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NBA AM: Gearing Up For Playoff Stretch – East

The Eastern Conference may not be as talented as the Western Conference, from top to bottom, but the playoff race will be fun to watch unfold.

Lang Greene

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As the 2013-14 regular season  winds down, the playoff chase has started to increase in intensity. The Eastern Conference has been dominated all season by the Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT, but the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors have continued to gain momentum as the season has progressed.  Out in the Western Conference, things are a bit more balanced from top to bottom with six teams on pace to win at least 50 games. Think about this, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns would be playoff teams if they were in the Eastern Conference but both squads are currently on the outside looking in at the postseason.

For now, let’s take a look at the race for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference:

Eastern Conference – Playoffs Clinched

Indiana Pacers (46-17)
Current Seed: 1
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  9
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 10

The Pacers were the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth this season, but the team is struggling down the stretch; they are losers of four straight and five out of their last 10. The trading of veteran forward Danny Granger at the deadline could be impacting their team chemistry or the team could just be hitting a lull before their real season begins.

Miami HEAT (44-17)
Current Seed: 2
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  11
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 10

Despite the Pacers leading the East for the majority of the season, Miami is only one game behind them in the standings for homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. With All-Star guard Dwyane Wade rounding into form, the battle for the number one seed will be entertaining down the stretch

Eastern Conference – Most Likely In

Toronto Raptors (35-27)
Current Seed: 3
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  6
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 14

The stars are aligning for the Raptors to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 campaign with the majority of their games remaining versus sub .500 opposition.

Chicago Bulls (35-28)
Current Seed: 4
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  8
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 11

Between former league MVP Derrick Rose’s knee injury and the trade of former All-Star Luol Deng, most had the Bulls dead in the water. However, center Joakim Noah has put the team on his back by routinely stuffing the box score on a nightly basis. The team has a legitimate shot at surpassing Toronto.

Washington Wizards (33-30)
Current Seed: 5
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  6
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 13

The decision to give dynamic point guard John Wall a max contract extension has been golden up to this point. Wall earned his first All-Star nod and has the Wizards poised for their first postseason appearance since 2008.

Brooklyn Nets (32-30)
Current Seed: 6
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  7
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 13

While the Nets won’t live up to their preseason hype, or $180 million payroll, give them credit for turning around their season after it got off to an extremely brutal start. The team is 22-9 over its last 31 contests, after starting the season 10-21.

Eastern Conference – Battling for last two spots

Charlotte Bobcats (30-34)
Current Seed: 7
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  9
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 9

The Bobcats won a total of just 28 games the last two seasons so in many ways the team’s play this year is already a success. A playoff berth would be the icing on the cake. The hiring of head coach Steve Clifford and signing of center Al Jefferson last summer has paid immediate dividends.

Atlanta Hawks (27-35)
Current Seed: 8
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  10
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 10

The Hawks’ current playoff streak stands at six, but getting number seven secured will be tough as the team continues to rebound from a rash of injuries. Elton Brand has proven he has game still left in the tank, but can the old wily veteran center hold it together heading down the stretch?

New York Knicks (25-40)
Current Seed: N/A, Ninth place
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  10
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 7

Totally disappointing season ongoing in New York, but as soon as you start counting the Knicks completely out they seemingly respond accordingly. The team is currently on a four game winning streak and are just three and a half games behind Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

Detroit Pistons (24-39)
Current Seed: N/A, Tenth place
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  10
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 9

Pistons owner Tom Gores entered the campaign with playoff aspirations. What he has received so far is another head coaching change and a free agent investment in forward Josh Smith, which hasn’t exactly panned out. Despite the struggles, Detroit remains only three and a half games out of a playoff spot with ample time left to make a strong run. It still may not be enough to save president of basketball operations Joe Dumars’ job, though.

Cleveland Cavaliers (24-40)
Current Seed: N/A, Eleventh place
Games Remaining  versus winning teams:  10
Games Remaining versus sub .500 teams: 8

Mathematically the Cavaliers still have a shot at the playoffs, being only four games behind the Atlanta Hawks. But in reality, the team is more than likely going to be enjoying the postseason festivities from their own living rooms. The team has lost three straight contests and seven of their last 10 overall.

Eastern Conference – Lottery Bound

Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks

Warriors’ Klay Thompson Earning High Praise For Defense

The first thing that comes to mind when you typically think of Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson is his elite shooting range and pinpoint accuracy. However, the sharpshooter has started to earn praise on the defensive side of the floor as well.

Warriors head coach Mark Jackson believes Thompson is rising up the ranks as one of the league’s most improved perimeter defenders this season.

“Klay has made himself a big-time defender,” Jackson told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He does a great job of guarding the best perimeter guy on the other team. He has size, length and deceptive athletic ability. He pays attention to game-plan discipline, and he’s able to get back into the picture with smaller guards and contest shots.

“The amazing thing about it is that he didn’t come into the league that way. It’s awfully impressive the commitment he’s made and how dedicated he is to being a big-time defender.”

