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NBA AM: Can The Magic Continue To Win?

After two improbable wins, the Orlando Magic find themselves some confidence… Pacers plan to take it slow with Andrew Bynum… The Cavs want to get to the playoffs, not blow up the team.

Steve Kyler

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OK, Now What:  The Orlando Magic have done the improbable. After amassing 14 wins in 51 tries, in the span of the weekend the Magic have taken down the top two teams in the NBA, overcoming 17-point deficits against both the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday and the Indiana Pacers last night.

After the game last night in Orlando, one media member leaned into a Magic player and asked jokingly “Isn’t this a rebuilding team? This isn’t the plan.” The player looked up from his locker and smiled coyly.

Two games does not a season make, but what these two wins have done is prove to the players inside the Magic locker room that they can win when they apply themselves defensively, and they can play with anyone in the NBA, even the top two teams in the game.

After both games, the opposing teams gave credit to the Magic’s second unit – a defensive dynamo that’s been holding team’s best players to single digits in the fourth quarter, in this case the high scoring Kevin Durant and the super potent Paul George.

Shockingly the Magic are only seven games behind the eighth seeded Charlotte Bobcats, which was a running joke in the Magic locker room after the game. Magic forward Kyle O’Quinn pleaded mockingly with his teammate Glen “Big Baby” Davis to “take me to the playoffs, baby… please. I wanna taste the playoffs too.”

While clearly all in jest, the Magic have not lost sight of who they really are after a handful of wins on their home court. What has surfaced is a confidence in each other and trust among the younger guys that continues to grow with each new conquest.

»In Related: The Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects in 2014.

The Magic have been taking about the “steps in the process” and that as much as individuals may want to short-cut that process, it is a learning curve that each player and the roster as a unit must endure to get to the point where they can compete. As much as some players in the locker room would love to see the winning continue, they understand how much home court has helped them and how badly they have played on the road.

Confidence for a young team is huge, and there is no doubt that there is a little swagger and positive energy around the Magic after two highly improbable wins, but there is a reality that two wins isn’t going to change the overall course of the season. The plan in place is to let the young guys learn and grow and given the talent level of those young guys, wins are going to come from that as they learn to trust each other. Equally, because of their inexperience losses are going to come with that too.

It’s been a fun weekend for the Magic players. You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in the bounce they have after games. There is a reality that this isn’t how the season is going to play out, but it is OK for young players to dream a little even if making the playoffs is not part of the plan.

IN RELATED: With the NBA trade deadline just 10 days away things around the Magic are heating up on the trade front. Not necessarily because the Magic are making a ton of outgoing calls, but because there are several would-be suitors for Magic guard Arron Afflalo. The problem for the Magic, or the teams trying to extract Afflalo from the team, is that Orlando really does not seem overly interested in trading Afflalo. Several teams that have made passes at Orlando classify them as listening to offers, engaging in the normal due diligence that teams engage in to understand what’s possible and available at the deadline, but that serious offers are not being considered and that real trade scenarios are not taking place. This could be a case of the Magic playing a little poker in the days leading up to the deadline or it genuinely could be that the Magic are not going to make a trade involving their best player. A lot of conversations will take place over the next ten days, so things can and often do take a different tone after the All-Star break, but if the Magic’s stance today is any indicator do not be surprised if the Magic hold the line and finish the season with what they have on the roster and explore trades and real moves in the off-season.

» Are You Ready For The 2014 NBA Trade Deadline? Basketball Insiders has you covered. Our first Digital Magazine issue will drop in the coming days, featuring the most comprehensive look at the NBA Trade Deadline you will find anywhere. The magazine will be available on your smartphone, tablet or desktop. If you are an Apple user, you can grab the Digital Magazine app here. For our Android users you can grab the Digital Magazine app here. When the issue is ready this week it will automatically appear in your App for purchase. If you do not want to download the App, the web version is available now. The links for that will drop when the issue is available. We have made the pledge to keep our content free from annoying auto-play ads and content lockers, so buying the magazine is how we’ll keep up our end of the deal. Download the app today and get ready for 110 pages of trade deadline knowledge, exclusively from Basketball Inisders.

Taking It Slow With Bynum:  An informal survey of the players in the Indiana Pacers locker room yielded pretty much the same response with regards to new Pacer big man Andrew Bynum. Shoulder shrugs.

The Pacers inked Bynum to a one-year deal last week worth a reported $1 million for the balance of the season. As one Pacer insider put it, “its low risk, high reward”.

