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NBA PM: Orlando Magic 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic, who have a lot to prove this upcoming season.

Basketball Insiders

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As the Orlando Magic enter yet another season with a high draft pick on its roster, many are beginning to wonder when this team can finally become relevant in the Eastern Conference.

The team is already in its longest playoff drought in franchise history with no real answers as to when they might be able to return to the postseason. With a new front office in place, will it be enough to get the Magic back to the playoffs this season?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Orlando Magic:

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like this is the final, put-up-or-shut-up year for several members of Orlando’s youth project that hasn’t really worked too well. Guys like Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon need to firmly prove they belong on a team that can contend for a playoff berth, or the Magic will have to look at the next wave of youngsters. That’s already started with guys like Jonathan Isaac, who could see quite a bit of court time this season. This team doesn’t project to be very good, and there could be lots of chances for these younger pieces to show out. There could also be some landscape changes on the horizon if it’s another lost season in Orlando. There could be enough talent here to keep them out of the cellar in the Southeast – the Hawks will give them competition there – but there isn’t a ton of high-level hope for the future at this point.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Orlando Magic’s roster features young, talented players and an assortment of veterans mostly on short term contracts. It appears as though Orlando wants to build up its young core, while remaining somewhat competitive by bringing in veterans like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Maintaining financial flexibility is a good thing, but the Magic are going to have to make some tough decisions on players like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon rather soon. It’s hard to not look at this roster and wonder how good this team could have been had Orlando’s front office not made several perplexing deals over the last few seasons. However, there is still some nice young talent in Orlando and a disciplined approach to rebuilding the team could yield results sooner than most expect. Also, the signing of Jonathon Simmons was a nice value move for Orlando. Don’t be surprised if Simmons outplays his contract and other teams regret not making more competitive offers for his services.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Both Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights are the type of player that I’d covet if I were a general manager of an NBA franchise, so at least newly installed general manager John Hammond has a few pieces to work with.

My biggest problem with the Magic, however, is that they are simply a team full of overlapping young pieces, and it could be argued that none of them have fulfilled their promise. Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic have all had their bright moments, but they have simply been too far and few between. I like both Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton, and newly drafted rookie Jonathan Isaac should be able to carve out a niche for himself on the squad.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that neither the Magic nor their young pieces have done much to instill confidence that this ship will be righted. It would appear that they will be competing with the Hawks for worst place in the Southeast Division, and I believe it’s a battle that not even the Magic could find a way to lose. So I suppose there’s something to be happy about.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Moke Hamilton

Every year the Orlando Magic do stuff, and every preseason I step into the year believing they’ve made absolutely no progress. Jonathan Isaac was the team’s big offseason pickup, but he already has had his fair share of health issues and was one of the biggest question marks in the top half of this year’s lottery. Beyond him, this is basically the same team that went 29-53 a year ago, so even with the Eastern Conference wide open for burgeoning playoff contenders, the Magic don’t have a shot at the postseason in 2018. They aren’t as bad as the Bulls or Hawks, but it won’t be a shock if they end up with the #7 pick in the draft next June.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

In a division with three potential playoff teams, the Orlando Magic will be doing their best just to stay out of the basement of the Southeast.

After overhauling the front office, maybe successful seasons are on the horizon, but for next year, the same old song and dance look to be in play down in Orlando. With Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton in contract years, this season will be more of an evaluation process for the Magic to see if either of those players are worth an extension. Rookie Jonathan Isaac provides hope for the future, but the lanky forward is possibly a year or two or away from making a true impact due to his lack of physical maturity.

While the top half of the division should have their sights set on the playoffs, the Magic will be trying their hardest to battle out of the basement they found themselves in last season.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier

Fournier enters the 2017-18 campaign as the Magic’s top offensive player. In the past, center Nikola Vucevic has led the team in scoring, but Fournier’s 17.2 points per game last season was tops on the team with Vucevic second at 14.6 points per game.

With Victor Oladipo out of the picture last season, Fournier turned in a career-high 17.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point range. Fournier has proven to be a solid player capable of creating his own shot and hitting from three-point range.

While Fournier struggled shooting a bit, he appeared to have found his stroke following the All-Star break. In 45 games prior to the break, Fournier averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 34.3 percent from three-point range but he averaged 18 points and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games after the break.

The team’s offense changed drastically after the All-Star break after trading Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross. Head coach Frank Vogel also moved Aaron Gordon back to power forward and the team finally began to embrace running a smaller lineup. Fournier looked more comfortable in the new offense as indicated by his improved play.

Fournier figures to pick up where he left off last season with the team likely continuing to play a similar style of offense they used toward the end of the season.

Top Defensive Player: Aaron Gordon

In a season where a lot of things went wrong, Gordon proved to be one of few bright spots for the Magic on defense. While the results were mixed with Gordon at small forward last season, his defense on the perimeter remains elite.

Gordon often drew the matchup of guarding some of the league’s elite scorers last season as he was tasked with defending the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George among others. Gordon has all of the physical tools needed to guard players of that caliber: size, quickness, strength and the jumping ability.

