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NBA AM: Injuries, Schedule Challenge HEAT

This is Miami’s toughest stretch on their schedule, and now they’ve lost six key players to injuries.

Alex Kennedy

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Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor talks to Basketball Insiders about his transition to the NBA, how he’s growing alongside his new teammates, what he has learned from veterans like Elton Brand and Carl Landry and what goals he is setting for the second half of the 2015-16 NBA season.

Injuries, Tough Schedule Challenge the HEAT

The Miami HEAT are in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season.

They had one of the NBA’s easiest schedules in the opening months of the 2015-16 season, with 20 of their first 30 games played at home. They performed well during that span early on, as expected, and were near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for quite some time.

However, it was clear that we would learn a lot about this team in January and February. That’s when their schedule would provide many challenges. Both months featured games against a ton of playoff teams, as well as plenty of road contests. In January alone, their schedule included two long road trips (six games and five games), four back-to-backs and one stretch where they’d be playing 11 of 12 games on the road.

They opened January with three straight wins over talented teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers. But they have struggled since, going 2-7 the rest of the month (with their only wins coming against the struggling Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets). They have dropped six of their last seven games.

heatschTheir schedule isn’t about to get any easier either. Their next two games are on the road against the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, and they finish the month against the Atlanta Hawks.

Then, their schedule for the month of February is brutal too. They face a number of very talented teams, including four of the top five teams in the Western Conference – the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. And in February, their away games once again outnumber their home games, which is a problem for a team that is currently 8-11 on the road. Their entire February schedule is listed to the right.

The only thing more challenging than Miami’s schedule is the fact that they’ve been playing without many of their key players recently. Injuries have been piling up for Miami, which has contributed to their poor record in the month of January. It has become a serious concern for the team since so many players are sidelined.

Last night against the Washington Wizards, Miami was without Dwyane Wade (shoulder), Goran Dragic (calf, out for fifth straight game), Beno Udrih (neck, out for third straight game) and Chris Andersen (left knee).

Then, during the second quarter of the game, Hassan Whiteside sustained a non-contact injury and he was forced to leave the game holding his left side. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Luol Deng was poked in his right eye and had to go to the locker room with a towel covering his face.

That means six HEAT players were unavailable in last night’s game. And to get an idea of how important those six players are, they are averaging a combined 58.8 points, 26.1 rebounds and 14.6 assists this season.

At the moment, Miami has just eight healthy players on their roster.

“The toughest part about it is that you always worry about the health of your teammate, first and foremost,” Chris Bosh told reporters. “You always want guys to be as healthy as possible, but when it’s another guy going down, it’s just tough. Two weeks ago, we were going into a West Coast road trip, really trying to prove ourselves with a whole roster and now we’ve got six guys out. It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”

With so many veterans out, the team has relied on young players like Tyler Johnson (23 years old), Justise Winslow (19) and Josh Richardson (22) – all of whom played 35+ minutes last night against the Wizards. Jarnell Stokes (22) also played a handful of minutes, making his debut for the HEAT after joining the team in November as part of the Mario Chalmers trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.

While Bosh acknowledged that this has been extremely hard on the team, he believes this stretch will be very beneficial for the young players since they’re gaining valuable experience.

“We’re constantly just trying to digest what’s going on, take the hit on the chin and then regroup,” Bosh said. “Our young guys are trying [to fill in], but they’re inexperienced and they’re really learning on the fly. I think the best part about it is it’s going to help us in the long run because these guys are getting minutes under stressful situations, and that’s how it’s going to be later on.”

For Miami’s sake, hopefully Whiteside and Deng aren’t seriously injured. Fortunately, it seems Wade will able to return soon, as he tested his shoulder prior to Wednesday’s game and nearly played, but was a late scratch.

Miami needs all of the healthy bodies they can get right now. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has had to make some significant changes to his game plan due to the injuries shortening his rotation.

“Toward the end of the third quarter, guys were running out of gas,” Spoelstra said. “Tyler was absolutely gassed. CB and Amar’e played all the way until about the four-minute mark. I had to get guys out, I couldn’t stagger it the way I normally do. We thought we would be able to hold the floor and we weren’t able to [do it].”

Spoelstra is hoping that the team can continue to make strides despite the injuries and challenging schedule. He admitted that this is a difficult spot for any team to find themselves in.

“You still have opportunities to build habits and that’s what we’re reminding our guys every timeout,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve all been around this league long enough [to know] it happens virtually to every team at some point.

“You just have to weather the storm. This too will pass, hopefully sooner than later, and that’s my mind frame on it.”

With their recent losses, the HEAT have dropped to the seventh seed in the East with a 23-20 record. Despite their struggles, Miami still has the sixth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. However, they have left a lot to be desired on the offensive end, scoring just 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Miami’s next game is on Friday on the road against the Toronto Raptors.

New Basketball Insiders Podcast

The latest episode of the Basketball Insiders Podcast is available. This installment features senior NBA writers Moke Hamilton and Ben Dowsett discussing their East and West All-Star selections, the race for the eighth seed in each conference and which players should make the 12-man Olympic roster. Listen below:

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

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

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

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 not convey.

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 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 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 not 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 the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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