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NBA PM: Ranking the 70 Greatest Knicks of All-Time (Part 1)

To commemorate the Knicks’ 70th anniversary, Tommy Beer, in a two-part series, ranks the 70 greatest Knicks of all-time.

Tommy Beer

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The 2016-17 season marks the 70th anniversary of the New York Knickerbockers franchise. To commemorate seven decades of Knicks basketball, Tommy Beer of Basketball Insiders, in a two-part series, has ranked the 70 greatest Knicks of all time. Here, we cover the first half of these rankings:

70. Jeremy Lin
Lin played fewer than 1,000 minutes, appearing in just 35 games, including only 25 starts, in his entire Knicks career. Nonetheless, few players have matched his impact, both on and off the court. “Linsanity” not only took over New York City in the winter of 2012, but it also became an international phenomenon. During the peak of Linsanity, a ten game stretch in February, Lin averaged 24.6 points, 9.2 assists and 2.4 steals. He scored a combined total 136 points in his first five starts, which is the highest point total in the first five starts of any player’s career since the NBA and ABA merged in 1976. Only three other players had scored more than 100 points: Shaquille O’Neal (129), Michael Jordan (116) and Allen Iverson (107). Yes, the flame didn’t last long, but it sure was fun to watch it burn while it lasted.Another tidbit: There are only two players in Knicks history who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated multiple times: Patrick Ewing and Jeremy Lin.

69. Len Chappell
Chappell played three years in New York. His first season, 1963-64, was his best. Chappell was named to the All-Star team that year, averaging 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest.

68. Chris Childs
Childs was a starter on the 1996-97 squad, and a valuable reserve the following three seasons. He may be best known (and most loved) for clocking Kobe Bryant.

67. Xavier McDaniel
He only played one full season with the Knicks, but it would still feel wrong not including him on this list. The X-Man averaged 13.7 points and 5.6 boards in 1991-92 and was phenomenal in the postseason that year as he averaged 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. He earns bonus points for bullying MJ and Scottie.

66. Dean Meminger
Dean the Dream was a playground legend in NYC before ever suiting up as a professional. He played four seasons with the Knicks and was a reliable contributor off the bench during the team’s title run in 1973. During the postseason that year, Meminger played in all 17 games, making 31 of 56 field-goal attempts — good for a team-leading 55.4 shooting percentage.

65. Kenny Walker
After starring at the University of Kentucky, Walker was selected with the fifth pick in the 1986 NBA draft. He ended up playing for five coaches in his five years with the Knicks. Sky Walker won the 1989 Slam Dunk Contest. He wasn’t even supposed to appear in the contest, but was asked to be a last-minute replacement and agreed. Competing in the memory of his father, who had just passed away a few days earlier, he took home the title.

64. Raymond Felton
Felton had two separate stints with the Knicks. In total, he started 189 games and averaged 13.4 points and 6.6 assists.

63. Nate Robinson
Always entertaining, Robinson was one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever wear the orange and blue. Nate was an All-American in high school in both football and basketball. He won the NBA Slam Dunk contest three times.

62. Dave Stallworth
“Dave the Rave” had two solid seasons in New York before suffering a heart attack in 1967, which sidelined him for two years. He rejoined the team in 1969-70 and was a valuable contributor off the bench. When Willis Reed was injured early in Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Stallworth had the unenviable task of trying to stop Wilt Chamberlain. But Stallworth held his own, and the Knicks managed to secure the incredibly important victory.

61. Eddy Curry
Unfortunately, due to the way his career ended, Curry is remembered as a disappointing underachiever. However, he had some productive seasons in NYC. From 2005 through 2008, Curry averaged 15.7 points and six rebounds per game. In December of 2006, he averaged 21.6 points and 7.9 rebounds. How about this factoid: Over the last 35 years, only three Knicks have scored at least 20 points and grabbed five rebounds in 10 or more consecutive games: Patrick Ewing, Amar’e Stoudemire and … Eddy Curry.

