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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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NBA Draft Watch: Should You Expect a Flurry Of Trades?

Should you expect a flurry of trades during tonight’s NBA Draft? History says yes!

Lang Greene

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Draft Day. The event that rebuilding teams have been planning months for is finally upon us. The next wave of NBA stars await their opportunity to play under the brightest of all lights on the biggest of stages. But outside of the rising and falling status of the prospects, each year draft week is filled with a flurry of trade activity and there’s no reason to believe things will be different in 2018.

On Wednesday, the trade market kicked off with the Charlotte Hornets shipping former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for veteran center Timofey Mozgov. The move isn’t all that surprising considering one of the biggest advocates for the Hornets in acquiring Howard from Atlanta last year, Steve Clifford, was fired back in April. In addition to a new head coach, James Borrego, Charlotte also hired a new president of basketball operations and general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

In the deal, Charlotte was able to avoid paying the luxury tax while also creating immediate salary cap flexibility to be players in this year’s market should they choose. For Brooklyn, the team acquires a veteran presence for their youth movement and a consistent double-double anchor on the interior.

The trade also marks consecutive years that Brooklyn was active on the trade front during draft time. Last year, the team acquired former lottery pick D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Nets haven’t had the luxury of prime draft assets in recent years, the team has had to resort to trades (Russell, Howard) and free agency (Allan Crabbe) to reshape the roster.

Transitioning to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the question can be asked whether this will be the third straight year involving a draft day trade. At the top of the Warriors’ lineup max players reside which means the team has had to find talented gems in the back half of the draft to contribute to their success.

In 2016, the Warriors acquired the rights to the No. 38 overall pick, Patrick McCaw, from the Milwaukee Bucks for cash considerations. In 2017, Golden State acquired the rights to another No. 38 overall pick, Jordan Bell, from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations.

Notice a trend?

With the Warriors needing to lock NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant into a long term deal this summer and future free agency looming for All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the franchise will need to continue finding young role players to complement their collection of stars.

There could also be a deal involving All-Star level talent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo back in 2016 in a draft week deal with the Orlando Magic. While Oladipo didn’t emerge as an All-Star caliber until the following season (after being dealt to Indiana), there are usually a couple of big names in play come draft night.

Consider the 2017 draft day deal that saw the Chicago Bulls send Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for talented two guard Zach LaVine.

This year, the most prominent name potentially on the market is San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. The rumor mill reports Leonard is frustrated and wants a trade to the Lakers. The Spurs are, of course, attempting to keep their franchise player with a series of meetings. Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and his public trade demand limits what San Antonio could demand in return. Teams will be hesitant to give up prime assets for a player that won’t commit to their franchise long term. While San Antonio doesn’t have to make an immediate deal their leverage hasn’t been compromised with Leonard’s specific trade destination request.

The NBA Draft can best be described as a crapshoot with prospects being hit or miss. There are teams that make their bones via draft day acquisitions, or working between the lines, which is a storyline to watch during the draft tonight.

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NBA Draft Watch: Storylines Heading into Thursday’s Draft

With the NBA Draft just one day away, there is plenty of uncertainty on how things will play out, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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From now until the conclusion of Thursday night’s NBA draft the landscape is subject to shift and evolve at a moment’s notice.

As of right now, the only thing that we can be most certain about is DeAndre Ayton going first overall to the Phoenix Suns. After that, it’s basically a crapshoot in regards to what might go down.

With media day commencing in New York City on Wednesday, the players that will be present during the draft’s greenroom got the chance to address the droves of media from all over the land about where they might end up, how they might fit in those places, and a few off-the-cuff questions thrown in here and there.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the league and their selection extravaganza on Thursday night, many people who are usually in the know this time of year seem to be approaching the event erring on the side of caution, more so than in years past.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer echoed that feeling Wednesday afternoon.

One of the large looming clouds heading into draft night is the Kawhi Leonard situation. As it stands, Leonard appears to want out of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs and would prefer to wind up in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the Lakers being his new employer.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard met with Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday night in order to discuss the situation between San Antonio and their franchise player.

