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NBA PM: A Season Of Career-Years

James Blancarte takes a look at the career-years of players that aren’t leading candidates for the regular season awards.

James Blancarte

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As the regular season winds down, the debate over regular season awards heats up. These discussions draw together members of the media, casual and hardcore NBA fans and even the players themselves. In some years, certain players will be viewed as the consensus choice for a specific award and there won’t be much discussion or debate. This season, there is no clear favorite for several awards, including Most Valuable Player, potentially Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year.

This year, several players are having a career-year based on statistics and overall impact. While many candidates for the major awards are earning praise and attention as part of the collective debate, there are many more players having career years that are not getting enough attention. Here, we will look beyond the lead candidates for these awards to recognize a few other players who are having impressive seasons, which may go unrecognized when the regular season awards are handed out.

Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz

In a number of ways, this has been a spectacular year for the Utah Jazz. The team has not made it to the postseason since 2011-12 and is now settled into a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. If not for a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz would still be in possession of the fourth seed and home court advantage. Home court or not, Utah is thrilled to return to the postseason despite being plagued by injuries all season. Starting power forward Derrick Favors and starting point guard George Hill have missed significant time this season (31 and 33 games respectively) due to various injuries.

In their periodic absence, forward Gordon Hayward has stepped up and is having a career-year. Hayward was rewarded earlier this season by being named as a first-time All-Star. Hayward has maintained his excellent play since All-Star Weekend and has been a key contributor for Utah.

In 72 games, per Basketball-Reference, Hayward is averaging career highs in points (22), rebounds (5.4), free throw percentage (84.4) and is posting overall strong shooting numbers, including a career-high true shooting percentage (57.8). Hayward has been able to reach many of these career highs (and more) by being the featured player on offense with a career-high usage rate (27.7 percent) and a career-low turnover percentage (9.4). Simply put, Utah’s offense revolves around Hayward more so than in past seasons, which plays a major role in Utah’s excellent play this season.

In addition, Hayward is setting new personal bests in advanced statistics such as value over replacement player (VORP), box plus-minus (BPM), win shares (WS) and player efficiency rating (PER). Of course, these advanced statistics can’t be solely relied on to show how effective Hayward has been this season, but they in effect confirm what is apparent to anyone who has watched Hayward play this season.

One area where Hayward has thrived is in the pick-and-roll (P&R). As the P&R ballhandler, amongst qualifying players, Hayward is scoring .98 points per possession (11th in the league), which places him ahead of P&R maestros like Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. In addition, Hayward has maintained a 49.1 effective shooting percentage in P&R play (top 25 in the league).

Hayward is having a career-year for Utah at the right time. The roster has grown and developed together for a few seasons, several players are in or just hitting their respective prime years and the team now has some veterans to stabilize the team in high-pressure situations. Hayward has been great all season for Utah and now has a chance to show off his play in the postseason against the Clippers.

John Wall – Washington Wizards

John Wall and guard Bradley Beal (discussed below) are at the forefront of the Washington Wizards’ success this season. The team is in position to potentially make a run in the playoffs as they are the fourth seed and are set to play at home against the erratic Atlanta Hawks in the first-round.

Wall, currently in his seventh NBA season, is having a career-year and has been at the center of Washington’s success this season. Wall is averaging a career-high in points (23.1), steals (2.1), assists (10.7), free throws and free throws attempted, field goal percentage and PER (23.2).

In addition, Wall’s usage percentage (30.6) and his assist percentage (46.9) are career-highs while his turnover percentage (16.2) is the second-lowest of his career. Essentially, Washington’s offense runs through him more now than in past seasons and he accounts for nearly half of all assists to his teammates while he is on the floor (while limiting his turnovers). Quite an accomplishment.

Digging deeper, Wall is experiencing career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS. Simply put, Wall has been better than ever this season.

Wall credits head coach Scott Brooks with helping him improve this season.

“[Brooks is] like, ‘With your speed you settle for too many jump shots – you can get past people, you need to attack a little bit more,’” Wall explained.

This season, Wall has thrived by attacking the rim and passing on mid-range jump shots. With speed, athleticism and great body control, Wall is utilizing his best assets while passing on less efficient shots, which is paying off in a big way for Washington.

Wall has always been one of the fastest players in the league and is now exploiting that more often and more effectively than in past seasons. Amongst qualified players, Wall is ranked ninth in transition frequency (22.4 percent) while maintaining a 60.3 effective field goal percentage. Wall is a one-man fastbreak and is consistently generating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Wall isn’t a candidate for any major award this season, but he deserves recognition for having a career-year and more importantly leading Washington to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards

Like Wall, Bradley Beal is having a career-year and has been crucial to Washington’s success. Coming into this season, Beal had yet to sufficiently answer two crucial questions that have plagued him for years. After averaging 62 games a year due to injuries, could he stay healthy? Earlier this season, Beal acknowledged that issue had bothered him.

“You want to be that guy that shows up each and every night, regardless of what ailments you may have,” Beal stated.

Also, after rumors of discord between the pair, could Beal and Wall co-exist successfully? In his fifth year, Beal has been able to answer the above questions with a resounding yes.

Wall set the record straight earlier this season and recently addressed the on-court relationship with Beal.

“I normally have the ball. I’m going to get my shot whenever I want to. But my job is to get him going. That’s where we are a better team,” Wall said.

