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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA
After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.
The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.
Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.
Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.
“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”
Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.
“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”
Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.
At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.
“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”
Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.
“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”
NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?
An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?
“I’m Cam Reddish.”
Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?
A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.
Things didn’t quite go as planned.
While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.
When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.
The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.
But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.
But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.
“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”
But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?
“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”
“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”
There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.
Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.
While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.
And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.
“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”
There were certainly issues, however.
Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.
All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.
But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.
Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George
Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.
NBA Daily: Grant Williams: Household Name In The Making
On Friday, Tennessee’s Grant Williams announced that he would stay in the NBA Draft — but this is just the beginning for the collegiate standout, writes Ben Nadeau.
On Friday, Grant Williams made the most important decision of his young career.
After a strong three-year stint at Tennessee, Williams has elected to remain in the selection pool, a choice that will undoubtedly culminate in celebration next month at the 2019 NBA Draft.
At 6-foot-7, Williams effortlessly presents the type of well-rounded skillset that has had scouts drooling all week at the NBA Draft Combine. As Tennesse climbed the NCAA’s power rankings this past collegiate campaign — even standing as Division-I’s No. 1 team for four weeks — Williams’ name and stature deservedly rose too. The Volunteers eventually suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 this springtime but by then the damage had been done: Williams was somebody worth watching.
In that late March Madness loss to the Boilermakers, Williams racked up 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 56.3 percent. A few days prior, during the Round of 32, the high-intensity junior stuffed the box score for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals. And if those numbers seem impressive — and don’t worry, they are — that’s because Williams practically averaged a similar line all season en route to his second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.
But that’s not the only reason why Williams has first round-worthy plaudits either, showing promise as a flexible defender and hardcore challenger this week alone.
“Just the improvement that I had throughout my career, showing that I progressively got better — I think teams value good guys and value competitors, so then that really helped me over the course of my career,” Williams told Basketball Insiders on Thursday. “And coach Barnes, like I said, those guys that put me in the best position to help win as well as become a better player.”
As a capable three-point marksman (32.6 percent) and an underrated passer (3.2 assists), Williams fit flawlessly into that modern big man mold that every front office has chased in drafts for the last half-decade. The sample size is a tad small at just 1.2 attempts per game from deep in 2018-19, but many will see Williams as a two-way positive — a high-percentage offensive contributor with lockdown capacity on the opposite end.
During the combine, Williams was adept at switching in the pick-and-roll, a skillset that bodes well for defending multiple positions at the next level too. Even more impressive, back in January, he went 23-for-23 from the free throw line to propel Tennessee past Vanderbilt in overtime — aberration, it was not, as he hit at 81.9 percent for the entire season to boot. But Williams believes that his ability to draw fouls could offer a unique glimpse at more of his NBA-ready strengths.
“Maybe, [but] fouls are different in the league, I think it’s more physical of a game — so you might not get those certain calls,” Williams said. “But it’s just a matter of showing your toughness and being able to be that guy that isn’t pushed around and can hold his own.”
Ultimately, Williams is the complete package — all he’s missing now is the household name.
Soon that will change too.
Williams’ massive choice to remain in the draft likely reinforces that his first-round projections were too good to turn down. In Basketball Insiders’ latest Consensus Mock Draft, two writers sent Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 26, while the other pair selected him one pick later at No. 27 for Brooklyn. Elsewhere, The Athletic recently plugged him in at No. 27 too and The Ringer went even higher at No. 17.
Yahoo! Sports, CBS and ESPN all have ranked Williams somewhere within that range too, while Andy Katz — longtime draft analyst — openly gushed about the Volunteer on national television.
Unsurprisingly, Williams’ list of honors is much longer than we can feasibly print but the highlights simply prove that the 20 -year-old has reigned atop Division-I for nearly a full year. NCAA Unanimous First Team All-American, 2019 and 2018’s SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team — in both AP and coach-led versions — and plenty of conference-given Player of the Week awards decorate Williams’ budding trophy case. Today, the Volunteers’ Twitter account made the most succinct point of them all: “Plain and simple, one of the best to ever wear the Orange & White.”
And even though he believes that his day one performance wasn’t quite up to snuff, Williams is determined to prove that the best is yet to come.
“Just the defensive consistency as well as knocking down the shot,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t shoot the ball well [yesterday], I tested well, I think, I had 20 on the bench press and stuff like that before I played. I think that [today] is going to be a better day to show more.”
Of course, Williams could’ve been lured back for a final, year-long curtain call at Tennessee — but without Admiral Schofield and, potentially, Jordan Bone, that thought became a much more difficult torch to bare alone. Leaving that guaranteed money at the wayside, particularly so without his All-SEC teammates, would have been a tough ask — particularly so if Williams is now destined to hear his name called in the first round.
Still, Williams is built differently and watching him play for five minutes, whether in an NCAA Tournament game or combine scrimmages, quickly confirms that notion.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski joined the analyst’s desk to share a gem he’d picked up from Kendrick Perkins, one of the coaches working at the combine, noting that Williams, out of nowhere, naturally assumed a leadership role throughout the scrimmage portion of the afternoon.
“Williams came in with his team, started organizing the team right away, talking to guys about their strengths, how they could come out here and play well, play to each other’s strengths,” Wojnarowski mentioned. “[Perkins] said it’s kind of rare to see that leadership, that type of initiative in the combine process.”
For Tennessee and their fans, however, that’s just a normal day with Williams, their beloved three-year standout who is finally ready to make his jump to the professional level.
But when asked about what’s he’s getting out of the NBA Draft Combine, Williams offered up a refreshing slice of perspective.
“[I’m] enjoying it, just enjoying the process, as well as enjoying the opportunity because not many guys get this opportunity to be here,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s part of the reason why I played [in the scrimmages], I wanted to go through the full experience.”