But this isn’t to say Thompson’s offensive game has suffered any with the rise of his defensive awareness. The third year guard is averaging a career-high 17.8 points per game on 41 percent shooting from three-point range.

“The game is easy for Klay,” Jackson said. “You get people who say he shouldn’t be shooting. Until I leave, he’s going to have the light. He’s as good a shooter as I’ve seen. He’s a guy who could care less whether he made his last nine or missed his last nine. He’s not afraid of the moment.

“He’s a guy who gives life to his team with his ability to knock down shots. I played alongside Reggie Miller and saw the impact it had on opposing teams – how it takes the life out of them. They do everything that they could possibly do defensively, and a guy with size, length and ability to shoot the basketball knocks down the shot. Klay is a special player.”

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NBA Daily: Potential Free Agent Bargains

With the NBA’s free agency right around the corner, David Yapkowitz identifies some valuable players that could be had for a nice price.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is in the rearview now which means free agency is right around the corner—this coming weekend, to be exact.

With seemingly few teams having money to spend, it might not shape up to be as crazy a free agency period as some believe.

Already, several players such as the Los Angeles Clippers’ Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic, the Denver Nuggets’ Wilson Chandler and the Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Muscala have chosen to exercise their player options rather than test the open market. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony will do the same.

With little money to go around, some free agents are going to have to settle for whatever is left. There might be a few guys who end up signing bargain contracts, and here’s a look at some players who could end up on that list.

Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks – $1,471,382

One year ago, Mike Scott was recovering from multiple injuries and was seemingly on the borderline between being in and out of the NBA. He signed a one-year contract with the Washington Wizards last offseason and ended up having a resurgent year. He emerged as a key contributor for a Wizards bench that has been one of their weaknesses for some time.

He’s a stretch-four, a perfect fit for today’s NBA game. He put up career-high shooting numbers with 52.7 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent from the three-point line. He played well against the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. He’ll fetch more than the minimum contract he signed last summer, but again, it’s a question about how much. Plenty of teams could use a versatile shooting big man with solid defense.

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – $1,471,382

Seemingly buried on the Golden State Warriors bench his first two years in the league, Kevon Looney broke out this season and proved he could be a valuable option in the rotation. To begin this season, he was even behind rookie Jordan Bell in the lineup. It wasn’t until Bell went down with a brief injury that Looney got his chance.

With today’s game increasingly moving away from positions and big men needed more of an all-around skill set to thrive, Looney is perfect. He’s shown an ability to guard multiple positions. He can finish well around the rim and he’s active on the glass. One area he could improve on is developing a consistent jump shot, but that’s something that can come with time. Depending on what the Warriors decide to do with JaVale McGee and David West, Looney might be squeezed out from the team. He’s sure to attract interest though around the league.

Jerami Grant – Oklahoma City Thunder – $1,524,305

When he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers four years ago, Jerami Grant immediately became a solid rotation player. He continued his strong play after coming over to the Thunder in a trade about two years ago. His numbers may not jump off the stat sheet (8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds), but he does a lot of little things that bring value to a team.

In today’s NBA, he’s able to play multiple positions both offensively and defensively. He didn’t shoot so well from beyond the arc this season (29.1 percent), but the year before he connected on 37.1 percent of this three-point attempts. He has that ability to spread the floor. He made $1,524,305 this past season and he most definitely is in line for a bigger payday. How much bigger though is the question. His versatility would be a boost to any team.

Will Barton – Denver Nuggets – $3,533,333

Heading into free agency, Will Barton had the best season of his career. He put up 15.6 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting from the field, 37 percent from the three-point line and 4.1 assists, all career-highs. He was a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award but he also proved that he could start as well. Known for being a scorer most of his career, he really developed into more of a playmaker this season.

Barton would be an asset to any team looking to add some wing firepower and playmaking to their rotation. Close to the end of the season with the Nuggets making a playoff push, Barton was thrust into the starting lineup for the final 13 games. During that stretch, he put up 19.2 points while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. He’s proved himself worthy of getting paid, it just remains to be seen what those offers might look like.

Isaiah Thomas – Los Angeles Lakers – $6,261,395

A little over a year ago, Isaiah Thomas was the face of the Boston Celtics and a legit MVP candidate. The Celtics were then swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was revealed that Thomas had an injury that required surgery. After being dealt to the Cavaliers last offseason, he never really was able to fit in with the team and they jettisoned him off to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline.

He looked a bit more comfortable with the Lakers but ended up having to shut it down in late March due to lingering injury issues. He once was on the threshold of receiving a max contract, but that doesn’t appear to be so anymore. There’s no question about his value to a team if healthy. He did average 15.6 points and 5.0 assists in 17 games with the Lakers. It’s possible he opts for a one year deal to prove he’s healthy and then test free agency again next summer. In any case, provided his injuries are behind him, he could be a free agent steal.