Bynum has spent one day with the Pacers and has been allowed to deal with some personal issues that sources close to the situation say involve an ailing family member. The Pacers are taking a very slow and deliberate approach with Bynum, looking to work with him on physical therapy and strength and conditioning with one goal in mind – have him ready for the postseason.

»In Related: The Indiana Pacers Team Salary Page.

The Pacers are not expecting much from Bynum and it’s clear that the players in the locker room want to see him put in the work before they buy into him being anything to the team.

The one thing that was clear in talking to Pacer players is that there hasn’t been much of a need to police behavior inside the locker room. Each guy on the team understands what’s at stake and what needs to be done. Pacers big man David West said that there hasn’t been anything notable all year and that everyone has sold out to the cause and bought into the program.

Before Bynum gets a seat at their table, he is going to have to prove that he’ll do the work to be part of the unit.

One Pacer insider said that there would be a low tolerance for Bynum, that if he does not come in and work hard that he could just as easily be gone as he was brought in and that nothing was promised to Bynum other than the chance to come in and work and earn a chance to be part of team trying to win something.

The first step for Bynum is strength training and rehab. There is a belief that that’s going to happen soon, from there is will be about how hard he works to get into condition and from there the coaching staff will decide if he gets minutes and when.

The Pacers plan from the beginning is to have him ready for the postseason. They are not overly interested in trying to fast track or accelerate that. The view Bynum as an all-upside project, but it will be on him to earn the trust of a team that’s been together for a while and to get his body and mind behind what Indiana is trying to do.

The Pacers’ players were extremely complimentary of him, but cautioned he’d spent one day around the team, so they want to see what he does to prepare before they create a seat at the table for him.

» Get a head start on your chatting: My weekly chat is at 10:30 am EST today. Yannis Koutroupis will chat at 3:00pm EST today. Bill Ingram will chat on Tuesday at 8:00pm EST. Jabari Davis will chat at 3:00pm EST on Thursday. Chats fill up fast, so get your questions in early. To find all of the upcoming chat go here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/upcoming-chats/

The Tough Road For Cleveland:  Making the playoffs matters. As much as fans may love the idea of landing top tier draft picks or may understand all too well that being the eighth seed usually means an early exit, but there are real non-basketball benefits to making the postseason that even marginal teams covet.

Season ticket sales go up when a team makes the playoffs. TV and radio rights deals go up when a team makes the playoffs. Advertising and corporate sales go up when teams make the playoffs and most importantly it is a lot easier to get an existing roster to buy into the plan when the playoffs are the result. The same is true of free agency. Free agents tend to look at playoff bound teams a little more attractively than lottery bound teams.

»In Related: Should The Cavs Trade Kyrie Irving?

‘A rising tide will lift all boats’, is an expression about mutual benefits and the playoffs for almost every team in sports is exactly that. Everything gets better when you make the postseason.

So as the Cleveland Cavaliers parted ways with general manager Chris Grant last week and appointed former assistant GM David Griffin to the post of interim GM, there is a singular goal at play: Make the playoffs.

As Griffin addressed the media about his mindset it was clear that Cleveland is not throwing in the towel and that fire sale in Cleveland is not coming, unless the outgoing players return better talent.

“I don’t see how you get better and win more games selling,” Griffin said to reporters. “We’re going to buy to the extent that it makes us better for the long haul. I don’t think we’re going to do anything that’s an act of desperation. I think we’re going to be willing to buy the right asset at the right price. We are dedicated 100 percent from top to bottom to getting better and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Griffin said he still believed in the roster he helped assemble as the assistant general manager, but acknowledged that some things needed to change.

“We lost our mojo somewhere,” Griffin said. “We lost our way somehow. We have compelling talent.

“I want to see us smile more. I want to see us enjoy this. I want to see us remember this is a game. I want to see us remember that there’s passion involved in this. We’re not robots. Nobody is flawless. We’ve all made mistakes.”

Griffin is expected to finish out the season as the general manager and will get a chance to keep the job long-term as the team embarks on a search for a new permanent leader this summer.

“I want to do that which puts us in the best position to be successful,” Griffin said. “We’ll analyze every opportunity and we’ll look for every opportunity that does that for us.

“I’m here right now. Dan (Gilbert) has shown faith in me. He’s put me in a position to be very successful right now. I have full latitude to do this job.”

There has already been a mountain of speculation about who the Cavs will contact in the offseason, however Cavs sources said that dealing with the immediate problems is what’s most pressing and that while Griffin will lead the way on many fronts a lot of the decisions that will be made, especially regarding trades, will be made in a collective effort that will include Gilbert.

