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NBA AM: Cavaliers Still Alive in Race for Eighth

The Cavaliers are still alive in the race for the East’s eighth seed, and they’re playing well … The Wizards end their five-season playoff drought

Alex Kennedy

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Cavaliers Still Alive in Race for Eighth

It is well documented that the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks are battling for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. After last night’s games, the Knicks and Hawks are tied in the standings and the two teams will continue to compete with one another over the final two weeks of the season.

However, there is one other team that’s still alive in the race for the East’s eighth seed. The Cleveland Cavaliers are just two games back from the Knicks and Hawks, with a game against Atlanta this Friday. The Cavs have won five of their last six games, including victories over the Knicks, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers, and they’re hoping to get some help and be the team that sneaks into the postseason.

“We are still in the hunt,” Dion Waiters said. “We still have a chance. We just have to take full advantage of it. At the end of the day, everybody knows what is at stake. We are coming in here focused and locked in. We just have to go out there and execute.”

“That’s the goal; the goal is to get into the playoffs,” Luol Deng said. “The best thing about it is now that we’re at the end of the season and in the race, guys see what they’re playing for. Every practice, every game, there’s a goal and it’s right there in front of us. Whatever level you’re playing at, it’s always good when everyone is on the same page and has the same goal. And I think these guys are learning from it and really enjoying it. A lot of them haven’t been to the playoffs. We’re all trying to do whatever it takes to make it. For me, it means a lot not only to see them go through it but because I think we deserve it. We’re a way better team in the second half than we were in the beginning of the season, so I just want to see the maturity of this team get rewarded.”

“This is the first time in my career where these games this late in the season are starting to mean something,” Kyrie Irving said. “We are playing against teams that are fighting for spots as well, so it makes the games that much more fun. We go out there and compete. Guys have to step up. These are big-time games coming up.”

“Everyone’s goal is to be a winner and part of being a winner is playing in the postseason,” Tristan Thompson said. “The fun thing about this year is that we put ourselves in a position where these last six games mean something. Now, we just need to go out there and compete and see what happens. …  We’re very confident.”

“There’s nothing tricky that we have to do,” Mike Brown said. “We just have to keep getting ready for the next thing that’s in front of us. Go out and practice hard. Go out and play hard. I think it’s just as simple as that.”

Cleveland is currently 31-45 and this has been a roller coaster season for the team. They’ve dealt with drama, trades, injuries and a front office change among other things. This season has largely been a disappointment considering the team entered the season with playoff aspirations and securing a postseason berth shouldn’t have been this difficult, especially given the state of the Eastern Conference.

However, the Cavs are finally living up to their potential and playing some of their best basketball of the season lately.

“We’ve been playing great basketball,” Waiters said. “We’re keeping the defense on their heels and pushing the ball and hitting the open guy. We’re just having fun out there.”

“We’re doing a good job of enjoying the games and playing together,” Deng said. “Once you start winning, you get a feel for it and start enjoying it more than anything. Then, you start trying to put some more games together. We have a great group of guys who really want to win. Now that we’ve put some games together and learned different ways to win, they’re enjoying it. We’re enjoying it. We’re just trying to stack up more wins.”

“We’ve made strides in the right direction, just moving the ball, making each other better and trusting one another,” Irving said. “We’ve just had a great rhythm.”

Right after Wednesday night’s 21-point victory over the Orlando Magic, the Cavaliers all got on their phones to see whether the Knicks and Hawks had won their games. New York beat the Brooklyn Nets while Atlanta lost to the Chicago Bulls. Cleveland knows they’ll need help in order to realize their postseason goal, so they’ve been paying close attention to the two teams ahead of them in the standings.

“Oh yeah, after our games I’ll go check the scores to see what’s going on around the league,” Waiters said. “I’m focused on them, mainly those two teams. I’ve been checking.”

“New York won by 29 and Atlanta is down seven right now; I’m checking every few minutes,” Thompson said with a laugh. “These games definitely mean a lot.”

On Friday, the Cavaliers play the Hawks. They have to win that game if they want to stay alive in the race for eighth, especially since Atlanta owns the tiebreaker over Cleveland by virtue of winning the season series.

“It is not completely in our hands, but if we can control what we have in front of us it puts us in a lot better position,” Spencer Hawes said. “[Friday’s game against Atlanta] is the next one up and is perhaps our biggest game of the season given the circumstances at this point.”

“Friday’s game means a lot to keep us in this race,” Thompson said. “They definitely kicked our butts last time we went out there, so it’s a great challenge for us.”

“They’re all big,” Brown said. “Let’s say if we go and we beat Atlanta, and we lose our next five? Every game we play, because of the position we put ourselves in, is a big game. We have to come and try to play the right way and see if we can get a win.”