60. Tom Gola
Played four years for the Knicks and made the All-Star team in both the 1962-63 and 1963-64 seasons. In 1968, Gola was elected to the Pennsylvania State House. He was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on April 26, 1976.

59. Rory Sparrow
Sparrow established himself as a starting shooting guard for the Knicks in 1983-84 and averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 assists in the regular season, and then contributed 11.2 points per game in the playoffs. He tallied a career-high 7.1 per assists per game the following season.

58. Howard Komives
Komives was named to the NBA’s all-rookie team as a Knick in 1965 and had his best professional season in 1966-67, when he averaged 15.7 points and 6.2 assists. He was also part of the package NY sent to Detroit to acquire Dave DeBusschere.

57. Louis Orr
Orr played six seasons in New York, qualifying for the postseason three times. In 1984-85, he posted career-highs in points (12.7 ppg) and rebounds (4.9 rpg).

56. Hubert Davis
Yes, Scottie Pippen did foul him. Hue Hollins made the correct call. Let’s move on.

55. Vince Boryla
Boryla played five seasons for the New York Knicks in the 1950s and averaged 11.2 points. New York went to the NBA finals in 1952 and 1953, losing both times to George Mikan and the Lakers. At age 28, after he had retired as a player, Boryla later took over as the Knicks coach for three seasons.

54. Trent Tucker
How many guys can claim they have a rule named after them? Tucker’s three-pointer to beat the Bulls with one-tenth of a second remaining would force the NBA to mandate that the game clock and shot clock must show at least three-tenths of a second for a player to secure possession of the ball to attempt a field goal. Among all Knicks, Tucker ranks seventh in career games played and ninth in three-point percentage (40.9).

53. Kristaps Porzingis
Figuring out where to place Porzingis on this list is extremely difficult, considering he has played only 130 games in his career thus far. However, he has already posted some eye-popping numbers and infused much-needed hope into a depressed fanbase. Believe it or not, Porzingis already ranks eighth in franchise history in blocked shots! Porzingis also has knocked down at least three three-pointers and blocked six shots in the same game three times in his young career. No other player in Knicks franchise history has done that even once.

52. Johnny Newman
Newman was a starter on a successful Knicks teams. New York went to the playoffs in each of his three seasons in NYC, advancing to the second-round twice. However, that was one of the very few stops in his NBA career in which he was a part of a winning team. Newman lost 664 games over the course of his 16-year NBA career, which are the most losses by an individual player in the history of professional basketball.

51. Charles Smith
He’d rank higher if not for the infamous final moments of Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals.

50. Marvin Webster
Webster gets bonus points for having the coolest nickname on the list: The Human Eraser. He blocked 542 shots over six seasons as a Knick, the third most in franchise history.

49. Dick Van Arsdale
Van Arsdale was selected by the ‘Bockers in the second-round of the 1965 NBA draft. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1966, along with his identical twin brother Tom Van Arsdale. Dick averaged 12.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in his three seasons as a Knick.

48. Toby Knight
Knight played four seasons in New York. In 1979-80, he posted career-highs in points (19.1), steals (1.4) and blocks (1.1), while shooting over 52 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the charity stripe.

47. Jamal Crawford
Crawford was (and still is) an incredibly gifted scorer. He appeared in a total of 299 games for the Knicks, averaging 17.6 points and 4.4 assists. Crawford would later find his groove coming off the bench in subsequent NBA stops. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2010, 2014 and 2016, becoming the first three-time winner of the award in NBA history.

46. Wilson Chandler
Chandler is the only player in franchise history with at least 200 blocks and at least 200 made three-pointers. (And they used to play the “Willllsssssooooonnnn” sound effect from the movie “Cast Away” when he scored at MSG.)

