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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

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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