While Wojnarowski has also reported that the Spurs are in no rush to move Leonard, draft night could potentially serve as a motivator in the opposite direction should Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford receive a tempting offer that involves some draft capital. With the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers reportedly interested in acquiring Leonard, on the clock with the 10th overall pick, perhaps they can entice the Spurs into sending their star forward packing.

Regardless of if Leonard is traded Thursday night or not, there were certainly be many eyes on his situation over the next 24-plus hours.

Up until about the time a player is selected by their new club, the situation for drafting remains fairly fluid. When the basketball community congregates to New York the day before the event, rumors and confirmation of shifting ideals begin to flourish.

With a lot of the players in this year’s lottery surounded by reasonable question marks, we may see last-minute rising and falling of the prospected hierarchy in prospects. Michael Porter Jr., with questions surrounding his health, and Trae Young having questions about his slight frame and defensive capability, seem to be two subjects of that shuffling just a day before the Thursday night festivities.

Conversely, the final moments leading up to the time to make a selection, teams can shuffle their opinion based off of their need to bring in star power possibilities — especially high up in the lottery.

Real Madrid star Luka Doncic has been the subject for criticism throughout this year’s draft process. While the 19-year-old has posted some of the best numbers for a player his age in the ACB and Euroleague, NBA evaluators are rightfully questioning if his athleticism can hold up in the league.

Originally figured to slip past the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, who hold the second and third overall picks, respectively, Doncic appears to be gaining last-minute steam within the ranks of the Georgia-based basketball club.

Even though prospects are surfacing Wednesday in the Big Apple to meet and greet with reporters, and get settled for their big moment on Thursday night, some teams and correlating players are having final sit-downs to profess their admiration for each other.

More specifically, New York native and projected high-end lottery pick, Mo Bamba, reportedly met with his hometown Knicks on Wednesday. Corresponding reports tell the story that the Knicks are exploring the option to trade up in the draft, in hopes to acquire a franchise-caliber center to put alongside Kristaps Porzingis.

DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony added context to further confirm the Knicks’ hope of scoring their first franchise center since Patrick Ewing roamed Madison Square Garden.

Whatever does wind up happening Thursday night, those watching can be assured that this year’s NBA Draft will contain the necessary amount of chaos to continue the conversation throughout the league while free agency quickly approaches.

Although, if you were anticipating being able to see those draft picks come in a few minutes early on Twitter like in years past, think again.

It looks like those draft night Wojbombs will be reserved for any unforeseen trades, and not who your favorite team will be picking 10 minutes later.

Either way, embrace the insanity. Draft night is upon us.

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NBA Daily: What is Cleveland’s Next Move?

Plenty has been made about where LeBron goes this summer, but not much has been made about what Cleveland will do if he leaves.

Matt John

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Usually, when you make the NBA Finals, it’s a good thing. Especially if it was the fourth consecutive time you’ve made it.

For Cleveland though, this season, which would have been deemed a success in any other case, was overshadowed by what can only be compared to a hostage situation. Many speculated that this season was going to be LeBron James’ last as a Cavalier, as rumor had it since last summer that he already has his eyes on his next team.

So the pressure was on in Cleveland, to say the least. They did everything to accommodate LeBron given how shaky the circumstances were. From shipping disgruntled star Kyrie Irving out of town to trading half the team mid-season, this past season has been a bumpy ride. In spite of all the hardship, Cleveland managed to make it to the Finals anyway.

Still, it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a realistic chance at re-signing LeBron this summer, they had to beat Golden State, which wasn’t in the cards. The Cavs may have gotten to the Finals, but the Warriors predictably took them out all too quickly.

All in all, the Cavaliers were so close, and yet so far.

That brings us to now. LeBron’s going to test the free agency waters again. Cleveland will certainly do what they can to bring the King back for another season, and for all we know, LeBron could return to Cleveland, but the odds aren’t in their favor.

Cleveland has to deal with the very real possibility that LeBron will leave this summer, because if and when he does, that leaves the current roster in a flux. Without LeBron, Captain Obvious says that Cleveland’s not going anywhere near the Finals and could also see themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. All signs point to it being time to rebuild, but how exactly do they approach the re-building stage?

It all starts with the Nets pick.

No matter what you think of how Cleveland did when they shuffled half their roster around at the trade deadline, one thing should be universally agreed upon: They made the right move not trading the Nets pick they acquired from the Celtics for Kyrie Irving.

