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NBA Power Rankings – 12/23/16

Even without Blake Griffin, the Clippers are surging while the Wizards appear to be finding their way.

Moke Hamilton

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We have officially arrived at the first flagpole of the NBA season – Christmas!

Based on how things have shaken out thus far, you can bet your bottom dollar that a few of your favorite NBA superstars are wishing for a few things from jolly old Saint Nicholas.

The Golden State Warriors, it would seem, are wishing for someone to challenge them and their team’s amazing efficiency and selfless basketball. Aside from turning JaVale McGee back into an NBA player, the ball sharing we have seen from the club has been beautiful.

On the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets are probably hoping that Santa brings them back their 2017 first round draft pick. That pick is heading to the Boston Celtics in a pick exchange that dates back to the trade that saw Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce get sent to Brooklyn back in 2013. And the Nets have been terrible.

The New York Knicks are wishing for Derrick Rose to stay on the court (the team is 15-9 with him in the lineup), while the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to rediscover the mojo that they had closer to the beginning of the season.

And us? We’re simply wishing you and your families a happy and healthy holiday season. Enjoy the Christmas Day hoops!

 



stockdown4530. Phoenix Suns (Overall: 8-21, Last Week: 26)

By virtue of the tiebreaker, the Suns have overtaken the Mavs as the worst team in the Western Conference, so congratulations are in order. The most juicy tidbit related to the Suns? Of their eight wins, only one of them came against a team that currently has a winning record, and that would be the Knicks. We do remain certain, however, that the Sun will rise in Phoenix. Just not today.


stockdown4529. Brooklyn Nets (Overall: 7-21, Last Week: 27)

Now seems a fine time to remind fans of the Nets that the Boston Celtics own the right to swap first round picks with the Nets in the 2017 draft. Some scouts are calling the draft the best one over the past 10 years. So yeah.


stockup4528. Philadelphia 76ers (Overall: 7-21, Last Week: 29)

Sunday’s 108-107 win at the Nets gave the Sixers just their second road win of the season. Even better? Joel Embiid hung 33 points and 10 rebounds on Brook Lopez’s head. As the franchise sifts through their options as they relate to Nerlens Noel, Sixers fans can rest easy knowing that the franchise (Embiid) has arrived.


stockup4527. Dallas Mavericks (Overall: 8-21, Last Week: 30)

Winners of two of their last three, the Mavs get a (temporary?) reprieve from bringing up the rear in our power rankings. The club will spend Christmas Eve in New Orleans, and we’re not sure what they’ve done to deserve such good fortune. If you live in Dallas, look at the bright side… At least the Cowboys have got a shot this season.


stockup4526. Minnesota Timberwolves (Overall: 9-19, Last Week: 28)

Believe it or not, this past week’s wins over the Suns (Dec. 19) and Hawks (Dec. 21) marked the first time the entire season that the T-Wolves won back-to-back games. They lost a narrow decision to the Rockets back on Dec. 17, though, which means they were awfully close to carrying a four-game win streak into Christmas weekend. Perhaps Tom Thibodeau’s troops are figuring some things out.


stockdown4525. Los Angeles Lakers (Overall: 11-21, Last Week: 23)

It seems like so long ago the Lakers were 7-5. Amazingly, they’re just 4-16 since! They’ve lost five of the first six games on their seven-game road trip and their only win for the entire month of December came at the Sixers. The bright side? Their draft pick this season is protected for the top three picks, otherwise it goes to Philly. Can you say “conspiracy”?


stockup4524. New Orleans Pelicans (Overall: 10-21, Last Week: 25)

The question of the day is whether someone who is the best player on such a terrible team can be an MVP candidate. We think the answer is no, despite Anthony Davis’ 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.7 blocks per game. At 11 games under .500, it’s almost time to throw in the towel on this season, and maybe Alvin Gentry’s tenure in the Big Easy as well.


stockup4523. Miami Heat (Overall: 10-20, Last Week: 24)

With Pat Riley’s team entering a rebuilding phase, it came as no surprise to hear that Goran Dragic and the HEAT have decided to at least explore trade scenarios. Dragic is 30 years old and is in the prime of his career and as great as Hassan Whiteside is, he’s no Shaquille O’Neal (whose number 32 jersey was retired by the club in Thursday night’s win over the Lakers).


stockdown4522. Denver Nuggets (Overall: 12-17, Last Week: 21)

The Nuggets ruined Carmelo Anthony’s homecoming on Dec. 17, as all five starters and seven players scored double figures. Amazingly, despite being five games under .500, the Nuggets enter play on Dec. 23 in a three-way tie (with the Blazers and Kings) for eighth out West.


