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NBA AM: Utah’s George Hill Dilemma

Ben Dowsett looks at several overlapping factors in George Hill’s free agency.

Ben Dowsett

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The Utah Jazz have seen a few of their marquee free agents hit the market in recent years, but this is different. Not since the summer of 2003, when Karl Malone’s search for a ring led him west to Los Angeles, has Utah faced this sort of franchise-altering summer.

Malone was days from 40 back then, though – still producing, but a far cry from his Hall of Fame self. Among Utah’s trio of current impending free agents, the elder statesman is 31. Those Stockton-to-Malone teams were already well past their glory days; Dennis Lindsey and the current Jazz front office have spent the better part of the last half decade building toward a team that still hasn’t reached its peak.

All things considered, given the state of the modern salary cap and player movement, one could argue it’s the biggest offseason in franchise history.

Gordon Hayward is the obvious tall domino, and headed into Saturday’s free agency period, his situation seems about as straightforward as anyone could have hoped. Hayward will meet with Miami, Boston and Utah (in that order), and is widely expected to make a decision quickly after Monday’s meeting with the Jazz. By the time fireworks are in the air on July 4, it’s probable we’ll know the franchise from which Hayward will receive his new max deal.

Hayward’s fellow swingman and close friend Joe Ingles would also appear to be a pretty simple case. Ingles was almost comically obvious about his desire to return to Utah during his exit meetings, and while it’s unknown whether or not he’ll consider signing an outside offer in restricted free agency, all the smoke signals point toward a return.

True to form for the franchise following several years of uncertainty, the point guard spot is once again the most complex situation facing Jazz management. And this time, there could be a whole lot more than just the starting 1-spot up for grabs.

First, consider the past.

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Since the day Deron Williams was traded to Brooklyn midseason in 2011, the Jazz had been floundering at the point by NBA standards. The list of guys who started games as a point guard for Utah between then and last summer was not pretty: Devin Harris, Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley, Mo Williams, John Lucas III, Trey Burke, Dante Exum and even Alec Burks (not a point guard).

The first several were stopgaps after Deron’s departure, followed by a notable misfire on a draft-day trade for Burke. Exum looked promising at times, only to have his entire trajectory derailed by a summer ACL tear before his sophomore season. In retrospect, the fact that those Burks-at-point lineups were actually relatively successful compared to many other choices just highlights how grim the situation really was.

It’s hard to say how a healthy Exum may have altered planning a year ago. But with the Aussie still finalizing his recovery and looking like a bit of a question mark – and with a win-now mandate that hadn’t really existed the previous year – Lindsey pulled the trigger and acquired George Hill prior to the 2016 draft.

Hill’s season couldn’t have started out much better, and couldn’t have finished up much more strangely. He was a legitimate franchise savior in November and December, propping the group up through a brief Hayward absence to open the season and posting legitimately ridiculous production.

A common statistic to evaluate a point guard’s creation compared to their carelessness is assist-to-turnover ratio. Hill was so stunningly efficient through the turn of the calendar year 2016 that his steal-to-turnover ratio became perhaps more appropriate to cite (it was nearly a dead even 1:1 ratio at that point, which is patently ridiculous for any volume ball-handler).

Hill had also sustained his first injury of the year by that time, though, a trend that would come to define his season. He’d go through five separate periods of the year where he missed at least three straight games, sitting for 36 contests in all between the regular season and playoffs.

Hill would return from one such stretch in time for the first round of the playoffs and post a monster series, including a plus-35 on-court figure while helping provide what proved to be the final nail in the Lob City Clippers’ coffin. He was back down just as quickly, though, sitting the final three games of a Jazz sweep at the hands of the eventual world champion Warriors.

Fast forward a couple months, and it’s already time to consider the future – where Utah’s cap situation looms large over everything.

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First things first: If future cap concerns are the only roadblock standing between the Jazz and retaining each of their three priority free agents at roughly market value, all three guys will likely be back in Utah next year. The Jazz would absolutely have several tough decisions looming over the next couple years in this hypothetical, but these are often overstated in the public eye.

Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors are the first big topics there. Hood and Exum are both up for rookie extensions after next season, meaning they could negotiate them starting this summer until late October (both appear unlikely to ink deals by that point barring some July craziness). Favors will be entering the last year of what’s mostly been a great deal for Utah, but with a big raise coming and a ton of other money possibly committed, the writing could already be on the wall for his future in Utah.