It’s true that the Nets pick this season didn’t pan out as well for the Cavaliers as it had for the Celtics over the last two seasons, but it still wound up being the eighth overall pick in a loaded draft. A valuable asset like that should only be traded for someone who puts you over the top and going to stay long-term. With all apologies to any star who was rumored to be on the market back in February, the Cavs didn’t have that option.

So now, Cleveland has the eighth overall pick, and it’s clear who they should take: The best player available. No matter who that is, the best player available for a team that is most likely starting from scratch is the best option.

Of course, the simpler way of getting young talent is by getting it through the lottery. Getting that Brooklyn pick in the Kyrie Irving deal was a great failsafe for if and when LeBron skips town.

Next is addressing who should be traded.

Cleveland’s uncertain draft pick situation from now until 2020 should also push them towards a rebuild. The team traded their first-round pick this year to the Lakers at the deadline when they acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Next year, they will have to forfeit their first-round pick to the Hawks if they finish outside of the bottom ten. Those protections will roll over to the next year if the Cavs finish in the bottom ten.

Given that the roster isn’t all that impressive outside of LeBron, that would be the best way to go. While the Cavaliers aren’t going to get any value out of Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Jordan Clarkson, there are two players who definitely could: Kevin Love and George Hill.

Let’s start with Love. Love will not get back the same value that Cleveland gave up to acquire him, but he’s still a proven commodity at 29 years old who should fetch something back if Cleveland decides to trade him. Love has made the All-Star team over his last two seasons and has done all that Cleveland has asked of him since being traded to the team back in 2014, like him or not.

How much he can fetch back is another story. Rumor has it that the Cavs have dangled Love along with the Nets pick for a star, but no one has bitten on it. Love won’t fetch a star, but he could fetch young assets from a team looking to make a win-now move. He won’t bring back a King’s ransom, but he can bring back something.

Then there’s Hill. If Hill has any interested parties this summer, it may stem from his contract rather than his services. Hill will be on the books for $19 million next season, but the following season, his contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. Now, Cleveland could just wait until next year then waive him, and no one would fault them for that. It would heavily reduce the payroll for a team that, even without LeBron James, is playing with fire with the luxury tax this summer.

Or, they could get an asset(s) out of him. Teams that may want to avoid the luxury tax next year or go after a marquee free agent would salivate for a contract like Hill’s. If the Cavs play their cards right, they could sell Hill’s contract to the highest bidder.

Whether or not they keep Hill will all depend on how Cleveland sees its roster’s future. The team still has Rodney Hood’s restricted free agency this summer, and the team reportedly hopes to keep Nance Jr long-term. If avoiding the luxury tax is what they want more than anything during the rebuild, then keeping Hill is the best option.

That transitions to the final aspect of Cleveland’s potential rebuild: Organizing the roster for the foreseeable future. Cleveland is not completely devoid of youth. They have Hood, Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, and even Clarkson, all of whom are young and may have their best days ahead of them. Hood and Clarkson did not pan out well in their half-season in Cleveland, but perhaps that could change if they’re put in the right situation.

It all starts with coaching. Tyronn Lue has done what he can since taking over as head coach in 2016. However, Lue was made head coach because that’s who LeBron wanted running the show. With the King out of the picture, perhaps it might be best to replace Lue with a coach better-suited to nurture youth.

One such name that comes to mind is David Blatt, who has worked with Zizic. Blatt was originally hired in 2014 because of his reputation as a developmental coach, but once LeBron came back, he and Blatt’s tense relationship led to Blatt’s firing half-way through his second season. If LeBron doesn’t return to the team, Blatt could use the strategy he planned to implement when he first arrived.

That is just one idea. The Cavs could keep Lue or they could look at other options, but Blatt would be intriguing. Skeptics would question why Cleveland would bring him back after such a bitter break-up not too long ago, but consider this: The Cavs hired Mike Brown back three years after firing him following the end of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland, so anything is possible.

Re-building is a bridge that Cleveland will have to cross when they come to it. Koby Altman must have known that it was a possibility when he took the reins as general manager last year. The situation he’s found himself in isn’t as hopeless as many have pegged it out to be, but the young GM will have plenty of work to do this summer.

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