stockdown4521. Portland Trail Blazers (Overall: 13-18, Last Week: 18)

Losers of eight of their last nine, it’s fair to say that the Blazers are in the midst of a free fall. Bad went to worse with Wednesday’s 121-126 loss to the lowly Mavericks. Like the Atlanta Hawks, what began as a promising season seems to have gone up in smoke. Who would have thought they’d be battling the Kings and Nuggets for the eighth seed?


stockup4520. Sacramento Kings (Overall: 12-17, Last Week: 22)

Only the Kings could beat the Grizzlies, Blazers and Jazz but lose to the Mavericks. Winners of three of their past four (and beating some stellar competition in that stretch) is a sight for sore eyes, but unfortunately, these guys enter play on Dec. 23 still five games below .500. Somehow, with the struggles of the lower half of the conference, they remain in the playoff hunt, though.


stockdown4519. Detroit Pistons (Overall: 14-17, Last Week: 11)

Wednesday began a stretch for the Pistons that has the team playing six of eight games at home before embarking on a five-game road trip out West. The bad news? They began with the Grizzlies on Wednesday (a loss) and will see the Warriors, Cavs and Bucks. Anything less than 5-3 over the eight-game span spells trouble, as Stan’s team may very well find themselves five or six games under .500 by MLK Weekend.


stockup4518. Orlando Magic (Overall: 13-18, Last Week: 20)

Tuesday’s 136-130 double-overtime win at the HEAT saw four different players score at least 20 points and two others in double figures. They followed it up with a listless loss at the Knicks on Thursday, though. We questioned the wisdom of bringing the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton and even Jeff Green off the bench, but we should point out that the team is 7-8 with Payton as a reserve, so maybe coach Frank Vogel deserves the benefit of the doubt.


stockdown4517. Milwaukee Bucks (Overall: 13-14, Last Week: 13)

After suffering back-to-back losses at the hands of the champs, the Bucks are suddenly 3-6 over their last nine and begin Week 8 one game under .500. The bright side is that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are proving capable of flourishing together. The duo is combining for 45 points per game over their last 10 (and shooting better than 50 percent).


stocknochanges4516. Atlanta Hawks (Overall: 14-15, Last Week: 16)

Since beginning the season at 9-2, the Hawks are just 5-13. Safe to say all that Dwight Howard wants for Christmas is an opportunity to test free agency again this summer. Okay, maybe it’s a tad soon for such a declaration, but we’ve run out of answers for these Hawks.


stockup4515. Indiana Pacers (Overall: 15-16, Last Week: 17)

Truth is, we’re almost out of words for the Pacers, too. Along with the Wizards, they are probably the most disappointing team in the Eastern Conference. The only pro is that over the past 10 games, Jeff Teague’s production has been trending upward: 17.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists. The con? They’re just 5-5. But we’ll try to stay positive. At least 5-5 is an improvement on their full season win percentage.


stocknochanges4514. Chicago Bulls (Overall: 14-14, Last Week: 14)

The Bulls have lost four of five, with the latest loss occurring at the hands of the Wizards on Dec. 21. We thought they’d be better than a .500 team, and of the team’s rotation players only Dwyane Wade’s production is trending upward over the past 10 games. In the words of George Karl, these guys are a bit of a conundrum.


stockup4513. Washington Wizards (Overall: 13-15, Last Week: 19)

Don’t look now, but all of a sudden, the Wiz kids are 7-3 over their last 10 games. Bradley Beal has scored 24.1 points per game over that stretch while the pass-first John Wall is scoring 26 (while dropping 9.6 assists). Everything these guys hope to be is on them, so perhaps Scotty Brooks is figuring things out in the nation’s capital.


stockdown4512. Utah Jazz (Overall: 18-12, Last Week: 8)

If the playoffs began today, the Jazz would be sixth in the conference and would be hosted by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Even better? We can’t say for certainty that they wouldn’t be able to push Team CP3. Utah is still first in the league in points allowed (94.9) and fourth in defensive efficiency.


stockup4511. Boston Celtics (Overall: 17-12, Last Week: 15)

Winners of four in a row, the Celts remain ahead of the Knicks out in the Atlantic, but barely. Among those wins was the Dec. 20 victory over the Grizzlies. Isaiah Thomas’ 44 points were quite impressive, but not more than his 17-for-17 shooting from the free-throw line. Despite being undersized, the little guy (on his way to another All-Star berth) isn’t afraid to mix it up. Respect due.


stockup4510. Charlotte Hornets (Overall: 16-13, Last Week: 12)

