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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: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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