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NBA Daily: With Thibodeau In Town, What’s Next for Knicks?

The New York Knicks reached an agreement to make Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. Drew Maresca examines what’s next for the Knicks and coach Thibodeau.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks have hit the reset button a number of times since 2010, when then-general manager Donnie Walsh and former head coach Mike D’Antoni attempted to lure LeBron James to Broadway. Since then, they’ve had numerous leadership changes and, more pressingly, six head coaches (Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller). Well, let’s make that seven. The Knicks announced this week that they’ve arrived at a five-year agreement with the 2011 Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a polarizing figure, with supporters believing he’s a savior and cynics feeling he suboptimal at talent development and guilty of running players ragged. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing at all for the Knicks.

Thibodeau is a career basketball guy that is familiar with the bright lights of New York. He was brought in as a Knicks assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy, where he remained on hand for most of Don Chaney’s tenure, too. But that’s not all. Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He was also an assistant for John Lucas in San Antonio and Philadelphia, and he joined Doc Rivers in Boston as an associate head coach for three seasons.

He ascended to the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, where he remained for five seasons. In addition to winning a Coach of the Year in his first season as head coach (2010-11), he also coached a league MVP (Derrick Rose, 2010-11) and a Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah, 2013-14). He also won 64.7 percent of regular-season games and his team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11; like the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks teams he was a part of earlier in his career, Thibodeau’s Bulls teams probably would have won at least one championship if it weren’t for their overlapping with LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Thibodeau left Chicago before the 2016-17 season to take over as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But as coaches often do, Thibodeau struggled to strike a balance between maintaining flexibility for the future and adding talent for the present. But most of his failures in Minnesota were front office-related, and he is still revered by many of his former players including Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Van Gundy also remains a big Thibodeau fan.

“This idea that Tom (Thibodeau) doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said on a recent ESPN NBA restart conference call.

But what does Thibodeau do for New York? Most importantly, he legitimizes New York basketball. Thibodeau is widely viewed as a basketball savant. But lots of great coaches and executives have come in New York with promises of resetting the culture and turning the team around. Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson and David Fizdale all tried and failed, as did Phil Jackson (as team president). Can Thibodeau succeed where so many other greats have failed? Maybe. Eventually, someone has to get it right – why not Thibodeau? To do so, Thibodeau must prepare to succeed in the following five areas.

Selecting The Staff

Rumors have swirled about who might join Thibodeau on New York’s bench. Generally speaking, assistant coaches don’t move the needle with regards to national news — but this is New York, the proverbial lightning rod of the NBA.

There is a legitimate reason to get excited about the Knicks’ new coach, though. Team president Leon Rose and Thibodeau allegedly agree on the front office’s involvement in fleshing out the coaching staff, and there is major internal support for a return of former head (and assistant) coach Mike Woodson. There are also rumors about Mike Miller, interim coach, being retained. Woodson is viewed, like Thibodeau, as a defensive specialist, and Miller won serious brownie points as a result of his record relative to his predecessor and his ability to connect with the roster.

Other candidates could include former Thibodeau assistants like Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting.

Getting Familiar With The Roster

First of all, it’s not as though Thibodeau isn’t already extremely versed in the Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. He was rumored to be pouring over film last weekend before receiving word that an agreement had been reached. And that’s nothing new to Thibodeau, who allegedly stayed up as late as 4 A.M. watching film with coach Mike Krzyzewski in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.

But reviewing film and understanding players’ limitations are worlds apart. The idea of his overseeing the team in a second bubble for the eight teams who failed to qualify for the NBA’s 2019-20 restart would be alluring. But despite the early success of NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s unlikely they risk the potential negative PR that would coincide with positive tests for eight worst teams in the league.

But a full-on bubble might not be the only way for Thibodeau to begin coaching before the offseason. According to the Charlotte Observer, the NBA and NBPA are expected to come to an agreement that would enable the eight teams who are excluded from the season’s return to begin workouts soon. In fact, individual workouts with coaches could begin as soon as early August, meaning that all that stands between Thibodeau and his soon-to-be players is a formal announcement.

Develop The Young Core

Thibodeau’s effect on the younger guys has been a polarizing topic of late. Many believe he’ll demand too much of them, hurting their confidence and diminishing future returns by leaning too heavily on them. Ironically, former coach David Fizdale was criticized for playing the team’s young core for too few minutes. But that sentiment is not echoed amongst coaches around the league. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns head coach and former New York Knicks first-round pick, feels that he’ll have a positive effect.

“I kind of laugh at all these people that say he can’t develop younger players and that he just wears his teams out,” Williams, who worked with Thibodeau on Team USA for a number of years, said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Look at the success with his programs and his teams and the results bear witness. You talk to guys who played for Thibs, they love him.”

While Thibodeau’s effect will probably vary player-to-player, he will almost certainly favor two very important young guys – Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.

Robinson, who averaged only 20.6 minutes per game as a rookie and only 23.1 in 2019-20, will certainly see more playing time under Thibodeau, who is notorious for playing his best heavy minutes; Noah averaged at least 30.4 minutes per game while playing for  Thibodeau in Chicago and he topped out at just over 36 MPG.