45. Max Zaslofsky
Zaslofsky helped lead the Knicks to two consecutive NBA Finals in 1950-51 and 1951-52. He was named to the All-Star team in the 1951-52 season and he led New York in scoring with 14.1 points per game (13th in the league).

44. Bud Palmer
Palmer is widely credited with popularizing the jump shot in the late 1940s. He was the Knicks first captain and their first leading scorer. Palmer played three seasons with the Knicks, averaging 11.7 points per contest. He increased his scoring to 14.4 points in 14 playoff games.

43. Ray Felix
Felix spent six seasons in New York, from 1955 through 1960. He averaged 12 points and 9.1 rebounds as a Knick.

42. Derek Harper
One could make a very strong argument that Derek Harper would have been named MVP of the 1994 NBA Finals had Hakeem Olajuwon not gotten a fingertip on John Starks’ three-point attempt in the closing seconds of Game 6. Harper averaged 16.4 points, six assists and 2.4 steals in that series. He also hit a ton of big shots and played spectacular defense, locking up Kenny Smith.

41. Cazzie Russell
Few players arrived in New York with higher expectations than Cazzie Russell. The Knicks selected Russell with the first overall pick in the 1966 draft after a standout career at the University of Michigan. However, Cazzie never quite lived up to the hype, averaging a solid, if unspectacular, 13.3 points and 3.7 rebounds during his five seasons as a Knick.

40. David Lee
Not much was expected of Lee after the Knicks took him with the last pick in the first-round of 2005 draft. However, Lee would go on to post some incredible stats during his five seasons in New York. In his final year, 2009-10, Lee averaged 20.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. He’s one of only four Knicks to average at least 20/11/3 over a full season. The other three are Ewing, McAdoo and Bellamy. Lee’s stats benefited greatly from playing in Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense.

39. Gerald Wilkins
Which is a worse fate: Sisyphus being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill for all of eternity, or being tasked with guarding a young Michael Jordan in his prime?

38. Spencer Haywood
Compared to his days as a superstar in Seattle, Haywood’s numbers in New York are not nearly as impressive. Nonetheless, he still averaged 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds during his four-year stint with the Knicks. Also, he enjoyed his time in NYC. According to Haywood’s bio on NBA.com: “In the Big Apple he led the life of a star. He married glamorous fashion model Iman, and the celebrity couple were regulars on the social scene.”

37. Charlie Ward
Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship for Florida State in 1993, appeared in 580 games over 10 seasons in New York. That’s the most by any player since Patrick Ewing arrived. He was a gritty, steady point guard for some very good Knicks teams. He ranks fifth in franchise history in made three-pointers, fifth in steals and seventh in assists. Amazingly, Ward is the last Knick draftee to sign a multi-year contract extension after his rookie deal expired.

36. Phil Jackson
Action Jackson earned NBA All-Rookie Team honors in 1967-68, along with two other Knicks: Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley. He was a key contributor on the 1972-73 championship squad, averaging 8.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg in 17.4 minutes. The following season, 1973-74, Phil averaged a career-high 11.1 points. He ranks fifth on the all-time Knicks career list in games played. As you may have heard, he’s done some other stuff in the NBA since retiring as a player.

35. Kenny Sears
Drafted in 1955, Sears led the Knicks twice in scoring. He poured in 18.6 points per game in 1957-58 and a averaged a career-high 21 in 1958-59. Sears also led the league in field goal percentage in back-to-back seasons, 1958-59 (.490) and 1959-60 (.477). He made two All-Star teams.

*****

Be sure to stop by later this week when we will release the rankings for the top-35 Knicks of all-time.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

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

Buddy Grizzard

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

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

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

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

The Playoff Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Knicks, 24-36

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

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

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

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

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

Orlando Magic, 18-40

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

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

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

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

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

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

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

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

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

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

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

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Second Half NBA Story lines

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

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

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

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

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

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

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

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

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

But things may be different this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LeBron’s new teammates

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

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

So far, so good.

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

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

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

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

Tight Playoff Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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