Even if the Cavaliers don’t make the playoffs, their players realize that this late-season success is good for the team moving forward. It gives them a taste of the playoff race and can help them going into next season.

“It’ll be disappointing at the end of the day, but we’ll still go into the offseason with a lot of momentum and hopefully be able to start next season strong because of how we’re doing now,” Waiters said. “But it’s up to us to go out there and win these games. That’s all we need to do.”

When asked about Cleveland’s odds of making the postseason, Brown paused and then smiled.

“I don’t know, I’ve never been great when I’ve gone to Vegas,” Brown said. “I don’t try to guess that. I just know that where we are, we’ve got to play good basketball and we’ve got to go try to win. We put ourselves in this hole. The only thing we can do is our part, and have a chance.”

Wizards Are Heading to the Playoffs

The Washington Wizards’ five-season playoff drought is over.

With last night’s win over the Boston Celtics, the Wizards clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2007-08 season. The team is currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed with a 39-36 record, which is a huge step forward for the franchise considering they were 117-277 over the last five years.

“It’s great, it’s everything I’ve been waiting for as a point guard,” John Wall said. “I’ve been trying to learn how to lead in this league and become a better player. Also, I think the fans deserve it. The tough times they went through of them booing us and us feeling bad when we weren’t playing good or playing the right way and having the right people around the organization. Those guys in the front office and the coaching staff are doing a great job of building us as players, and we’re trusting in their system and going out there and playing as a group, as one whole team. It means a lot.”

“It feels good, man,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s my second year, so I’m fortunate to be a part of a great group and be a part of this at an early age and it’s a good feeling to me. We still got seven games left in the regular season, but to be able to clinch the playoffs ourselves and get the win outright, it means a lot to us. …  It’s a great group of guys that the front office put together and we stuck together. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of injuries here and there, but ever since the last couple of years, we built it. Now, we have the pieces together and now we’re in the playoffs.”

“It’s huge, going to the playoffs,” Otto Porter said. “We’ve worked hard all year and to get rewarded with the playoffs is huge. It means a lot to this organization, to come out, to get this win, to clinch the playoffs. It’s what we’ve been keying on since the first day we all came together before training camp. This is definitely a big accomplishment for us.”

Wizards head coach Randy Wittman is thrilled that the team is finally having some success after struggling for so many years, and he’s excited for his players to experience the postseason.

“This is five years for me here, and we were in a desperate spot not too long ago,” Wittman said. “When I took over, I just tried to keep telling our guys, Ted [Leonsis] and Ernie [Grunfeld], let’s do this the right way and build this and teach, and one day we’re going to get here. Each year, we kept putting a piece here and there, kept developing, kept maturing. Even with Nene going down missing five, six weeks now, these guys didn’t blink an eye. We had some ups and downs like you always do and we’re still learning the process of what it takes to be a really good team, but I couldn’t be happier for those guys. To be through some of the times that we were in not too long ago and be able to say for guys like John that have never been in the playoffs, I keep trying to tell him the difference of how the arena is, the intensity is, how hard it’s played, how fast it is. It’s going to seem like a whole new game to these guys. I can’t wait for them to see it. I’m just as thrilled too. This is an opportunity for me as a head coach; this is my first time and I’m looking forward to it.”

Wall will make his playoff debut after watching the Wizards land in the lottery for the four seasons of his career. The 23-year-old has had an incredible year, making his first All-Star appearance and postseason appearance several months apart. When asked to compare the two accomplishments, Wall was clear that securing a playoff berth was much more important to him.

“This is bigger than that, I told ya’ll that,” Wall said. “All-Star is my own separate goal and what I wanted to accomplish for myself, but everything I do is for the team first. I wouldn’t be able to be an All-Star and have these individual accolades without those guys, a great group of teammates. Everything I do I put my teammates’ first and my coaching staff [first]. This is what everybody wanted as a group.”

Even though the Wizards have clinched a playoff spot, their final seven games are still important because they haven’t determined their seed yet. Washington could still climb to the fifth seed (they’re just a game and a half back from the Brooklyn Nets) or slide to the seventh seed (they’re only two games up on the Charlotte Bobcats). The team understands this and is remaining focused despite this achievement.

“I mean, you celebrate tonight and get ready to go on the road and win another game,” Wall said. “That’s the main thing for me, trying to finish the season as strong as possible and prepare ourselves for a great playoff seed.”

“We want to finish strong,” Porter said. “We don’t want to rest these next couple of games just because we are in the playoffs. We want to finish out feeling good about ourselves going into the playoffs.”

If the playoffs started today, the Wizards would take on the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.

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

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NBA

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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