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NBA PM: Can Surging Knicks Make the Playoffs?

The Knicks have been hard to watch, but the team may still be playoff bound despite all of the drama and distractions they’ve faced … Jerryd Bayless praises Rajon Rondo’s game and leadership

Alex Kennedy

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Can Surging Knicks Make the Playoffs?

The New York Knicks have made headlines for a variety of reasons during the 2013-14 NBA campaign. Strange suspensions, significant injuries, legal issues, trade rumors, free agency decisions and contract buyouts are just some of the things that the Knicks have had to deal with during this soap opera season.

However, even with all of the drama that has surrounded this team, New York remains in the Eastern Conference’s playoff hunt and has a realistic shot at qualifying for the postseason.

As the basketball world waits to see what Phil Jackson will do as the team’s president, whether Carmelo Anthony will remain with the squad long-term, if Raymond Felton’s gun charges stick and if any other craziness can emerge from New York this season, the team has been busy winning five consecutive games, which is tied for their longest win streak of the season. The distractions don’t seem to be affecting the on-court product at the moment, as the Knicks are producing at a very high level and seeming comfortable as a unit.

The recent victories put New York just three and a half games out of the eighth seed with 16 games remaining on the schedule. New York is currently 26-40, battling teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons for one of the final playoff spots in the conference.

While just making the playoffs may not seem like much of an accomplishment for a team that won 54 games last season and captured the No. 2 seed in the East, it’s surprising given the fact that New York has struggled mightily throughout the course of the season and found themselves much lower in the standings not too long ago.

Several weeks back, the playoffs seemed like a long shot for the Knicks, but New York has started to find a rhythm and has gotten plenty of help recently from Atlanta (lost 14 of their last 17), Detroit (lost 11 of their last 14) and Cleveland (lost seven of their last 10) among others. Playing in the dreadful East has certainly helped the Knicks, as they would currently be ranked 13th in the Western Conference ahead of only the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

But there’s no question that the Knicks have been playing better as of late. Their five straight wins have all been by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 17.2 points. New York has been shooting the ball very well, and they’ve been winning with a balanced attack. Their defense has also been better, relatively speaking.

“Offensively and defensively, everybody [is playing] their part and [doing] what they had to do,” Anthony said. “It seems like everybody is starting to play their game and play with confidence at this point.”

“It’s kind of nice to see, cause all season long I’ve been preaching, we have so many different players, so many different lineups based on injuries,” Mike Woodson said of the team’s balance. “You know guys want to play. They complain they don’t get minutes, don’t get shots. I think when you are trying to build a team, guys got to understand it’s not about who’s getting all the shots, it’s not about who’s playing all the minutes, it’s what you do with the minutes and what you’re doing when you are in there…  I’ve said it ever since I’ve been here as a coach – our second unit is just as important as the guys that start.”

For other fringe playoff teams, missing the postseason might actually be the better long-term move. What’s more valuable for a franchise: the chance to get swept in the first round by the Miami HEAT or Indiana Pacers or the opportunity to land a lottery pick in the talented 2014 NBA Draft? Playoff experience is important, but this may be the year to opt for the lottery pick. However, for the Knicks, they’re all-in on the playoffs since they traded their 2014 first-rounder to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster deal back in February of 2011.

Making the playoffs would salvage New York’s forgettable season to some extent, and who knows what could happen once they lock down a spot in the East’s top eight? Come playoff time, records reset and anything can happen. If the Knicks continue to play at the high level they’ve displayed recently, they could be a tougher out than previously anticipated (especially if they can somehow climb to the sixth seed and avoid a first-round series against Indiana or Miami, although that seems unlikely). After the juggernaut Pacers and HEAT, the conference is wide open (only six East teams are above .500 on the season, compared to 10 teams out West.)

“We are a tough team to beat, and we’ve been shooting the hell out of the ball these last five games and our defense has been on par as well,” Woodson said. “It’s a good combination to have. We just got to continue to grow, take it one day at a time and see what happens.”

Teams that can “shoot the hell out of the ball” have gone on shocking postseason runs in the past. The third-seeded 2008-09 Orlando Magic surprisingly shot their way into the NBA Finals, beating more talented teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. Last season, the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors were the best shooting team in the league, which allowed them to upset the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and give the San Antonio Spurs a hard fought six-game series.

The Knicks have the third-best three-point percentage in the NBA (39.4 percent), and their 104.7 points per 100 possessions ranks 11th in the league.

