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NBA Daily: On The Outside Looking In

Entering the final quarter of the NBA regular season, Jordan Hicks takes a look at teams currently outside of the playoff picture and what has to happen for them to make the postseason.

Jordan Hicks

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Every year, there are 16 teams that end up in the playoffs. If you do the math, you’ll see that there are quite a few teams that get left out. Not all of them are trying to make it to the postseason, as every year there are a handful of squads essentially trying to lose to secure a better draft position.

This conundrum still leaves a few select teams that may have tried their best, but just couldn’t make it to the playoffs. At the end of February, we are getting to that point of the season where there are those few teams that are on the outside looking in.

Let’s take a look at how they got to where they are and what needs to happen for them to actually find themselves in the postseason tournament.

Los Angeles Lakers (30-31)

Last 10: 4-6

Remaining strength of schedule: 8th

The Lakers find themselves in a really difficult spot. Prior to LeBron’s injury on Christmas Day, they were viewed as high as the second-best team in the Western Conference. After his stint of missing 18 straight games – combined with a key injury to Lonzo Ball – the Lakers are currently three games out of a playoff spot.

How did things turn so sour? Obviously, the injury to LeBron came at a less than ideal time. But the real issue, however, was the all the noise at the trade deadline. Just about every player on the roster – besides LeBron – was in talks to be traded for Anthony Davis. What makes this more intriguing is the fact that Davis demanded a trade, specifically to the Lakers, while being represented by the same agency that represents LeBron. You could see very easily how this might upset some of LeBron’s teammates.

Team morale seems to be low, they can’t find important wins against non-playoff opponents, and they are playing incredibly poor defense – 26th in defensive rating over the last 10 games.

Do the Lakers have what it takes to make a late-season push for the playoffs? Quite obviously – LeBron is on their team and he’s averaging a triple-double since his return from injury. But the Lakers have serious competition if they want to get in. Looking at the West, those final two spots will come down to at least five teams, two of whom will be discussed shortly.

Orlando Magic (28-34)

Last 10: 7-3

Remaining strength of schedule: 26th

No one would have thought the Magic had a legitimate shot to make the postseason 10 games ago, but after a strong stretch during that time – aided in part by stellar play from All-Star Nikola Vucevic and second-year player Jonathan Isaac – here we are.

Orlando clearly had the bones at the start of the season to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. The East is very clearly top-heavy, but the talent level team-to-team really drops off out of the top five. But after the up-and-down start they had, the playoffs very much looked out of reach.

Over the last 10 games, the Magic are seventh in the league from three shooting 37.9 percent. They’ve also been taking care of the ball, sixth-best in the league over that stretch with only 12.5 turnovers per game.

They’ll be battling with the likes of the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons for the final playoff spot, but being only one game out of the eighth seed with one of the easiest remaining schedules has to feel good for the Magic. With the current third-longest playoff drought in the NBA, Orlando has to be chomping at the bit to get in.

Sacramento Kings (31-30)

Last 10: 5-5

Remaining strength of schedule: 28th

If Orlando is happy, imagine how it is to be a Kings fan right now. Currently holding the crown for the longest playoff drought at a whopping 12 (!) seasons has got to be dreadful. This is the first time in a long, long time that Sacramento has been this close to a potential playoff birth.

One of the misfortunes of playing in the West is missing out on the playoffs, even with a winning record. If the Kings were in the East, they’d currently be a comfortable seventh seed. Things aren’t looking too bad on their side, however. They are only a game behind the Spurs for the eighth seed and two behind the Clippers for the seventh. With the Clippers offloading Tobias Harris – their only star – at the deadline, one can only assume they will slowly start to slip out of the race.

This leaves the Kings competing with the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves for that final spot. It won’t be easy, but with one of the easiest schedules left to play, things are certainly looking up. Sacramento still has games against the Clippers and the Lakers, home and away respectively, so those will be absolutely pivotal to where they’ll end up.

The Kings definitely have enough talent to help them finish the season strong, but will it be enough to get them to the postseason and end their drought? Only time will tell.

Minnesota Timberwolves (29-32)

Last 10: 4-6

Remaining strength of schedule: 2nd

The Timberwolves are definitely on the outside looking in – more so than any other team on this list. A win on Monday against the Kings helped keep their hopes alive, but following that up with a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks hurt.

They still have two games each to play against the Warriors and the Nuggets, as well as a home game against the top team in the East in the Toronto Raptors. Clearly, the schedule does not play in their favor to end the season. But the way they’ve prevailed this year after the whole Jimmy Butler fiasco has been more than admirable, so it’s tough to write them off just yet.

Trading Butler for Dario Saric and Robert Covington signaled that the Timberwolves weren’t ready to embrace a rebuild. Karl-Anthony Towns has played at an All-Star level this season, the reemergence of Derrick Rose has been a blessing, and the steady improvement of Andrew Wiggins has been subtle yet important.

Firing Tom Thibodeau felt like it took a little longer than it should have, but it hasn’t seemed to rattle the players at all. While the road to the postseason seems incredibly difficult for the Timberwolves, there is still a sliver of a chance. And that’s all any team in their position can hope for, really.

