With the NBA’s post-season in full swing and historic playoff games being played almost nightly, there are some storylines to watch as the race to a championship unfolds.
Here are a few things to watch, especially if some of the ongoing series don’t play out as some had hoped when the season started some seven months ago:
Kyrie And The Celtics
During the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, all of the turmoil in Boston seemed to have cleared. For months the Celtics looked like a group forced together more nights than night, with All-Star Kyrie Irving looking more and more likely to exit the situation than re-sign as he had pledged to season ticket holders back at the start of the season.
With the Celtics now looking a second-round exit in the eyes, things in Boston seem right back where they were, with Irving posting arguably the worst playoff series of his career. Which re-opens the questions of will he stay or, worse yet, would it be smart for the Celtics to hitch their wagon to what’s become a mercurial player for what would likely be a new deal worth more than $200 million and five more years?
While the Celtics are never a team known to tip its hand, the vibe from around the league is still that Boston is committed to a future with Irving and surrounding him with complementary players. An early exit may change that, but there isn’t a lot coming from the Celtics to suggest they want out of Irving.
On the Irving side, there is more belief in league circles that he’ll look at his options in July rather than just re-up with the Celtics. The money will matter, especially with Irving’s injury history, but there is also a belief that he’ll want the peace of mind of knowing he looked before blindly locking in.
While the New York Knicks are often cited as a desirable situation for Irving, most NBA insiders believe he looks and listens to more than just the Celtics and Knicks and, as weird as it may seem, Irving’s renewed relationship with LeBron James could have him considering the Lakers when he takes meetings.
The idea that Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant have already decided on New York has been shot down by both people close to Irving and people close to the Knicks. The Knicks remain hopeful they can pair two elite stars with their promising young core, but they haven’t been given any assurances from anyone, including Irving, according to sources close to the Knicks.
The Celtics had hoped for a run at the Eastern Conference crown when the season opened, so a second round exit would be a big miss for the Celtics. That said, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to panic, but it absolutely is a situation to watch.
Kawhi and The Raptors
If you haven’t been paying attention, Kawhi Leonard has turned in an impressive performance for the Toronto Raptors so far in this post-season. The fact that he can be an unrestricted free agent in a few months continues to linger over his performances, mainly because he could very well walk away in July.
The vibe from the Raptors is one of optimism. They feel like they have done everything the right way to not only gain the trust of the reclusive Leonard, but to make sure he understands how things could play out if he were to commit beyond this season. As crazy as that seemed last summer when the Raptors obtained Leonard, it seems they may have a legit shot at keeping him.
The general vibe around the NBA is that Toronto and the LA Clippers are the front runners for Leonard, although more than a few NBA insiders believe if Leonard takes a meeting, he may listen to more than just those two teams.
Given how different Leonard’s motivations are from the average NBA player, predicting what he’ll really do is challenging, but if the tea leaves of the season are painting the picture accurately, Leonard may be a hair on the side of staying in Toronto versus leaving, and that would be a massive win for the Raptors regardless of how the post-season plays out.
One thing does seem pretty real for the Raptors, if Leonard does opt to leave, sweeping changes could hit the franchise as a result and that includes dealing point guard Kyle Lowry and shedding some of the ugly cap money on the books.
Durant and The Warriors
As much as fans bemoaned the formation of this current Golden State Warriors Super team, there is a reality that every dynasty in the NBA has ended at one point or another, and the clock on this Warriors roster looks to be winding down. The Warriors are still the prohibitive favorites to win the Western Conference, and despite how impressive the Milwaukee Bucks have been, the Warriors are still the more likely NBA Finals winner – but what’s also very real is the gap between the Warriors and everyone is not the chasm it used to be. In fact, the Houston Rockets have shown they could be the dream killer if Steph Curry can’t find his mojo.
The worst kept secret in the NBA is that Warriors forward Kevin Durant wants to look at his options this summer, and if the rumors hold true, he could be taking his talents to the New York Knicks. Sources near the situation have been emphatic that Durant isn’t talking about anything beyond the season. However the same was said back when Durant was in Oklahoma City, and he did exactly as everyone predicted he would do, which leaves a lot hanging in the balance for the Warriors.
Their number one priority is to keep this starting core intact, which means guard Klay Thompson will get a max contract offer the very second the Warriors are allowed to offer it. The Warriors will also offer the same full max deal to Durant, hoping that all of that guaranteed money will at least sway him into staying for another year or two. Warriors ownership is on the eve of a brand-new building in San Francisco, which came with hefty seat license revenue that basically fronted the Warriors the cash to eat even the biggest of luxury tax bills for the next couple of seasons.
The Warriors have a complete understanding of the Durant situation and understand he may walk. They are hoping to sway him but understand he may want precisely what LeBron got last summer – complete control of his own franchise in a major market, something the Warriors have never been able to offer with Steph Curry being the darling of the franchise. As petty as that may seem, the same thing is what ultimately drove James out of Miami — no matter how much James did personally, the fan base still viewed the team in Miami as belonging to Dwyane Wade. The same issues hold true for Durant, and with Championships and MVPs under his belt and his place in NBA history firmly secured, what more can he do in Golden State? That’s something the Warriors will have to convince him of this off-season.
It seems the end of this particular dynasty may be closer than anyone expected when Durant joined the Warriors.
