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NBA PM: Which Teams are Legitimate Contenders?

How many NBA teams are legitimate contenders this season? Alex Kennedy believes there are six … DeMarcus Cousins suspended and fined $20,000

Alex Kennedy

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Now that every NBA team has played roughly 55 games and the trade deadline has come and gone, we have a pretty good idea of what every roster will look like going forward and which teams are legitimate contenders. In my opinion, there are six teams that have a realistic shot at playing into June.

Before the season started, teams like the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and even the New York Knicks to some extent were being mentioned as possible contenders in the East, but the conference has been a colossal disappointment to the point that it would be absolutely astonishing if a team other than the Indiana Pacers or Miami HEAT represented the East in the NBA Finals. Indiana and Miami have the league’s best records, and then there is a huge drop off. The current third seed, the Toronto Raptors, would be ranked 10th if they played in the Western Conference. Only five teams in the conference are above .500 and the league’s three worst records belong to teams in the East.

In the West, many early predictions had the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors as contenders. However, neither team has played as well as expected this season, with both squads currently battling for one of the final playoff spots in the competitive conference. Injuries and adjustments have contributed to their struggles, and it’s certainly possible that Memphis or Golden State could go on a deep postseason run if they’re able to secure a playoff berth. However, it seems these teams are currently a notch below the West’s four legitimate contenders. The Portland Trail Blazers have been a pleasant surprise during the regular season and they may continue to shock everyone in the playoffs, but their lack of postseason experience keeps them from joining my list below.

Without further ado, here are my legitimate contenders:

Indiana Pacers – This could be the year that the Pacers finally advance past the HEAT to reach the NBA Finals. Indiana is ridiculously talented and deep. Acquiring Evan Turner from the Philadelphia 76ers made a stacked team even better, and it’s easy to imagine the Pacers hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. They have a two-way superstar in Paul George, one of the game’s best up-and-coming shooting guards in Lance Stephenson, an interior presence capable of dominating in Roy Hibbert, a consistent post scorer in David West and a fantastic head coach in Frank Vogel. Not to mention, Indiana has the deepest frontcourt in the NBA since behind Hibbert and West they have Luis Scola, Andrew Bynum, Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen. The Pacers are extremely hungry, and they want more than anything to keep Miami from reaching the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year. Indiana has assembled a juggernaut that should go deep into the playoffs, and this team is definitely capable of winning it all. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give Indiana a 17.2 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the best odds in the NBA.

Miami HEAT – The HEAT are the two-time champions for a reason, and a three-peat is definitely possible. Miami has played very well this season and trail the Pacers by just two games, despite the fact that they have rested Dwyane Wade throughout the season (he has played in 39 of 54 games) and limited the minutes of other key players. The HEAT will likely enter this postseason healthier and better rested than in previous years, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league. Saving Wade for the postseason is a smart move for Miami, and he has reminded everyone just how good he is when healthy with some big performances in the past month. Oh, and they have LeBron James, who is capable of putting the team on his back and delivering jaw-dropping performance after jaw-dropping performance in the playoffs. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give Miami a 16.2 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the second-best odds in the NBA.

Los Angeles Clippers – The development of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan puts the Clippers this high on the list. Griffin and Jordan are playing the best basketball of their careers and if they continue to produce at this level, L.A. will be a very tough out in the playoffs. It also helps that the Clippers have the NBA’s best point guard in Chris Paul and one of the league’s top head coaches in Doc Rivers. They also have one of the best benches in the league led by Sixth Man of the Year favorite Jamal Crawford, and they still aren’t done adding talent (Glen Davis just signed and Danny Granger may be next). The excuses that the Clippers could fall back on in the past are gone – coaching is no longer holding this squad back and the team isn’t too young or inexperienced. The Clippers have positioned themselves to be contenders for years to come, but the time to start winning is now. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give Los Angeles a 15.7 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the third-best odds in the NBA.

Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder are struggling as of late, dropping their last three games, but they still have the West’s best record. This team is so talented that they’re expected to go deep in the playoffs, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they ended up in the NBA Finals again for the second time in three years. Kevin Durant somehow finds a way to improve every season, which is remarkable, and he’s now entering his prime. This may be the year that he snatches the MVP trophy out of LeBron James’ hands; will he pry the Larry O’Brien trophy from James’ grasp as well? With the way Durant has elevated his game this season, it’s difficult to bet against him. The team is currently adjusting to having Russell Westbrook back in the lineup, but they should be fine by the time the playoffs start. Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have been thrust into significant roles this season, and Oklahoma City will need them to step up in the postseason. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give Oklahoma City a 14.5 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the fourth-best odds in the NBA.

Houston Rockets – Had this list been assembled several weeks ago, Houston may have been left off. However, the Rockets have been one of the most impressive squads in the entire league since the calendar flipped to 2014. The team has won 18 of their last 24 games, and they have the sixth-best winning percentage in the NBA. Since they’ve elevated their game, there have been times when they looked unbeatable. James Harden and Dwight Howard are both playing at an extremely high level, and the adjustment period that the team had to go through early in the season as they got everyone on the same page and integrated Howard seems to be over. Houston can beat teams inside and out, and their ball movement, spacing and balance have improved as the team has developed chemistry. The Rockets’ best basketball is likely a year or two away given their youth, but they’re still a legitimate contender this season. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give Houston an 8.7 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the fifth-best odds in the NBA.

San Antonio Spurs – The basketball world should know better than to count out the Spurs. As long as Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford are running the show, San Antonio has a shot to win the title. The Spurs have had to deal with a number of injuries this season, which has slowed them down a bit, but they’ll find a way to compete come playoff time. Popovich has done a good job limiting the minutes of his key contributors – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. Remember, this team was seconds away from defeating the HEAT last year in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. If Ray Allen’s feet were just a little bit larger, San Antonio is likely the defending champs right now. The Spurs are too talented and too well prepared to be overlooked. They rarely makes mistakes, and Popovich ensures that they won’t beat themselves. It takes a very, very good team to eliminate the Spurs from the playoffs. Hollinger’s Playoff Odds at ESPN.com give San Antonio an 8.1 percent chance of winning the championship, which are the sixth-best odds in the NBA.

Which team has the best chance at winning it all, in your opinion? Leave a comment below.

DeMarcus Cousins Suspended, Fined

Earlier this afternoon, the NBA announced that Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has been suspended one game without pay and fined $20,000 for his actions in separate incidents.

Cousins was suspended for punching Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the stomach with 9:44 remaining in the first quarter of the Kings’ 129-103 loss to the Houston Rockets on Feb. 25, at Sleep Train Arena. Here is video of the punch:

Cousins was fined for verbally abusing a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection with 8:21 remaining in the third quarter of the same game. Here is video of the incident:

http://youtu.be/cWaCTUp94z0

Cousins will serve his suspension on Friday, Feb. 28, when the Kings visit the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

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

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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