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NBA Daily: Al Horford Is The Most Important Celtic

Al Horford’s rare skill set should be the engine to the Celtics’ success this season, which is why he’s the one player they can’t afford to miss substantial time.

Matt John

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Last month, Sports Illustrated published their list of the top 100 players in the NBA of 2019. The Boston Celtics, who are widely expected to be one of the league’s best teams this season, had six of their players named on the list.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were all listed. That should make the Celtics very proud of the copious amounts of talent they have on their squad. The most surprising wrinkle in these rankings was that, of the six Celtics that were on the list, Horford ranked the highest at No. 16.

It should be noted that these rankings are completely subjective – Horford was ranked No. 34 on ESPN’s top 100 list – so once this season concludes, putting Horford up that high could end up being foolish in comparison to the other Celtics. There’s no telling how much better Tatum and Brown could be as they enter another year in their very promising careers. There’s also no telling how good Hayward and Irving could be since they are coming off season-ending injuries.

Should all four of those guys live up to expectations, then Horford could very well be the Celtics fifth-best player in terms of talent. However, talent is not what makes Horford such a valuable player. What makes Horford a plausible No. 16 ranking is that he is the one player that the Celtics can’t afford to lose.

The Celtics have shown adversity when losing their most talented players on paper. Shortly after Hayward went down, the Celtics ripped off a 16-game winning streak because their wing depth kept them strong. After Irving went down, they still came within a few shots of making the NBA Finals because their guard depth kept things afloat. That is not to take away from how crucial both Irving and Hayward will be to the Celtics season, but Boston demonstrated last season that they can do just fine without them. The same cannot be said about Horford.

It sounds odd because when you look at his regular numbers, they won’t blow you away. His averages of 13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game have earned him the nickname “Average Al” by some of his critics. What he does on the court doesn’t exactly scream elite, either. For his size, Horford is one of the best floor spacers, dead-eye passers and all-around versatile defenders, among having other skills that he has compared to other players that play the same position.

The reason why his skill set gets overlooked across the league is that we’ve seen bigs who have some of the same skills that Horford does. What separates him from them is that there aren’t that many bigs out there who can do all the things that he can do. That’s what makes him such a special player in this league: His all-around game makes him a rare breed.

Of course, it helps that the league’s evolution in the past several years suits Horford’s game. More and more emphasis is being put on bigs who can play on both sides of the floor, defend multiple positions and shoot threes. He did not come into the league with a reliable three-ball, but always had a reliable jump shot from 15-20 feet.

His all-around game fuels his best attribute to the game of basketball. That is, he simply makes your team better. Look no further than the team’s net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) with him on the floor. Last season, the Celtics were overall a plus-9.3 with Horford, which was highest on the team. He proved himself to be even more valuable when the playoffs rolled around, as he posted a plus-16.8, which, again, was the highest on the team.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Horford’s playoff performance was his defense. There’s a fair argument that every opponent the Celtics faced in the playoffs had the best player (or two) in the series. A big part of why the Celtics were able to stop them was because of Horford’s ability to defend their best players. Not many guys in this league can stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Horford may not have been a “stopper,” but he made them work harder for their points.

Even if he doesn’t have high-scoring performances or intimidate as one of the league’s top rim protectors, Horford plays a huge part in his team’s success. What he does can’t just be easily replaced. When Hayward and Irving went down, Tatum, Brown, Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris all picked up the slack as much as they could. If Horford goes down this season, the Celtics don’t have the personnel to fill the void that he would leave.

That’s not a shot at Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis. Baynes paired well with Horford as one of the league’s best defensive frontcourts after Hayward went down. Theis gradually improved to be a reliable backup before tearing his meniscus. Both of them play well in the roles that are expected of them, but – unlike the guard and wing depth that the Celtics have – those two are strictly role players with limited ceilings. They don’t have Horford’s IQ. They don’t have Horford’s footwork. They don’t have Horford’s three-point prowess (though both have shown that they’re not necessarily inept in that area). They are good at what they do, but can’t be asked to do much more.

The point of all this is that if there’s one player whose potential injury could undo everything that the Celtics hope to accomplish this season, it’s Horford. His abilities make him the jack-of-all-trades as a “tweener” power forward/center of whom the Celtics have no one to replace with.

When the Celtics agreed to give Horford a max contract back in 2016, they didn’t sign him hoping he’d give them 20/10 every night and dominate on both ends of the floor. They signed him hoping to be the perfect big for Brad Stevens’ system.

To do just that, you don’t have to be Kevin Garnett. You just have to be Al Horford.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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