Last season, players like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo were added to the roster to shore up the Magic’s rim defense. As most teams were going small, the Magic went big and the results were not positive. Ibaka was dealt to the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade deadline and the team took a step back with Biyombo on the floor.

Simply put, the Magic struggled on defense when Biyombo was on the court. The team’s defensive rating was lower than their average with Biyombo on the floor. In addition, his block rate was down, his rebounds dropped and his field-goal percentage defense dipped as well.

With Biyombo’s struggles last season, Gordon has emerged as the team’s best defender, but the team has more defensive potential on the roster. Newcomer Jonathon Simmons has shown flashes during his stay with the San Antonio Spurs as a strong defender, while rookie Wesley Iwundu was known as a capable defender in college as well.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

As the point guard, Payton is the top playmaker for the Magic. Although the team used Payton in the starting lineup and off of the bench last season, he played very effectively for the team late in the season as a starter.

Payton averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and made headlines when he recorded five triple-doubles in a 14-game stretch from March 6 to April 1. He averaged 12.7 points, 8.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds during the month of March.

Once the Magic opted to embrace the small-ball lineup last season, Payton was one of a few players that benefitted from the change. While he struggled for much of the season before the change, he improved drastically following the All-star break. Payton often had the ball in his hands more following the change and was primarily responsible for initiating the offense when he was on the court.

He has proven to be most effective when the Magic get out and run and the team simply wasn’t able to do that with Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo on the floor. The change at the All-Star break played to Payton’s strengths and he showed flashes of being a capable starter. It seems reasonable to believe that he could continue that strong play this season if the team can continue to get out and run.

Payton enters the 2017-18 season with a lot to prove in the final year of his rookie contract. The Magic can agree to a contract extension with Payton before the start of the season, but it seems more likely Payton will hit restricted free agency next summer. There are still a lot of questions with his game, but he has an opportunity to answer them this season.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Since Fournier is the team’s top offensive player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him as the best clutch player on the roster. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Fournier was by far the Magic’s best player in these situations.

Fournier ranked 26th in the NBA with 93 total points when the Magic were either ahead or trailing by five points last season. To put that into context, notable players like Russell Westbrook ranked first in the league with 247 total points, while James Harden was 10th with 150 points and LeBron James was 20th with 112 points.

Of course, that’s not to say Fournier is on the same playing level as those players, but he proved to be extremely reliable in crunch time for the Magic. Fournier shot 46 percent from the floor (29-of-63) in those situations and 44.8 percent from three-point range (13-of-29).

Although Fournier didn’t hit any game-winning shots last season, he did help the Magic with several big shots throughout the season in the final moments of games. Some Magic fans may remember his big three-point shots against the Miami HEAT to send the HEAT to a second consecutive loss following their 13-game winning streak.

When the game is on the line this season, look for Fournier to have the ball in his hands. As he proved last season, he can be trusted to hit big shots.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

With so many new additions to this team, it might be easy to forget about Vucevic this season. As a player that has dealt with his fair share of trade rumors, Vucevic has continued to work and stay as a reliable scoring option for the Magic.

Perhaps most impressive for Vucevic is he’s among the best scorers at his position. While he may take some criticism for his defense (which has improved), he still remains one of the best offensive centers in the NBA.

Although his production did dip a bit last season with the arrival of Serge Ibaka, Vucevic averaged 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, one steal and one block per game. Vucevic ranked seventh among all centers in scoring and was 11th in the NBA in rebounds.

For one reason or another, his shooting percentages did also fall last season as well. He ranked as one of the best midrange shooters in the NBA two seasons ago, but his percentages dropped across the board last season. The Magic hope his drop in shooting was just a fluke and he can bounce back to the shooter he was two years ago.

Regardless of how he shot last season, look for Vucevic to continue to be a reliable scorer the Magic can count on this season. He might also add a few more game-winning shots as well.

Best New Addition: Jonathon Simmons

Simmons played an important role with the San Antonio Spurs last season. He initially hit restricted free agency this summer with the Spurs, but became an unrestricted free agent once the Spurs withdrew their qualifying offer.

Simmons averaged a career-high 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game last season with the Spurs. He became a key member in head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotation and earned four starts in the playoffs in place of the injured Kawhi Leonard. He came up with perhaps the biggest play of his career after drawing a charge against James Harden to help send the game into overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Many believe the Magic may have secured one of the biggest steals of the offseason after signing Simmons to a three-year, $18 million contract. The first two years of the deal are fully guaranteed, while only $1 million is guaranteed in the third year.

The Magic entered the offseason with roughly $15 million in cap space to work with and, by all accounts, appear to have used that money wisely. In addition to Simmons, the team also signed free agents Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Given his chance to immediately come in and have a large role with the team, Simmons is the best new addition of the summer.

It was reported that Simmons gained significant interest around the league once he became an unrestricted free agent and the Magic moved quickly to sign him. For the Magic, adding the 6-foot-6 Simmons will add a proven wing defender to the lineup that could compete for a place in the starting lineup.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. The New Front Office:

After letting general manager Rob Hennigan go at the conclusion of last season, the Magic hired Jeff Weltman as the team’s president of basketball operations and John Hammond as the general manager.

