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NBA PM: The Race for Eighth Heating up in Both Conferences

With a month left before the playoffs, the race for the eighth seed is heating up in each conference.

Jesse Blancarte

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There is roughly one month to go in the regular season and things are starting to heat up in the fight for the eighth playoff seed in both conferences. Here, we take a look at the race for eighth in each conference to see which teams are in the driver seat and which teams have a shot at overtaking their opponents over the next few weeks.

Western Conference

The Denver Nuggets have held the Western Conference eighth seed for some time, but there are a few teams closing in on them. Currently ranked ninth in the West and just a game behind Denver in the loss column, the Portland Trail Blazers seem to be the Nuggets’ biggest threat to overtake them over them in the playoff race.

This would be an unfortunate result for the Nuggets after they traded Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 top-five protected first-round pick (via the Memphis Grizzlies) for Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick. The idea seemed to be that Plumlee could play more effectively with Nikola Jokic than Nurkic could, while Portland would get a full year to evaluate Nurkic before his rookie contract expires.

Portland has won six of their last 10 games since the trade and very well could overtake Denver thanks in large part to the addition of the former Nugget. Over those 10 games, Nurkic has racked up five assists or more in five games. On March 9, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Nurkic contributed 28 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks, eight assists and two steals. Nurkic’s passing, effectiveness in the pick-and-roll and defense at the rim has provided the Trail Blazers with a level of production they simply weren’t getting from Plumlee.

A trade that many interpreted as a signal that Portland was punting on this season has turned out to be a major catalyst for their run for the eighth seed.

Just behind the Nuggets, the Dallas Mavericks hold a 28-37 record and have won six of their last 10 games. The Mavericks just won four out of five games at home, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets but fell to the Phoenix Suns.

The Mavericks continue to be powered by their quality additions like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell – though Nerlens Noel has been sidelined for the last few games. The Mavericks will need to be on their A-game during the next 10 games, six of which are on the road. During this stretch, Dallas will face top-level teams like the Toronto Raptors (twice), Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and other tough opponents like the Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies. If Dallas struggles throughout this stretch, their playoff hopes could fade rather quickly.

The last viable contender for the eighth seed in the West is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite struggling on defense all season, losing Zach LaVine to an ACL tear in February and dangling Ricky Rubio in trade talks before the deadline, Minnesota has managed a 27-38 record, putting them 3.5 games behind Denver. The Timberwolves have won six of their last 10 games and will need to pull together a significant hot streak to close the gap between themselves and the Nuggets over the last few weeks of the season.

With 17 games left, Minnesota doesn’t have much time to get back into the playoff picture. There is still hope, however, considering they have managed to defeat tough opponents in March, including the Utah Jazz, Clippers and Warriors. Minnesota will face some tough opponents, such as the Miami HEAT, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, but have several winnable games littered in between these matchups. Minnesota will likely need Denver, Portland and Dallas to go through some cold streaks in order to realistically get within striking distance of the eighth seed. As of now, Minnesota still has some hope, but will need a lot of things to go their way over the next few weeks.

While Denver has some real competition, they still have the advantage moving forward. However, even a small slip-up over the next few weeks could leave them very vulnerable to missing the postseason.

Eastern Conference

The Milwaukee Bucks, currently 32-33, hold a one game lead in the loss column over the streaking Miami HEAT. Injuries to Jabari Parker and Michael Beasley recently looked to be significant setbacks for the Bucks, but the return of Khris Middleton from his offseason hamstring injury has helped steady the team.

The Bucks are one of four teams in the Eastern Conference to have won seven of their last 10 games, with the HEAT being one of the others. The HEAT have won 21 of their last 26 games after starting the season 11-30. Despite losing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over recent seasons and moving forward with a team featuring mostly role players (several on short term deals), Miami has been the hottest team in the league for some time and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Give credit to Erik Spoelstra and his staff for maximizing the team’s talent and overcoming just about everyone’s expectations.

Miami’s toughest remaining opponents are the Raptors (twice), Celtics, Wizards (twice) and Cavaliers.  Miami is just a game back of the Bucks in the loss column and are a serious threat to pass Milwaukee in the standings.

The Chicago Bulls are also just a game behind the Bucks in the loss column, but have won just four of their last 10 games and have been inconsistent all season. The Bulls also traded away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in exchange for Cameron Payne, who hasn’t been particularly impressive in his short time with Chicago.

The team has also faced adversity this season, including Rajon Rondo’s outward criticism of Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade on social media and Wade’s recent comments about the franchise’s front office.

“I wish upper management could be answering these questions because I’m tired of answering the same ones every game,” Wade said in the same interview. “I don’t know. I wish I had the answer, I don’t … I just want to get out there and try to play, try to lead. And try to find a way that me and Jimmy can be better to help these guys.”

Plays like this from Wade, along with all of the other issues the Bulls have had on both ends of the court this season, leave little confidence that Chicago will pass the Bucks or HEAT for the eighth seed.

The Bulls aren’t out of the running, but there’s less reason to believe that they can keep pace with the Bucks or HEAT, who have been playing particularly well lately.

 

 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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