They also have one of the game’s best scorers in Anthony, who is currently averaging 28.1 points (ranked second in the NBA) while shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three-point range. The league’s reigning scoring champion has elevated his game recently, just as he did down the stretch last season. He averaged 31.5 points in February and has averaged 30.9 points since the All-Star break. Not to mention, he has been very well-rounded this year, averaging 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks in addition to his scoring. As a result, Anthony’s efficiency rating is a career-high 24.99 (ranked eighth in the NBA) and he has a 17.7 estimated wins added (ranked fourth in the NBA, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kevin Love).

The team’s recent play is much closer to what was expected of the Knicks entering this season, when expectations were high and the team was talking about contending for the championship. Woodson recently said that these high quality performances are “kind of what we envisioned when we came out of camp,” but added that this season has been much more difficult than anyone could’ve predicted due to “all the ups and downs that we’ve had based on injuries” among other things. The team has been a disappointment, for sure, but it’s not easy to live up to lofty expectations when key player after key player has been sidelined.

Even with the team’s recent win streak, New York understands that making the playoffs won’t be easy. They dug themselves into a hole and find themselves trying to catch up to teams like Charlotte and Atlanta, while trying to stay atop Cleveland and Detroit in the standings – two teams that desperately want to end multi-year postseason droughts. As ugly as Eastern Conference basketball has been this season, the final stretch should be rather interesting as the playoff picture comes into focus.

“Our backs are against the wall right now, so there’s no room for error,” Woodson said. “We have to play each possession like it’s our last.”

“We control our own destiny,” Anthony said. “We want to win as many games as we can coming down this stretch and let the other teams worry about what they have to do.”

Even though it’s tempting, Anthony insists that the team isn’t watching the standings on a nightly basis. He believes the Knicks need to simply focus on the games on their schedule and the things that they can actually control, rather than stressing over what other teams are doing.

“Well, regardless of who we play, we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Anthony said. “These are teams that we’ve got to play, it’s on the schedule, so we don’t control that. The only thing we can control is whether we win or not.”

New York’s schedule isn’t too daunting. Seven of their remaining 16 games are against non-playoff teams, including bottom feeders like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. There are some difficult games late in the season, including contests against the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Miami HEAT, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, but some of those teams may be resting players by then. New York has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league, since their opponents’ win percentage is a combined 47 percent. Compare this to Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit – three teams with tougher competition in the coming weeks – and it’s not hard to imagine the Knicks sneaking into the postseason despite the fact that this season has basically been a train wreck.

Jerryd Bayless Praises Rajon Rondo

In January, the Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies agreed to a trade swapping Courtney Lee for Jerryd Bayless, and the latter has been getting accustomed to his new team in recent months.

The 25-year-old Bayless has been averaging 9.7 points, 3.3 assists and a steal in 24.7 minutes per game. Even though Bayless went from being on a playoff team in Memphis to a rebuilding team in Boston, he has been making the best of his situation and doing whatever he can to help the Celtics as they go through this transition period.

One player who has really impressed Bayless during his stint in Boston is Rajon Rondo.

In a recent blog post on JerrydBayless.com, the veteran point guard praised Boston’s veteran leader and the job that he has done on and off the court.

“As he works his way back, Rondo isn’t playing both games of back-to-backs this season,” Bayless wrote on his website. “On those nights that he’s not in the lineup, I’m playing more point, handling the ball the majority of the time. When that’s the case, it’s my duty is to facilitate for my teammates. I have to be the quarterback out there and call the plays, get everybody where they’re supposed to go and kind of run the whole show. When Rondo is in the lineup, obviously, he’s at the point, and I’m playing off the ball in more of a scoring role, which he facilitates. In that role, I’m more like a receiver, and Rondo’s the quarterback.”

In the past, Rondo didn’t have to be a vocal leader because he was surrounded by veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Now, he has stepped into that role and taken some of Boston’s younger players under his wing.

“I wasn’t here when Pierce, Garnett and Allen were, but it seems like transitioning to being the team leader has come pretty naturally for Rondo,” Bayless said. “I think he has been preparing for it for a long time, and it shows. He’s a great leader. He’s able to lead vocally and through his actions. When there’s something that needs to be said, he’ll say it, and he leads by example every day. He’s one of the first to the gym and one of the last to leave. He definitely surpassed anything I would have thought.

“It’s been great not only getting to play with Rondo, but getting to know him. He is a very smart person, and a lot of the stuff that’s out there about him being tough to deal with is the farthest thing from the truth. He’s great with teammates and with our coach, Brad Stevens. I’ve I’ve had a great time being able to get to know him in the last couple months, and hopefully, we can grow as teammates for a long time.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?

How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.

Lang Greene

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As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?

To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.

So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?

Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.

As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.

Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.

The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.

The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.

Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.

You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.

Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.

Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.

But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.

So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?

Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.

As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league

Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: The Futures Of LeBron, PG13, Kawhi and More

Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

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