The two have previously worked together and appear to have great chemistry in the early going in Orlando. The duo maintained after taking over that they’d make smart personnel decisions over the course of the summer and it seems as though they’ve stuck with that philosophy.

Many have pointed to the Magic as a team that has quietly put together a solid offseason. The team opted to draft Jonathan Isaac with the sixth overall pick and Wesley Iwundu early in the second round. While the team entered draft night with four total draft picks, Weltman and Hammond established that they didn’t want to add four rookies this year and opted to trade those additional two picks for future considerations.

As many teams went to work quickly during free agency, the Magic stayed quiet in the early going. The Magic entered the free agency period with roughly $15 million in cap space and knew they wouldn’t be making splashy moves, but it appears as though they spent their money wisely.

The team signed arguably the biggest steal of the offseason in Jonathon Simmons to a very team-friendly deal. They signed veteran Shelvin Mack to a one-year, $6 million deal. After those two signings, the team added Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights on a pair of one-year deals. Staying flexible in the NBA is a must for teams and Weltman and Hammond did just that by not committing long-term money to free agents this summer as the team has done in previous years.

Of course, the team has yet to take the court yet for the 2017-18 season and it’s far too early to tell how these new additions will come together, but it appears as though the team’s new front office is off to a good start.

2. Arron Afflalo:

After a two-year stint with the Magic from 2012-2014, Afflalo is back in Orlando on a one-year deal. While his most productive years appear to be behind him, Afflalo figures to add a quality veteran to a locker room with several younger players.

Since returning to Orlando, Afflalo has expressed his immense love for the city and the team. He even said during his introductory press conference that his previous stint with the Magic was by far the happiest he had been with an NBA team.

Afflalo figures to log backup minutes at shooting guard behind Evan Fournier this season. He averaged 8.4 points, two rebounds and 1.3 assists in 61 games last season with the Sacramento Kings while shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range.

He experienced his best run in the NBA previously with the Magic when he averaged 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 137 games. He’ll be a valuable option off of the bench for Frank Vogel and a leader off of the court.

3. Jonathan Isaac:

As the team’s sixth overall pick in June’s draft, there is a lot of intrigue with Isaac. He was viewed by many to have perhaps the highest upside of any player in this year’s draft class. He flashed a wide range of skills after averaging 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.2 assists per game in one season at Florida State.

Measuring in at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has the potential to be a nightmare for teams on the defensive end. He’s a player that projects to fit right into a small-ball lineup or in a big lineup should the team opt to run that way.

Isaac showed a lot of promise in three Summer League games, but he also showed that there will be some growing pains as well. He figures to be able come in immediately and play meaningful minutes. He should be fun to watch develop this season given his physical tools.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Magic went under the salary cap this summer to sign Jonathon Simmons and Shelvin Mack. The team is now slightly over with just the $4.3 million Room Exception to spend. Orlando has 14 guaranteed players with Khem Birch, Tony Caupain, Rodney Purvis and Kalin Lucas vying for the final roster spot.

Orlando is still heavily invested in players after last year’s spending spree. The team projects to have roughly $13 million in cap space next summer which is relatively equivalent to staying over and simply using the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions instead. Nikola Vucevic has one year remaining on his deal but the market for centers has cooled in recent years. Aaron Gordon is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. Mario Hezonja has a team option due by Halloween

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As a team that has struggled to remain competitive over the past several years, there are understandably not many strengths on this team.

With some younger players on the roster, the team did manage to do a solid job of signing veteran players this summer in free agency. The team brought back fan favorite Arron Afflalo on a one-year deal. He proved to be a great locker room presence during his first stint with the team a few years ago.

In addition to Afflalo, the team also signed Marreese Speights to a one-year deal as well. Speights, who grew up not far from Orlando, said it was a dream of his to play for the Magic. As an NBA Champion with the Golden State Warriors, his resume and character will be a great addition for the team.

The team also added veteran point guard Shelvin Mack in free agency as well. Mack has playoff experience and most recently turned in one of his best seasons with the Utah Jazz. The team will surely not be lacking high-character veterans this season.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

One glaring hole on this roster is the lack of star power. While Aaron Gordon has certainly dazzled at the past two Slam Dunk Contests, he still hasn’t developed into an All-Star player to this point for the Magic.

Unfortunately, the Magic just haven’t hit on any of their high draft picks in recent years. Gordon has shown flashes, as has Elfrid Payton, but the two haven’t been able to put it all together just yet. While they haven’t developed quite like the team would have expected, they are both entering just their fourth year in the league and still have time to put it together.

The reality for the Magic is until they can put together a legitimate playoff run, they likely won’t be able to sign a star player in free agency.

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Magic make the playoffs this season?

As the team continues its longest playoff drought in playoff history, it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Although many believe the Eastern Conference should be wide open for the playoffs, the Magic still project to face an uphill battle to reach that objective.

– Cody Taylor

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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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NBA

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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