It will be interesting to see how the free agent landscape unfolds money wise. The players on the list can all be capable contributors to a playoff contender. It just seems like most of the teams with cap room this summer are teams in the midst of rebuilding. These guys could wind up being contract bargains for a contender off the bench.

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NBA Daily: Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis Already Have One Thing In Common

Kevin Knox’s experience on draft night was eerily similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis.

Moke Hamilton

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Michael Porter, Jr. might be the next Kevin Durant, but he could just as easily be the next Greg Oden.

And if you’re searching for comfort in the wake of the decision of the Knicks to pass on the opportunity to draft the young man who was widely regarded as being the top prospect in the class of 2018, it is pretty easy to find in the fact that of all people, Jerry West decided that Porter wasn’t worth the risk, either.

While Porter might end up being a Hall of Famer, when it comes to drafting prospects, we might as well be shooting in the dark. We all knew that Markelle Fultz was the best option for the Sixers in last year’s draft, and 12 other teams clearly had no idea what Donovan Mitchell had in store for the league.

Heck, two years ago, as I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter, I predicted that the Knicks would select Emmanuel Mudiay with their fourth pick. Instead, they walked away with Kristaps Porzingis.

If I were the man making the call back then, with the information I had, I certainly would have drafted Mudiay. And you know what? That decision probably would have gotten me fired, and rightfully so.

The true moral of the story is that we simply can’t see into the future and all the analytics in the world won’t able to measure things like guts and heart. So as the Knicks pin their hopes on Kevin Knox, it truly will be interesting to see how the career arcs of he and Porter compare.

As for why we would single out the Knicks and make the franchise’s decision to draft Knox over him a personal one, quite a few people in the know relayed the same information on the Knicks and Porter going back to their date at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May—they loved each other.

Thereafter, there were reports that the Knicks were looking to move up in the draft, and Porter was on their minds. On Thursday night in Barclays Center, with the Knicks on the clock, their fans in attendance cheered for Porter, as they were hopeful that he would be selected to be the franchise’s next stud.

They were disappointed, and now, they’ll hope that Scott Perry’s decision to go with Knox ends up being the right one. It might be, just like Porzingis was the right pick over Mudiay, and it might not be, just like selecting Frank Ntilikina over Mitchell wasn’t.

Like it or not, though, the two young men will forever be linked, both in my mind and in the minds of plenty of other Knicks fans.

“That’s just motivation,” Knox said of the Knicks fans in attendance chanting Porter’s name.

“A lot of people want him to get to the Knicks, but I mean, it’s all good with me. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to get to work and ready to prove people in Summer League and prove people in the NBA.”

Knox’s experience on draft night was remarkably similar to that of Porzingis, and now, if you even so much as suggest trading the Latvian unicorn for a player such as Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans just might call for your head.

It’s strange how quickly things can change for you in New York City. At the end of the day, it comes down to working hard and earning the adoration of the faithful in Gotham City. Porzingis succeeded there, and there’s every reason to believe that Knox will, as well.

“They booed Porzingis (on draft night) and look where he is now,” the rookie remarked.

“They can chant Michael Porter all they want, but they got Kevin Knox, and I’m willing to work and I’m willing to get better.”

When asked, Knox would tell you that he and Jayson Tatum happen to have something in common. According to him, neither of the two really got an opportunity to show what they could do at the collegiate level.

With more opportunities and more repetitions, the sky truly is the limit for the 18-year-old.

“I think I can pretty much play all around the floor,” Knox said.

“I can handle the ball, pick-and-roll situations, make plays, make passes. I can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, get rebounds, push it coast to coast. So I think that versatility in the league is something that a lot of teams really need, and I think that’s something I can bring to the Knicks right now.”

Privately, to members of the Knicks organization, Knox has spoken highly of the spotlight that he’s bound to face in New York and believes that playing at Kentucky helped to prepare him for the type of demanding environment that he’ll be introduced to once the season gets underway in New York. And even without a bad back, the crushing expectations and heavy burden could cause a weaker minded player to crumble.

A FaceTime call with Porzingis on draft night went a long way toward giving the rookie the confidence that he’ll need to thrive in New York.

That the franchise’s pride and joy immediately reached out to his new running mate to congratulate him, welcome him to the team and give him some insight is a good sign. At the very least, it shows that Porzingis takes his responsibility as being the team’s lead man seriously.

At most, it could signal K.P.’s being pleased with the selection.

We’re about to embark upon the story of Kevin Knox. We’ve only seen the preamble.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t know how the final chapter will end based on what you’ve read in the first chapter. So no, the Knicks fans that wanted Michael Porter on their squad didn’t get their wish, but in the long run, they may end up being better for it.

Just like Kristaps Porzingis, Knox wasn’t received warmly by Knicks fans on draft night.

Hopefully, for the rookie, it’s not the last thing he and the beloved Porzingis will have in common.

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NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft

After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.

Ben Nadeau

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Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.

Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?

For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.

At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.

Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…

As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.

But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.

We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.

…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide

Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?

After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.

The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.

The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out

Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.

Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.

In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.

Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.

While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.

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