If moving Favors for little returning salary isn’t enough to loosen the belt, there are other options potentially available. It would cost an asset or two to get off Burks’ roughly $22 million owed over the next two years, but Utah has a few moderately valuable young pieces plus several future picks they could throw in to make this work.

Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson will both be off the books by next summer, at the latest. Diaw could even be cut for nothing before his guarantee date on July 15. Exum is no sure thing yet, and with 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell now in the fold as a combo guard with lots of potential, there’s not necessarily a guarantee that the Aussie commands long term money if he doesn’t show more in his fourth season.

It’s also not out of the question for the Jazz to swallow hard and enter the tax for a year. Utah won’t throw money around like crazy and enter repeater territory, but the ability is there to spend for a roster with a true shot to advance deep in the postseason. Ownership’s placement of the team into a legacy trust in January ensured that profits will be recycled into the franchise; popular players and deep playoff runs bring more profits, and a Hayward-Rudy Gobert combo is as popular and talented as the state has seen since the glory days.

There are enough levers to pull here to keep Lindsey from panicking about paying guys like Hill and Ingles their fair market value – if that’s the only concern, of course.

It might not be, and even the term “fair market value” might be more problematic than Lindsey and Co. would hope in Hill’s case.

Coloring this whole picture are failed attempts by the two sides to renegotiate-and-extend Hill’s deal back in the spring, a situation that would have added money to his 2016-17 salary while also keeping him in town for additional years without ever hitting the open market. The maximum Utah could have added to Hill’s contract in this case would have been roughly $88 million: about $13 million and change for 16-17, and another $75 million over the next three years.

It never happened, and the important questions now come from both sides. Did the Jazz ever come close to offering that much? This isn’t a team where even backchannel sources offer much clarity on negotiation details, but quiet chatter here and there indicates that perhaps the answer is no.

On the flip side, what was the threshold for Hill’s camp to accept? Did they even have one? If they were truly convinced he’d approach a max contract this summer, even $25 million a year moving forward might not have seemed like enough at the time for a guy who already spent several years underpaid.

As the summer gets set to open, though, the list of teams that appear primed to give out even that kind of money for a past-30 starting point guard might not be that long. Philadelphia and Brooklyn, both tossed around the rumor mill earlier in the year as teams with lots of cap who might want a veteran of Hill’s ilk, acquired blue chip young point guards in the last couple weeks. The Chris Paul domino has already fallen.

The Wolves have been rumored as a suitor, though they’d need to move Ricky Rubio first in all likelihood. The Spurs and a reunification with Pop always loom, but even that would take some cap maneuvering – certainly not unreasonable maneuvering, but worth noting nonetheless. There’s also no guarantee San Antonio values Hill enough to beat Utah’s best offer.

But maybe the most vital factor when it comes to Hill is also the one that’s toughest to gauge with even moderate accuracy: How he impacts Hayward’s decision. Both local and national outlets have indicated Hayward’s desire for a veteran point guard on the roster before he signs, with some reports mentioning Hill specifically and others staying vague.

Only Hayward himself truly knows how important a factor that is. The Jazz will certainly have a better idea than any of us, but even they could still be working from a place of partial uncertainty. If it takes coughing up a few million uncomfortable extra dollars for Hill to assure that Hayward remains, here’s wagering Lindsey and his team will pull the trigger. But it’s almost certainly not that linear, as rumors that Utah has been active on the trade market for a veteran point man would indicate.

Finally, we can’t forget to ask a pretty simple question that might get glossed over in all the other details: Does Utah truly want to commit the sort of years and salary it would take to get Hill back? Hill is 31, and has now missed big chunks of time in two of his last three seasons. Each individual injury he had last year felt random and relatively unlucky when isolated, but it’s also tough to imagine a 32-year-old dealing with fewer bumps and bruises on balance as he gets older.

Injuries are fickle and inexact, and it was a weird year there for Utah all around. The keen ear heard just the faintest whispers that it was perhaps Hill himself, and not Utah’s medical staff, who ruled him out of those final three games against the Warriors in May. True or not, it’s another little chunk of strangeness when it comes to Hill’s health. How to reconcile that with his obvious importance on and off the court is Lindsey’s challenge.

Got all that? Oh, and just in case there wasn’t enough uncertainty, remember that Hayward appears poised to make his decision relatively early in free agency. If locking up Hill before then is a prerequisite, the Jazz won’t have much time to get it done.

Rest as easily as you can, Jazz fans – it’ll all be over in a few days, good or bad. But as everyone sits in anticipation of Hayward’s decision, remember the other vital variables that factor into the equation.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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