Davis and The Pelicans
You have to hand it to Gayle Benson, the controlling owner of the New Orleans Pelicans — if there was a home run hire to make, she did it in landing David Griffin to run the team. Unlikely previous leadership groups, Griffin was given the proverbial keys to the franchise and empowered to do whatever he deemed necessary to place the Pelicans among the elite in the NBA. Before you giggle at that goal, did you see the Milwaukee Bucks winning the most games in the NBA this year? Things can change fast with a few great decisions.
The first big move Griffin made was to try and bridge the divide with Anthony Davis and his agent Rich Paul, who is still collecting commissions off of huge contracts Griffin wrote to his clients in Cleveland.
Sources close to that situation said Griffin pulled no punches with Paul, pledging to do whatever it took to be elite in the NBA, and wanted him and Davis to buy in. It seemed at least on the surface Griffin may have moved the needle with both, but he’ll have to back that up around the draft.
That doesn’t mean the door is closed on Davis being traded, that very well could still happen. But unlike previous leadership that had lost the faith of Davis and his inner circle, Griffin at least has credibility, which buys him a little time to work the market and see what makes the most sense.
One thing Griffin did make clear both publicly and privately — he is not open to a half-measured commitment. He is willing to pay Davis the Supermax contract he is eligible for but wants a full-throated commitment to the long-term in New Orleans.
The situation is still far from ideal given what’s been said and done, but it at least seems the Pelicans may have bought themselves a window that almost no one thought could exist at the trade deadline this past February.
LeBron and The Lakers
Are you not entertained?
The LA Lakers may be many things, but boring is not one of them. Just when you think something sillier couldn’t happen in Lakerland it does. Whether it’s Magic Johnson abruptly stepping down, the firing, then not firing, then firing of Luke Walton, to the botched interview process that led to the hiring of Ty Lue as the next Lakers head coach, to reports that Kurt Rambis will join the staff with Lue after Tom Thibodeau reportedly turned down a spot on Lue’s staff. And let’s not even get into the failure to hire the obvious choice in Monty Williams or not even reaching out to David Griffin to fill their President of Basketball Operation post.
The Lakers are a hot mess, but even that level of dysfunction hasn’t seemed to change LeBron James’ commitment to the team. Although in a recent episode of his TV show on HBO filmed just days after Johnson stepped down, LeBron admitted he felt slighted by Johnson for not even reaching out, but that hasn’t changed his commitment to being a Laker or his relentless recruiting of a second star to join him this summer.
The truth in everything about the Lakers’ issues is it’s never nearly as bad on the inside as it seems on the outside. And while it’s easy to take shots at the Lakers (they continue to provide plenty of ammunition), the storylines for them never line up with the truth.
Johnson was a part-time leader at best that was way more prone to rash reactions than measured, deliberate processes. His personnel decisions were suspect at best, and while time will tell if Rob Pelinka will do any better on his own, he at least has James in the boat.
The hiring of Lue may not have been ideal, there are a few things worth saying; Lue does have the support of James and it does seem Lue is at least trying to secure a top-flight assistant staff that will likely include former Pacer and Magic coach Frank Vogel. The Lakers do have a mountain of options come July, and they will have a reasonably decent draft pick.
All things considered, the Lakers are still in good shape and if history has taught us anything about James, he thrives in chaos.
Brooklyn, The Clippers and The Pacers
For as much fanfare as teams like the Lakers and Knicks are going to garner this July in free agency, there is a growing belief in agent circles that the LA Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Indiana Pacers could all be far higher on would-be free agents list than most would imagine.
The Clippers for one have done an incredible job building a team infrastructure that has caught the attention of a lot of players. The Clippers are poised to walk into July with an impressive roster of supporting players, a mountain of free agent dollars, Doc Rivers as head coach and Steve Ballmer as a passionate, committed, deep-pocketed owner with eyes on a brand-new arena. The Clippers have laid the groundwork around the league to not only get meetings with the top tier free agents, but they may even be the front runner on Kawhi Leonard and the dark horse on Kevin Durant.
Much like the Clippers, the Nets have an impressive story to sell come July. Not only do the Nets have an enviable front office, and their roster is loaded with supporting young guys that could be stars of their own. The Nets have an incredible practice facility, the lure of the New York media market and a player-first message that has caught the attention of agents and players alike. There are some that believe Kyrie Irving would look at the Nets before the Knicks, and some believe if Durant looks at the Knicks, he may listen to the Nets too.
The dark horse in free agency may be the Indiana Pacers, and they have some wiggle room to make noise and a team that made the postseason without injured guard Victor Oladipo, who is preparing to get back after it later this month in Miami once he is cleared for court work. The Pacers don’t look to be a max contract player in all of this, but Pacers president Kevin Pritchard has made it clear he is not resting on his laurels. The Pacers are a team to watch in the Mike Conley/Memphis situation.
These are just a few situations to watch as the NBA playoffs roll on. You can expect a lot more trade and free agent chatter next week as the NBA converges on Chicago for the annual Pre-Draft Combine. Basketball Insiders will be there, so stay tuned for player interviews and workout notes as the 2019 NBA Draft class starts to showcase their wares.
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division
David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.
We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.
It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.
The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.
The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.
The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.
The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.
The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.
But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.
Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.
There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?
Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division
With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.
Well, that was fast.
With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.
The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.
In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.
Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.
The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.
After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.
If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.
The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.
He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.
Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.
The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.
The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.
The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.
If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.
Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).
Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.
The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.
At least the playoffs should be exciting.