But Robinson’s abilities are impossible to ignore, so fans and analysts alike have been mystified by his lack of playing time – although some of that can be chalked up to his propensity to foul and play defense with his hands once out of position. However, Robison set the single-season record for field goal percentage in 2019-20 (74.2 percent) and he averaged 3.6 blocks per-36 minutes over his two-year career. He closes out on three-point shooters better than just about anyone in the game today, and he’s a nightmare to defend in the screen-and-roll. He will almost certainly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players — and that doesn’t even take into consideration his improved ball-handling that’s been on display via his Instagram account.

Ntilikina has a less impressive resume but has almost as much potential as Robinson. Thibodeau hasn’t had many guards like Ntilikina; in fact, there aren’t many guards like the Frenchman around, period. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a pass-first guard whose defensive presence is incredibly impressive. He boasts a 7-foot-1 wingspan and is absolutely fearless on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to play more confidently and consistently on offense, but he’s demonstrated serious improvements there, too; Ntilikina shot a career-high 32.1 percent on three-point attempts this season, while also posting career highs in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and points (6.0).

Like Robinson, Ntilikina suffered from inconsistent playing time, receiving only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20. But that too could change, especially considering his humble attitude and approach.

But Ntilikina is almost too gifted and smart to fail. His closest comparison — granted it’s a favorable one — is probably Marcus Smart. Smart showed serious improvements this season, but Thibodeau was already enamored with his skillset in 2018, when he gushed over him in a pre-game press conference.

“He’s tough, he guards people, he’ll get to a loose ball and hit the floor,’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll get to an offensive rebound, he allows them to do a lot of switching, he’ll guard big guys, small guys, doesn’t matter.”

Hopefully, Thibodeau is equally impressed with Ntilikina – in which case, the Ntilikina-hive can look forward to serious improvements.

The 2020 NBA Draft

This one’s the easiest since it’s more reactive for Thibodeau than anything else. The Knicks are in desperate need of talent at a number of positions. Fortunately, the Knicks finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Assuming they don’t move in the lottery, they’ll pick behind the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully, most teams above them have a point guard. In fact, the only team slotted ahead of them who hasn’t drafted one (or more) point guards in recent drafts or doesn’t already possess a franchise point guard is the Detroit Pistons.

Sadly, the 2020 NBA Draft appears to lack a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. And with NBA franchises inevitably facing fiscal pressure from COVID-19, most teams will be open to the idea of moving back to a lower-profile draft slot. But the Knicks don’t have the same monetary struggles as most teams. This could be their best shot at moving up to secure LeMelo Ball, who is reportedly number one on their draft board.

Does Ball mesh with Thibodeau? Who knows. But generally, Thibodeau is not overly welcoming of rookies – namely, he doesn’t play them much. In his career as a head coach, he’s played his rookies: 12.1 minutes per game (Omer Asik), 8.5 MPG (Jimmy Butler), 8.2 (Marquis Teague), 16 (Tony Snell), 20.2 (Nikola Mirotic), 17.1 (Kris Dunn), 4.0 (Justin Patton) and 16.8 (Keita Bates-Diop).

But while his track record pertaining to playing rookies isn’t great, he’s had solid alternatives in both Chicago and Minnesota. There won’t be as many in New York. So while he might not love the idea of leaning on rookies, he might not have a choice, either.

Luring Productive Veterans

Lastly, Thibodeau will be a major part of recruiting pitches to star free agents. Now, attracting a star player shouldn’t dictate who is selected as a team’s head coach – and the Knicks finally got this right. They could have gone with Jason Kidd in hopes of attracting his former player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But they instead went with the more established and respected candidate in Thibodeau.

While Thibodeau has much to prove as Knicks head coach, he, too, has in-roads with numerous star players. Remember, Thibodeau was close to a number of stars as an assistant coach for the 2016 Olympic team. The team’s main roster featured very few soon-to-be free agents – but fear not Knicks fans, the broader talent pool included Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.

That’s not to say that any of them are likely to join the Knicks – but all of them have recently been connected to New York in some way, shape or form. Thibodeau would obviously love to add any of those stars to a roster in need of star power, but beyond trading for Paul – which might not be an option depending on how Oklahoma City performs in the 2020 NBA Playoffs – these are all unlikely to happen in 2020. Davis looks like a sure thing to re-sign with the Lakers, Beal is signed through 2023 and would have to request a trade as he is signed through at least 2024 (with a player option for 2024-25).

But Oladipo is possible as he’ll enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The Pacers could try to move him rather than losing him for nothing if he’s deemed to be a flight risk. Would the Knicks be able to build a package strong enough to garner consideration? Would the Maryland native verbalize a desire to come to New York? There are too many unknowns to posit a guess, but odds that the Knicks secure a star free agent are better now than they were before adding Thibodeau as head coach.

Knicks fans are a notoriously an impatient bunch. Unfortunately for them, it will be a long climb back into contention. But there are positives: The roster isn’t inundated with bloated salaries and stars who are past their prime, instead featuring a good deal of youth and flexibility.

That’s a good start – but from here, it’s on Thibodeau, Leon Rose and company. Hopefully, they picked the right guy.

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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