In a career-high 76 games this season, Beal is averaging a career-high in scoring (23), assists (3.5), free throw shooting (82.2 percent), effective (56.4) and true shooting (60.2) percentage, three-point shooting, as well as minutes per game (34.9). Like Wall, Beal’s usage percentage (26.4) is at a career-high, as well as his assist percentage (16.1), PER (19.9) and he is maintaining a near career-low turnover percentage (9.7).

Simply put, Beal is playing more games, more minutes per game and has still been more efficient. In addition, he has career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS (8.2, doubling his previous high of 4). Basic and advanced statistics indicate this is his finest campaign yet.

One of the biggest improvements for Beal has come from his shot selection. Wizards fans will recall that Beal would often pass up open three-point shots inexplicably. Not anymore. This season, 41.9 percent of Beal’s shots are coming from three-point range (by far a career-high) and his three-point percentage (40.6) is essentially tied with his prior best marks. Cut out the low-percentage mid-range floaters and replace them with high-percentage three-pointers and this is what can happen for a player like Beal.

Like Wall, Beal does a lot of his damage on the fast break. However, unlike Wall, Beal doesn’t thrive on volume but is instead much more efficient in fewer opportunities. With a lower transition frequency (17.5 percent, compared to 22.1 percent for Wall), Beal scores 1.33 points per possession in transition, good for fifth in the league amongst qualifying players, and shoots a higher effective field goal percentage (68.7 to Wall’s 60.3). With both guards attacking in transition, Washington features a dangerous transition game that can be difficult for any opponent to deal with.

This has been a breakout season for Beal. Injuries haven’t been an issue and he has tailored his game in such a way that makes him even more effective for Washington than he has been in previous seasons.

Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is the unquestioned leader and best overall player for Boston. Until a few months ago, his name had even been in the discussion of potential MVP candidates. Although arguably no longer the case, we should recognize how tremendous Thomas has been this season.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who is seemingly always stockpiling assets, has long sought to acquire a superstar to lead Boston. Although the search goes on, Thomas has emerged as a homegrown superstar for the Celtics this season.

Thomas has achieved a dramatic increase in scoring (a career-high 29.2, up from 22.2 last season). He is also posting career-highs in free throw shooting (90.9 percent), effective (54.8) and true shooting percentages (62.7) and a near career-high in assists. Thomas is sporting an incredibly high 34 percent usage rate while maintaining nearly a career-high in assist percentage (32.5) and a career low in turnover percentage (10.6). Finally, Thomas has hit career benchmarks in VORP, BPM and WS.

Thomas has been very good individually and is a principal reason that the Celtics hold second-place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas has been able to achieve many of the above results by playing as efficiently as possible by attacking the rim and hitting three-point shots.

What has also set Thomas apart has been his incredible play in fourth quarters. Earlier this season, his clutch scoring earned him the Game of Thrones inspired nickname, “The King in the Fourth.”  As of April 10, Thomas is averaging 9.8 points in fourth quarters, second only to Oklahoma City Thunder guard and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.

Thomas has been able to hit this level of success despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9) and despite opposing defenses focusing their attention on him (without much success).

Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are teetering on the edge of playoff success or doom. After a loss on April 9 to the New Jersey Nets, the Bulls are tied for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Bulls’ management has been criticized for failing to properly surround Jimmy Butler with players that compliment his skill set. Specifically, the Bulls added ball-dominant veteran guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, as well as recently trading away three-point threat Doug McDermott. With little spacing and erratic play from several players throughout the season, Chicago has failed to maximize Butler’s considerable talent.

Despite the mismanagement, Butler is averaging a career-high in points (24), assists (5.5), rebounds (6.2), free throw shooting (including a career-high 86.4 percent) while maintaining a near career-high shooting percentage from the field and a career-high true shooting percentage (56.6). Butler has done this with career highs in usage percentage (26.6), assist percentage (25.1) and his third lowest turnover percentage (9.4). Additionally, Butler is posting career-best marks in VORP, BPM, WS and PER.

Butler is dominating the ball while scoring efficiently, making plays for others and keeping his turnovers down. In a season where he has been surrounded by overlapping talent, been involved in locker room drama and been the subject of significant trade rumors, Butler has managed to carry his team and post career-high marks in several statistical categories.

C.J. McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum forms the second half of another brilliant backcourt pairing. Like Wall and Beal, Damian Lillard and McCollum are the collective engine that makes their respective team run. Behind Lillard, and the career-year of McCollum, the Trail Blazers recently clinched the final playoff spot in the West and are set for a rematch against the Golden State Warriors as the eighth seed. The spotlight tends to shine brightest on Lillard, who has posted several great seasons. With this in mind, let’s focus on McCollum’s career-year.

McCollum’s most successful campaign is marked by career-highs in points (23), blocks, rebounds, free throw shooting, both effective (54.4) and true shooting (58.5) percentage, three-point shooting (42 percent), as well as minutes per game (35). Like the players above, McCollum is posting a career-high in usage (27.5 percent) while achieving his lowest turnover percentage to date (9.9). He is both scoring and serving as a secondary ball-handler, which is a nice luxury for Portland. Finally, his PER (19.9), VORP, BPM and WS ratings are all at career-highs.

Overlooked in this career-year is how effective McCollum’s scoring has been in the fourth quarter. In fourth quarters, McCollum is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range and has a 54 percent effective field goal rate, both of which outpaces Lillard comparatively. Again, Lillard is the face of the Trail Blazers, but McCollum is arguably just as important to the team’s overall success – especially this season.

*****

Honorable Mentions include Lillard, Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Players purposely omitted since they are leading candidates for the major regular season awards include: James Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green.

 

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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