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that Kemba Walker (who’s averaging a career-high 22.9 points per game) is a good player, or that Steve Clifford is a pretty good coach. The Hornets are where we expected them to be, meaning that the major question we have about these guys is whether it’s all enough to finally get Walker the All-Star nod that has eluded him.


stockup459. New York Knicks (Overall: 16-13, Last Week: 10)

Derrick Rose returned to the lineup in the Dec. 20 matchup against the Pacers and the Knicks responded with back-to-back wins. Porzingis has been great, but the team is 15-9 when Rose plays and 1-4 when he hasn’t. He’s also shooting 50 percent from the field over his last 10. Also, quick shout to Kyle O’Quinn and his 16-point, 18-rebound double-double in Thursday’s win over the Magic.


stockup458. Oklahoma City Thunder (Overall: 17-12, Last Week: 9)

In case you’re wondering, yes, Russell Westbrook is STILL averaging a triple-double, but we would argue that none were as impressive as the Dec. 17 line against the Suns: 26 points, 22 assists and 11 rebounds. It was the first time in 18 years that a player turned in a 20-20 triple-double. Monday’s 110-108 home loss to the Hawks is one that might hurt later, but they remain in the thick of things for now.


stocknochanges457. Memphis Grizzlies (Overall: 19-12, Last Week: 7)

After beating the Cavs to improve to a season-high nine games over .500, the Grizzlies lost all three games in a home stand to the lowly Kings, Jazz and Celtics. Interestingly enough, Mike Conley returned before that Kings game – a full three weeks earlier than projected. The team will be better off in the long run with Conley, but for now, they are obviously experiencing growing pains. By the way, Marc Gasol is a baller.


stocknochanges456. Toronto Raptors (Overall: 20-8, Last Week: 6)

Beginning on Dec. 23, the Raptors will embark on a six-game road trip that spans Christmas and New Year’s. They’ll spend Christmas night in Portland and New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles before eventually ending the trip in San Antonio. They have a comfy lead over the Celts and Knicks in the Atlantic but need a good showing to keep pace with the Cavs.


stockdown455. Houston Rockets (Overall: 22-8, Last Week: 4)

The Rockets are 12-2 over their last 14 games with the only losses coming to the Jazz and Spurs. In that stretch, they’ve beaten the Warriors, Celtics and Thunder and did knock off the Spurs earlier this season. They’re destroying every three-point record in the books and may not NEED to be better than 16th in the league in defensive efficiency to enter the title chase. The best stat for the Rockets, though, is this: ZERO. That’s the amount of TOTAL games missed by James Harden, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.


stockdown454. Cleveland Cavaliers (Overall: 21-6, Last Week: 3)

That three-game losing streak seems like a distant memory now, huh? The Cavs won eight of nine since then, but will have to make due with a limited Kevin Love and without J.R. Smith (for a while). So long as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson are available, though, no other team out East can touch the Cavs. Our only regret is that the club won’t be 100 percent healthy for the Christmas Day battle with the Dubs. But we’ll still be watching.


stockdown453. San Antonio Spurs (Overall: 23-6, Last Week: 2)

The Spurs couldn’t get to 16-1 on the road. Thursday night’s 106-101 loss as the Clippers ended the club’s five-game win streak and also gave them their second road loss of the season. It’s amazing that they own the second-best record in the league despite playing 17 of their 29 games on the road.


stockup452. Los Angeles Clippers (Overall: 22-8, Last Week: 5)

At a certain point, one has to begin to wonder whether Blake Griffin will ever be able stay healthy for an entire season. The Clips have won six of seven, with the last win catapulting them back in second, considering they beat the Spurs without Blake. Still, they’ll never be better than third best without him. He’s missed 47 games last year and 15 games the year prior, so we’re watching closely. Fortunately, the Clips have a deep enough team to hold the fort until his return in three to six weeks.


stocknochanges451. Golden State Warriors (Overall: 26-4, Last Week: 1)

It took a whole half of lazy basketball for the Warriors to decide to actually try against the Nets on Thursday night. Despite trailing by 16 at the half, the Dubs won the second half 68-36 and won by 16. They’re on pace to win 71 games and quietly are seeing magnificent shot distribution. Durant (16.9) is averaging the fewest shot attempts of he, Klay Thompsn (17.4) and Stephen Curry (17.0), but is averaging the most points (25.7). Not even General Petraeus could stop these guys.

 



As we head in 2017 and into the All-Star break, it will be interesting to see whether your favorite team can improve their stock of continue their dominance. Check back next week for the final power rankings of 2016.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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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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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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