony Snell) and drafting D.J. Wilson. Thus, Parker could classify as a ‘new addition.’ Parker tore the same ACL his rookie year, but seemingly looked recovered the following season. He was well on his way to becoming a top scoring threat and a good compliment alongside Antetokounmpo.

Provided that Parker is able to make a similar recovery this season, his return to the lineup will be a most welcome addition. He gives the Bucks another offensive threat who can score in a variety of ways. He also gives them another option in small ball lineups as he’s able to shift to power forward at times. He will make them that much more dangerous come playoff time as he gives the opposing team’s defense yet another scorer to have to game plan for. It’s all a big if, however, as the list of players to make such a recovery is pretty much non-existent. But if he can do it, watch out for the Bucks come playoff time.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

Possibly one of the most overlooked players in the NBA, Middleton has quietly risen to become one of the top wing scorers in the league. He’s a knockdown outside shooter, he shot a career-high 43.3 percent from the three-point line this past season. He also moves incredibly well off the ball, constantly freeing himself for open jumpers by coming off multiple screens. Should Parker not be able to make a full recovery from his injuries, Middleton stands to be a great compliment to Antetokounmpo. While not as freakishly athletic as the Greek Freak is, Middleton still has great length for a wing and is a big reason why the Bucks are a good defensive team. He’s really the ultimate 3 and D guy. The Raptors defense eventually started giving him fits when they took his open looks away, but in the beginning of the series, he was a big reason why the Bucks went up 2-1. If the Bucks do end up making some postseason noise, he’ll be a big reason why.

2. Greg Monroe

Two seasons ago, after being the prized acquisition of the Bucks in the summer of 2015, Monroe found himself yanked in and out of the starting lineup, hearing his name in trade rumors, and looked like a bust of a signing. A year later, all of that changed. Kidd introduced him to a sixth man role this past season and it made a huge difference. Monroe anchored the second unit, providing scoring and rebounding to a group that desperately needed it. He picked it up in the playoffs when the Raptors second unit was unable to handle him. His playoff numbers looked a lot more in line with his career averages from his Detroit days than they had at any time he’d been in a Bucks uniform. His numbers as the series went on evened out a little bit, but the fact remains that he proved himself to still be a formidable player that the Bucks need.

3. Tony Snell

Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery. That sure seemed to be the case for Snell. When the Bucks traded for him for Michael Carter-Williams, it was a minor move. Snell, however, ended being quite a major player for the Bucks. He was inserted into the starting lineup in Milwaukee right away and he responded well. He turned in his best season as a pro with career-highs in points (8.5), field goal percentage (45.5 percent), and three-point percentage (40.6 percent). For a team that already had a definitive 3&D guy in Middleton, Snell gave them yet another welcome addition in that regard. He took his game to another level in the playoffs averaging 10 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 51.6 percent from three-point range. He also provided the team with a versatile perimeter defender. The Bucks were able to keep him on a relatively fair contract, if a bit steep, but he became a big part of what the Bucks do on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor.

4. Rashad Vaughn

Entering his third year in the league, Vaughn has shown very little in terms of being a meaningful impact player. This may be the year that he finally gets his opportunity. With Parker still sidelined for a good chunk of the first half of the season, and both Snell and Middleton in the starting lineup, backup wing minutes appear to be there for the taking for Vaughn. Last season, most of the backup shooting guard minutes went to Jason Terry. Terry still remains unsigned and the Bucks still have one open roster spot left. But if nothing should materialize, this is Vaughn’s chance to prove he belongs in the NBA. He had a very strong summer league during which he displayed an ability to score by attacking the basket and by knocking down outside shots. Of course, summer league is not much of an indication of how a player may perform during the regular season, but it was a welcome sign nonetheless. He has all the tools to be yet another wing defender who can shoot the three ball, and the Bucks are going to need some perimeter scoring from their bench.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks are well over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, escaping luxury tax by stretching out the salary of Spencer Hawes over the next three seasons. Milwaukee still has most of their Mid-Level Exception ($7.6 million) and all of their Bi-Annual Exception ($3.3 million) but they may be unlikely to spend over the league’s $119.3 million tax threshold.

Bigger decisions loom, specifically on Jabari Parker, who is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Bucks also need to decide on 2018-19 options for Thon Maker and Rashad Vaughn prior to November. Next season, Milwaukee does not project to be below the NBA’s salary cap.

-Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Bucks were a very tough defensive team last season. That should continue this year. They have so many solid perimeter defenders with length that it can be a nightmare trying to score on them, just ask the Raptors. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Snell are all above average to elite defensive players who can guard multiple positions. Brogdon is also a tough defender who can slide over and guard shooting guards if need be. Round out that lineup with Maker who is an emerging interior defensive force, and they appear capable of locking down nearly anyone. It’s not only imperative that teams be able to score, especially from beyond the arc, in order to have success, but they need to play defense as well. The Bucks are able to do just that.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Bucks bench looks a little bit thin as the start of the season approaches. Part of what got them in trouble against the Raptors in the playoffs was erratic bench play. The starters would be hanging tough with Toronto, and then the bench came in and often gave the lead away or got down bigger. Monroe was the only real consistent guy off the bench. Dellavedova was hot and cold. Same with Michael Beasley. Mirza Teletovic rarely gave them anything. John Henson has been glued to the bench seemingly forever. Monroe will do his part to anchor the second unit this upcoming season, but he’s going to need some help. Terry provided a little of that, but he’s remains unsigned. Obviously when Parker returns this will be alleviated somewhat as somebody in the starting lineup will likely move to the bench and help bolster it. But that’s going to be a little ways off and the Bucks will need some production in the interim. Much will depend on if Vaughn is truly ready to contribute. If not, the starters are going to find themselves playing a lot of minutes.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Bucks take the leap into becoming one of the elite teams in the NBA?

Simply making the playoffs was the Bucks goal last season. They got a taste of it and even managed to put a little scare into the higher seeded Raptors. With a blossoming franchise superstar in Antetokounmpo and some solid role players around him, the goal should be a little higher. Now it’s time to win a round and see how deep in the playoffs this team can go. They have all the tools to be an elite defensive team, and their starting lineup has enough firepower to score with anyone in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Bucks have the best chance out of anyone to truly competing with, and eventually challenging Cleveland. Not Boston, not Toronto, not Washington, but Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo still has several levels he can reach, and he was recently issued a challenge over Twitter by Kobe Bryant to win the MVP Award. Building off of last season’s playoff run, the Bucks will finish with a top 4 seed in the East and home court advantage in the first round. They will beat their first round opponent, and they will put a scare into whoever they face in the second round.

-David Yapkowitz

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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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