There were a handful of teams that weren’t discussed in this list. Both the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat – respectively losing four straight and three out of four (Dwayne Wade turned back the clock against the Golden State Warriors) – feel like they may be out of the race in the East. In the West, the Pelicans definitely don’t see the postseason in their future, as they struggle with what to make of the whole Anthony Davis dilemma.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out, but one thing is certain: watching these teams battle for a birth in the postseason will absolutely be must-watch television.

The strength of schedule ranking was pulled from Tankathon.com and is a combined winning percentage of the remainder of said team’s opponents.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters

Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.

Matt John

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The Summer League is a time for many things.

It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.

The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.

For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.

Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.

“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”

Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.

“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”

Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.

“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”

There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.

“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”

As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.

“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”

Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.

“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”

Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.

“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”

Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.

“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.

“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”

Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.

Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.

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NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas

Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.

“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”

Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”

Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about covering online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.

While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.

“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”

Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.

Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.

“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”

Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.

And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.

While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.

Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”

“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”

Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.

“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”

As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.

After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.

Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.

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NBA Daily: Karl-Anthony Towns Confident About What Lies Ahead

David Yapkowitz sits down with Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns to discuss the injury-filled finish to last season, the moves the organization made this offseason and what lies ahead.

David Yapkowitz

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After making a huge trade for Jimmy Butler one year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves had just broken one of the NBA’s longest playoff droughts when they made the postseason.

Fast forward to the present – Butler was traded, Tom Thibodeau got let go and the Wolves failed to reach the postseason with a 36-46 record.

There is room for optimism, however. Minnesota is still led by Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the top rising stars in the league with the prime of his career ahead of him. He’s arguably the best big man in the NBA at the young age of 23 years old.

The Wolves locked Towns up for the foreseeable future after he signed a Supermax contract extension back in September. He believes his game will definitely expand and grow as head coach Ryan Saunders continues to work with him.

“I feel that I’m going to be able to do a little more,” Towns told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview. “I got more freedom, I got a head coach that’s going to use my talents a little better. It’s going to be good.”

The major changes to the Wolves organization didn’t stop with the roster or the coaching staff. Thibodeau had a dual role as head coach and president of basketball operations. To replace his front office duties, the team brought in longtime executive Gersson Rosas, who comes from the Houston Rockets with 16 years of executive duty experience.

After taking over head coaching duties back in January, Saunders will now have a full offseason and training camp with the team to implement his style of play. All of this combined is something that Towns believes will be helpful to the team.

“It’s going to be big,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “I think not just only Ryan [Saunders] but having such a different culture, a different team. I think that’s going to be a big change for us. It’s going to be a very beneficial change.”

The Wolves are hoping part of that change is going to be a healthy roster. The team struggled with key injuries, especially late in the season when they were trying to mount a late playoff push. Robert Covington, who had emerged as a great compliment to Towns, missed a big part of the second half of the season. Jeff Teague was also in and out of the lineup all year.

Minnesota was firmly in the playoff picture for most of the season, even when they were hovering near the bottom, but the key injuries really took a toll as the year came winding down.

“We had a lot of change. That constitutes to that and our season. We didn’t make the playoffs because we just ran into the injury bug. Injuries really hit us and took our spark out of us,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We were in a great spot before the injuries, but it happens. That’s just how the league works. You got to find ways to win, we just came up a little short.”

Luckily, there are some added reinforcements on the way. The Wolves acquired highly touted prospect Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech in a draft-night trade. Culver has the ability to play multiple positions, especially on the defensive end. Although he is being held out of summer league, there’s no denying his potential.

In the second round, the Wolves drafted Jaylen Nowell, a high-scoring guard who shot 44 percent from three-point range last season at Washington. He’s only 19 years old and has plenty of unlocked potential as well for a second-round player.

“I see him [Culver] bringing a lot of versatility. I see him bringing length, I see him bringing a hungriness to the team, he wants to prove himself. We’re going to have a very, very good rookie on our hands,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “And let’s also not forget Jaylen Nowell. He’s a high IQ player and we’re very fortunate he fell to us.”

The draft isn’t the only area where the Wolves improved their roster. They made a couple of solid free agent moves as well, signing a trio of versatile forwards in Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh.

Bell has seen sporadic playing time the past few seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but he’s still young and has already shown an ability to switch defensively from guards to bigs. Layman had a solid year as one of Portland’s key contributors off the bench. Vonleh has bounced around the league a bit, but was one of the lone bright spots for the Knicks last season.

“They’re going to bring a lot of experience from great organizations,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “They bring a lot of playoff experience as well, and they’re also going to bring us a lot of talent. They’re all very versatile and they bring a lot to the table.”

And as the 2019 NBA Summer League is now in full swing with free agency winding down, Towns is happy with the steps the Wolves have taken. He’s confident in this team and what lies ahead.

“We’ve already taken the next step, there is no next step, we’ve already taken the next step,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve made the changes to our team that we needed to make and we’re ready to go.”

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