The Cavaliers are 18-33 on the season which puts them three games out of the playoff picture in the East. The Cavs have won two straight, but just three of their last ten games.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview

The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.

With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.

Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.

Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson

How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?

Top New Addition: Paul George

Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sam Presti

Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.

2. Russell Westbrook

He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.

3. Paul George

As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.

4. Steven Adams

It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.

5. Patrick Patterson

As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.

If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?

Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.

– Jesse Blancarte

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Washington Wizards 2017-18 Season Preview

The Washington Wizards have invested big into their young core. Could they be serious contenders this year? We take a look in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards needed to win a game on the road to overcome the Boston Celtics’ home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Less than two quarters into the series, Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris suffered a sprained ankle. He was limited to 11 minutes in Game 1 but played through the injury in Game 2, only to see Isaiah Thomas drop 53 points and the Celtics prevail in overtime in what was the Wizards’ best chance to steal a game on the road. Boston would ultimately prevail 4-3 with the home team winning every game of the series. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all signed long-term, the Wizards are now committed to one of the NBA’s best starting lineups with little financial flexibility to address a lack of quality depth. Now Washington must look to internal improvement, better luck with injuries and personnel moves on the margins to improve on a season in which the Wizards were one road victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This is the year that John Wall asserts himself as a perennial league MVP candidate — or at least the year the rest of the league stops pretending that he isn’t.

As the driving force behind the Washington Wizards’ attack, Wall is another year further into his prime and looks poised to fully utilize the weapons he has around him in D.C. After last season’s breakout year (finally) for Wall’s backcourt partner, Bradley Beal, the one-two punch in Washington is plenty capable of hanging around with the likes of Boston and Cleveland.

With a weaker back half of the Eastern Conference set to provide a few more easy wins for the Wizards, Wall and Co. look to have the makings of a 50-win team this season.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

I am a big believer in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and a few other players on the Washington Wizards, but I’m not convinced this team has the collective talent to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics this upcoming season. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourt duos in the league, but if either player is off their respective games or struggling with injuries, Washington simply cannot keep up with the Celtics or Cavaliers. If players like Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr can take a significant step forward in their development, that could change the dynamic in the Eastern Conference a bit. Outside of that scenario or a lopsided deal that bolsters Washington’s roster, I just don’t see Washington having much of a shot at taking Cleveland or Boston down in the postseason.

1st Place — Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Last season, the Wizards showed tremendous growth. They were still haunted by inconsistency and growing pains, but John Wall and Otto Porter, Jr. each grew quite a bit. The best part of all was that Bradley Beal managed to play in 77 games, a career-high.

I thought that the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets was quite shrewd and underrated. In 26 games, he gave the Wizards about 13 points off the bench and shot 39 percent from distance. After matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Otto Porter, though, the Wizards rescinded his qualifying offer, which cleared the way for him to sign with the Pacers on a two-year, $21 million deal. In the long run, his departure could hurt the club. If the Wizards stay healthy this season, though, their continuity should allow them to easily win the division again. Last season, the Hawks finished second, but six games worse than the 49-win Wizards. Both the HEAT and Hornets are improved, but I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground on Scotty Brook’s team to pose a real challenge.

Out East, this season, it’s supposed to be the Cavs, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards vying for supremacy as the top four seeds. So long as the Wizards stay healthy and continue to be the team we saw last season, they should be right there.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

John Wall is the best. He’s been talking about taking the “next step” in his postseason career every summer for the last half a decade, and one gets the sense that the Wizards are closer to that than they ever have been. With Cleveland potentially vulnerable in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Boston integrating a lot of new pieces, the Wizards have a great opportunity to jump out to the East’s best overall record, especially early in the season. Beal should have been an All-Star last year and probably will be this year, while new-max player Otto Porter is expected to make a jump, too. I’m a believer in this Washington team, which is to say I’m a believer in John Wall.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

All the talk in the East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, and something tells me the boys in Washington are going to have something to say about that. Fresh off a playoff collapse against Boston that they likely feel should never have happened, the Wizards will be itching to show the league that this isn’t a two-team conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal are an All-Star backcourt, and swingman Otto Porter is entering a brand new massive contract extension. The bench still remains an area of concern, though improvements from guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. could stem that tide somewhat. Don’t be surprised if Washington makes some real noise to challenge for a conference final appearance if they can keep the primaries healthy.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

John Wall led the Wizards in scoring for the postseason at 27.2 points per game while shooting 21-for-61 (34.4 percent) from three. Beal struggled from three in the playoffs, shooting 29-for-101 (28.7 percent) and trailed Wall at 24.8 points per game. Beal was slightly better than Wall in overall shooting percentage, but most interestingly he was far more efficient as the ball handler in pick and rolls during the playoffs. In 70 possessions, the Wizards scored a spectacular 1.14 points per possession with Beal as the ball handler, which ranked in the 95th percentile. In 149 playoff pick and rolls initiated by Wall, the Wizards scored only .8 per possession, which ranked in the 44th percentile. With Beal struggling to hit from outside and Wall hitting at a respectable clip, the Wizards might have been better served to allow Beal to initiate more plays with Wall playing off-ball.

