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NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the season in its infant stages, Matt John takes a look where the league was ten years before, and the implications it had on today’s league.

Matt John

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Regrettably, this piece came out a little bit later than usual. Usually, Basketball Insiders tries to get this out around the time the season begins, but it’s only been two weeks, give or take, so it still feels appropriate. Better late than never, right? Well… the jury’s still out in this case.

Naturally, this begins with the biggest NBA bombshell in years: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s extension.

It was unheard of. Gearing up for NBA Free Agency in 2021 all because of him; ready for all the clickbait articles that would be hate-read; prepared for all those reports detailing locker room drama, even if they were all pure speculation; equipped for anonymous tweets from a “friend of a friend” or a “step-cousin twice removed” that would get its 15 minutes of fame before a legitimate insider ruined all the fun.

It didn’t matter if there were full-time jobs or families to take care of. With a young superstar like Giannis potentially changing teams, the industry’s priorities were set.  That was until Giannis… elected to stay?! No Mr. Greek Freak! That’s not how this works!

When you’re one of the league’s best players in your mid-20’s playing for a team that has underachieved in spite of impressive regular season numbers – and with the prime of your career is knocking on your door – playing the field has become second nature.

For the last several years, it appeared that loyalty between stars and their teams had died. Stars embraced the notion that they could create their own path. That’s why Giannis leaving Milwaukee to join other stars in Golden State or Miami seemed like more than just a possibility.

To see Antetokounmpo choose otherwise was so surreal to us because, 10 years prior, LeBron James did the exact opposite.

The Decision

The name of this entire article could’ve been The Decision: 10 Years Later because, in retrospect, the ramifications of that event still impact the NBA today, in ways that not even LeBron or his friends saw coming then.

Superstars leaving for more glamorous cities via free agency was nothing new to the NBA. Of course, players had previously done everything in their power to get off their teams. This was different though. Superstars jumping ship for greener pastures wasn’t new, but choosing to join forces willingly had never been done before.

Back then, that wasn’t what NBA stars did. Ever. Those guys wanted the honor of beating each other, not playing together. Well, that’s what the stars of the previous decades did. Not this one. This signified a new era of superstars. Ones that didn’t leave their destinies up to the teams that drafted them.

They looked at it like this: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton are all looked at as the league’s best players of all-time. They’re also remembered as the best players who never won a title. Let’s face it. No NBA star wants that same fate. Thus, once The Decision happened, the player empowerment era had commenced.

Shortly afterward, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Chris Paul followed in LeBron’s footsteps. Since then, we’ve seen star players collaborate to win championships over the last decade. That’s why, in some respect, The Decision is to blame for Kevin Durant joining Golden State. Now, LeBron joining Miami to form a contender is much different than Durant joining Golden State, but both had the same goal in mind. They didn’t want to go through their careers ringless. If that meant joining forces with other stars to give them a better chance, so be it. LeBron invented it in 2010; Durant perfected it in 2016.

When he calls it a career, and who knows when that will be, LeBron will be remembered for being arguably the greatest basketball player ever. What will come in as a close second is changing how players approach their individual journeys. He opened that door and it will never be closed.

The NBA Champion

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks were an anomaly. In two ways. First off. coming into the 2010-11 season, no one thought they were going all the way. They had only made it past the first round once since their near-title run in 2006 and were coming off a first-round upset at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. When Caron Butler, one of their top scorers, went down early with a season-ending knee injury, that made it seem even less likely.

Second, almost every championship team in the 2000’s – minus the 2004 Detroit Pistons – had at least two superstars aboard or at least one superstar and one that was close enough. Shaq had Kobe, then Dwyane Wade. Kobe had Shaq, then Pau. Tim Duncan had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Kevin Garnett had Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Then there’s Dirk Nowitzki. He had… Tyson Chandler? Jason Terry? Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion were stars once upon a time, but not in 2011. Dallas had one all-time player putting up an all-time performance, plus a bunch of complementary players.

Would it have worked today? What the 2011 Mavericks will be remembered for will be the depth had around Dirk. They didn’t have a classic second star, but they had an elite rim protector (Chandler), a veteran playmaker (Kidd), an elite defender (Marion), a capable scorer (Terry), a three-point specialist (Peja Stojakovic) and other serviceable role players who knew exactly what they were supposed to do – Deshawn Stevenson, Jose Juan Barea, Brendan Haywood. And it worked.

If anything, they prove that building the right team around your star doesn’t always have to require another player of his caliber or close to it, but just the right guys to get him to the top.

A Rare MVP

As impactful as The Decision was, it did create a villainous image for LeBron James – in retrospect, the TV special itself and the forthcoming party in South Beach did him no favors – and voting fatigue for the reigning two-time MVP meant there was going to be a window for a new selection to rise. Enter Derrick Rose.

Much like picking the Mavericks to win the title that year, Rose was not someone who would have come to mind at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. He had an electrifying rookie year and made the all-star team the following season, but winning MVP meant he was on the same level as LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade to name a few.

And that’s exactly what he did. Rose was a spectacular one-man show. The body control and athleticism, especially for a point guard, was unbelievable. To top it all off, unlike say, Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign in 2017, he was leading an elite team on top of it. Chicago got the first seed that year, which only made his case stronger.

But would a prime Derrick Rose have looked as good in today’s NBA? Back in 2011, the league gave you a pass if you weren’t a knockdown shooter. Now, it will never let you forget it. Rose was never a reliable floor spacer when he was at the top of his game. Teams would dare him to go for the jumper if he played on that stage now, so how effective would he have been?

Even so, the record will always show that he was the youngest player to win MVP. As tragic as it is that we never got to see that version of Rose again, thankfully, the league was just right for him to win its most prestigious award.

Three-Peating: Not Easy

The Los Angeles Lakers came into that season as the defending champions for the second consecutive year, and expectations were that they were going to do it again. The Lakers hadn’t lost anyone particularly vital that summer. Kobe, Pau, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest were all still pretty much in their primes, while Andrew Bynum was only getting better. They even added Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to solidify their rotation. They could do no wrong.

To be fair, they didn’t. They finished the season 57-25, good for second overall in the Western Conference. Kobe made first-team All-NBA while Pau made the second team. They performed up to standards in the regular season – the playoffs, not so much.

It took them six games to take care of Chris Paul and the seventh-seeded then-New Orleans Hornets. Then they bowed out in an embarrassing sweep done by the aforementioned Dallas Mavericks.

They are the living proof that three-peating is a grueling task even if you have basically the same amount of talent that you did the year before. They weren’t just the two-time reigning champions; they had also been to three consecutive finals. Basically, that’s a ton of extra playoff games played in that span.

We saw this a year and a half ago when not even the Hamptons Five Warriors couldn’t do it.

Oh, and, just to demonstrate again how different the league was back then, what specifically took down the Lakers? Answer: The Mavericks raining down a playoff record 20 threes. At the time, that was unprecedented. Now? Child’s play.

The common notion is that the NBA started to change when the league revolved around three-point shooting and versatility. While it most certainly did, the NBA really started changing the moment its stars decided to make their own destinies. So much has changed that Giannis’ decision to stay in Milwaukee without even testing free agency would have been regular as clockwork back in 2010. Now, it’s a rarity.

And it only took ten short years for that narrative to switch.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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