Top Defensive Player: Ian Mahinmi

In the summer of 2015, Washington used its opportunity to make a major commitment to a free agent to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. He promptly suffered a partially torn meniscus in the preseason and missed most of his first season as a Wizard. He then suffered a calf injury which limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. Earlier this summer, Mahinmi underwent what was described as a minor procedure on his left knee. With the Wizards set to pay the luxury tax, the team needs its major free agent signing to pay dividends in his second season.

To contend for an NBA championship, teams typically need to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The Wizards finished the regular season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. A healthy season from the rim-protecting Mahinmi could be the factor that helps Washington turn the corner defensively and take advantage of the roster flux in Boston and Cleveland to make a run to the conference finals — and perhaps beyond.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Despite any struggles as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Wall is unquestionably the turbocharged engine that makes the Wizards go. Wall exerts major pressure on opposing defenses by pushing the ball in transition, leading to efficient opportunities at the basket and three-point line. The Wizards are the best transition team in the Eastern Conference, but the mediocre defense has limited the team’s transition opportunities. If the team can improve defensively in 2017-18, it will give Wall more chances to push opposing defenses to the breaking point. During the playoffs, Beal also acknowledged Wall as the team’s vocal leader and organizing force on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Marcin Gortat

It’s a tiny sample, but last season Marcin Gortat shot 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on field goal attempts in clutch situations. Porter was second among Wizards with double-digit attempts at 53 percent on 32 attempts while Markieff Morris shot 49 percent on 49 clutch attempts. The lion’s share of shot attempts in clutch situations went to Beal — who shot 43.3 percent on 104 attempts — and Wall — who shot 41.2 percent on 119 possessions. Gortat told CSN at the conclusion of last season that he planned to speak with GM Ernie Grunfeld about his fit with the team after grousing about his limited role in the playoffs. Perhaps Gortat has a point. Given the far greater efficiency of the other starters in clutch situations, perhaps it’s time for Wall and Beal to share those responsibilities more evenly.

The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.

In 2011, the Wizards passed on future All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to draft Jan Vesely. Washington obviously wasn’t in the market to draft a point guard the summer after drafting Wall, but the point remains. One of the greatest factors standing between the Wizards and true contender status is the team’s past failures at talent evaluation. Currently, the team’s biggest hope for internal improvement from a former first-round pick is Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards need defense, and Oubre combines with Porter to give the team a pair of wings who can guard multiple positions.

Unfortunately, Oubre’s offensive development hasn’t gone as well as hoped. Part of the reason could be that, in February, the Wizards opted to sacrifice a first-round pick to obtain Bojan Bogdanovic, who was averaging a career-high 14.2 points for the Nets. Bogdanovic was another score-first, defensively-challenged player who was never going to factor in Washington achieving a top-10 defense. Additionally, he got in the way of Oubre’s development. Bogdanovic wasn’t a difference maker in the playoffs.

Had the Wizards committed those regular-season minutes to Oubre’s development, his offense might have come around by the playoffs and given the team another impact defender. Oubre shot just 28.7 percent from three during the regular season but upped his percentage to 36.7 in the playoffs in limited opportunities. Multiple Wizards observers have speculated about a small ball lineup for Washington featuring Morris at center, Porter as a stretch four and Oubre at small forward. Provided Oubre continues to hit threes at a league-average clip, that lineup could be a nightmare for opponents. Had the Wizards not traded for Bogdanovic, Oubre might be farther along and Washington would have had a first-round pick in this summer’s deep draft to address depth issues.

Best New Addition: Jodie Meeks

With few options to add talent due to cap restrictions, the Wizards made a low-risk, high-upside move by signing former Magic shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year, $7 million free agent contract in July. Meeks is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter for his career and shot nearly 41 percent in 36 appearances last season for Orlando. The Hawks tried to go small to get past the Wizards in the first round, but Washington crushed Atlanta’s small-ball lineup. Meeks could give the Wizards another floor-stretching option to open driving lanes. However, like Wizards additions of the past, Meeks has a long injury history. He has appeared in only 99 games over the last three seasons.

– Buddy Grizzard

WHO WE LIKE

1. Otto Porter

Porter will be the Wizards’ highest-paid player the next two seasons after Washington matched a four-year, $106.5 million restricted free agent offer sheet from the Nets. It’s an overpay on the surface until you consider that Washington had no way to replace him if the team didn’t pay up. Through March 20 — when he was overtaken by Kyle Korver — Porter led all NBA players with at least 200 three-point attempts at 44.9 percent. He’s not the most explosive player, but he’s so efficient as a scorer that the Wizards must find ways to get him more involved in the offense.

2. Coach Scott Brooks

The Wizards are the closest the franchise has been to contending for a championship since Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games during the 1978 NBA Finals. Scott Brooks is a big part of that. In interviews, Brooks oozes confidence and competence. He’s modernized the team on both sides of the ball and helped get the most out of the Wizards during the John Wall era. He’s proven to be much more for Washington than Kevin Durant bait.

3. Owner Ted Leonsis

Speaking of Oubre’s importance to the Wizards, how can you not like an owner who shows up wearing this after his young player is suspended for a playoff game:

4. Markieff Morris

If he could defend without fouling (an unlikely proposition), Markieff Morris could be an All-Star. The Hawks lost in the first round because Mike Budenholzer went small. Based on individual stats, Paul Millsap outplayed Morris. Per on/off differentials, Washington was far better with Morris on court than Atlanta was with Millsap on court. For the playoffs, the Wizards were +10.1 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, easily a team-high. Unfortunately, due to foul trouble and injuries, Morris played only 372 postseason minutes compared to over 500 for Beal and Wall.

– Buddy Grizzard

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards are heavily invested in their roster with $123.5 million in guaranteed salaries, easily above the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Washington will pay at least $6.4 million in tax, more if they keep two of their four non/partially-guaranteed players (Sheldon Mac, Daniel Ochefu, Carrick Felix and/or Donald Sloan).

After re-signing Otto Porter to $106.5 million and giving John Wall $169.3 million in an extension (both over four years), the Wizards are heavily invested in their core with Bradley Beal. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Kelly Oubre and Chris McCullough. Regardless, the team is not projected to be under the cap next season – instead facing another luxury tax penalty.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As mentioned, the Wizards are the best transition team in the East and boast one of the league’s best starting lineups. The three-pointer will continue to be a weapon for Washington. If Porter spends time as a stretch four, he will get pushed around by most power forwards but the Wizards will be trading three for two. Few NBA power forwards can chase Porter over screens and prevent him from launching from deep — Korver was his closest analogy for most of last season. Because the Wizards can stretch the floor and have one of the league’s best point guards at attacking the basket, Washington is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If not for injuries and Beal’s curious struggles from distance, Cleveland might have had its hands full in the conference finals against the Wizards.

– Buddy Grizzard

WEAKNESSES

Again, as mentioned, sub-optimal use of draft picks and injury woes have robbed the Wizards of the depth that is vital to a deep postseason run. And until the Wizards show enough pride on the defensive end to be something better than average, the team is unlikely to ascend to contender status. If this is the season when Morris limits his fouls, Mahinmi stays healthy and the Wizards become a top 10 defense — yes, that’s a lot of ifs — you’ll finally see peak John Wall unleashed in transition against terrified defenses.

– Buddy Grizzard

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Wizards use continuity to challenge the in-flux Celtics and Cavaliers in the East?

As much as the Wizards are handcuffed by the salary cap and dearth of developmental options, having the team’s core signed long term gives Washington continuity that’s not shared by its Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics will miss Jae Crowder’s ability to guard an opposing team’s best player and Kyrie Irving has never accomplished anything without LeBron James. With Thomas set to miss extended time with a nagging hip injury, Cleveland has huge questions at point guard. And then there’s the matter of LeBron’s pending free agency next summer. If he heads West, as so many have speculated, Washington’s list of true rivals in the East becomes shorter. For all the question marks, the fact that Brooks has figured out how to make Wall and Beal complement each other and Washington has most of its key pieces signed long-term means the Wizards will be a force to be reckoned with — this season and in seasons to come.

– Buddy Grizzard

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NBA

NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star

Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.

Steve Kyler

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Can You Blame Him?

Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.

“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”

As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.

Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.

As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?

That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.

Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.

“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”

As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?

It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.

Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.

As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.

It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?

By blazing their own way?

Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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