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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch

The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is making a late run for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Ben Nadeau

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Until February, the leading choice for Rookie of the Year was cut and dry, the runner-ups just a formality in a race that was seemingly locked up. After waiting two years for Joel Embiid’s debut, the center quickly became one of the league’s must-watch entities this season.

But when Embiid was shelved for the season with a meniscus tear in his left knee, the league’s most wrapped up award was suddenly wide-open again. While none of the names on this list have come close to replicating Embiid’s unicorn average of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game, it’s difficult to give the award to a rookie that only played in 31 games.

So, if not him, then who?

10. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks

Now that Yogi-Mania has calmed down, the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard has finally settled into a comfortable position in the offense alongside Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki. After going undrafted last June, Ferrell was waived twice by the Brooklyn Nets before signing with the Mavericks in late January and promptly lit the league on fire. For a Mavericks team dealing with injuries at the position, Ferrell performed so well that both sides skipped the potential second 10-day contract in lieu of a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

While he’s certainly cooled down as of late, Ferrell has become an important guard for the Mavericks, particularly so after waiving Deron Williams following the trade deadline. J.J. Barea’s recent return will continue to take playing time away from Ferrell, but there’s plenty of tricks to learn from his fellow undersized teammate.

Ferrell has averaged 11.6 points and 4.6 assists per game since joining the Mavericks, but his highlight of the season came against the Portland Trail Blazers in early February. Up against Damian Lillard, Ferrell exploded for 32 points on nine three-pointers on 11 attempts to officially announce his permanent arrival to the NBA. There’s a good chance his height will keep him from being anything more than a serviceable rotation guard in the NBA, but if the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has taught the league anything, Ferrell isn’t a player worth betting against.

9. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks

Even though Derrick Rose’s super team statement quickly soured, the New York Knicks have done a great job of collecting cheap, young talent this season — most notably with Willy Hernangomez. Now filling in for the injured Joakim Noah, the Spanish international has shown flashes of a future piece worth putting next to Kristaps Porzingis. On the season, Hernangomez has averaged just 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds over 17 minutes per game, but he often shines brightly when given the opportunity to do so.

Against Indiana Pacers last week, Hernangomez tallied 13 points and 16 rebounds in 31 minutes, but his minutes have been juggled all season by head coach Jeff Hornacek ass he evaluates the best route forward. His per-36 numbers are more than encouraging at 15.2 points and 13.8 rebounds, and if he can average anywhere close to that in his career, the Knicks will be thrilled to have scooped him up with an early second-round pick. As an athletic bruiser, Hernangomez has the potential to be a game-changer for the Knicks as they head into a crucial offseason. Even better, his emergence as a quality big will allow the franchise to potentially draft the point guard of the future in June’s draft — a win-win for all parties involved.

8. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

After missing the first month of the season due to a foot injury, Caris LeVert has quickly become the Brooklyn Nets’ saving grace. In another season full of disappointment and injury, LeVert’s growth has been intriguing alongside rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson. LeVert joined the Nets’ starting lineup following the All-Star Break and has been effective from the perimeter and as a slasher in the lane.

While he’s still acclimating to the deeper three-point line, shooting just 30.6 percent from there thus far, LeVert has already notched 11 games with two or more three-pointers — a necessity on a Nets roster that shoots 32 of them per game. When the Nets traded Thaddeus Young for the Pacers’ No. 20 pick last summer, many were skeptical of LeVert’s potential as a four-year senior coming off of a serious injury, but he has turned many of those skeptics into believers.

As his first season in the NBA winds down, LeVert will have plenty to work on this offseason, but he’s been one of the Nets’ few bright spots in 2017. Outside of his sticky hands, LeVert has proven capable of stuffing the stat sheet, evidence by the 17 points, five rebounds, six assists and three three-pointers he posted against the New Orleans Pelicans in late January.

Turns out, there may just be a reason why his nickname is “Baby Durant.”

7. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

When the Sacramento Kings’ deadline deal sent away franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, it made rookie Buddy Hield an unfortunate punch line across social media platforms, but he’s fast made a name for himself on the West Coast. As a member of the Pelicans, Hield often suffered through offensive slumps, but the sharpshooter has found his groove in Sacramento.

Against the San Antonio Spurs last night, Hield posted 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes, but his improvement hasn’t stopped there either. He’s now scored 15 or more points on 17 different occasions in 2016-17, and his 9.5 points per game average ranks him fifth among rookies. With Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere freed up following Cousins’ departure, the trio makes for an intriguing foundation in Sacramento.

Hield’s been handed the keys to the Kings’ franchise and the 23-year-old has shown promise with his new-found responsibilities. Though it’ll take some time before he becomes the next Stephen Curry, Hield has had himself a fine month for the Kings, shooting 50 percent from the floor over the last 10 games.

6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Jamal Murray has been one of the league’s best rookies in 2016-17 but hasn’t nearly gotten as much coverage as many of his competitors have. Outside of his 36-point Rising Stars Challenge breakout performance, Murray has been quietly making waves for a Nuggets team trying to make a late playoff push. As Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte wrote over the weekend, Murray is a player that deserves more Rookie of the Year chatter, growing well into his role after leapfrogging Emmanuel Mudiay in the rotation.

He’s shooting just 34.1 percent from deep this season, but there’s reason to believe Murray could turn into one of the draft’s purest shooters. His strongest performance to date may have come in November — 24 points, six rebounds, two assists and three three-pointers — but Murray has proven himself as a capable ball handler as well, averaging just 1.3 turnovers per game. Additionally, Murray is one of the few players on this list currently entrenched in a playoff battle, so head coach Mike Malone’s confidence in the 20-year-old should not go unnoticed much longer.

5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns

With Dragan Bender and Tyson Chandler both done for the year, it’s been a coming out party for Marquese Chriss in Phoenix as of late. Under head coach Earl Watson, the high-flying rookie’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the season as the Suns pushed for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff berths early on.

But as those expectations dwindled, Chriss has been set loose on unsuspecting defenses and he’s lived up to his high draft selection thus far. At just 19 years old, Chriss has provided a handful of jaw-dropping moments and his five-block effort against the Kings last month signified the type of rim protection he can offer moving forward. Although he’s been a streaky shooter from deep so far at just 32.6 percent, the athletic forward certainly fits the mold of the NBA’s new prototypical big man with range.

Paired with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and the aforementioned Bender, the Suns arguably remain just one piece away from impacting the conference’s playoff race moving forward. After one full offseason, expect Chriss to come back stronger, bigger and with a refined three-point stroke — then the league will truly see what this freakishly athletic pogo stick is capable of.

4. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

For many, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon, a second-round selection out of the University of Virginia, has been a pleasant surprise, coming on strong right out of the gate in November. Under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, Brogdon has been a game-changer on both sides of the ball for a franchise still trying to secure one of the Eastern Conference’s final seeds, proving that he can step into most situations and contribute.

In college, Brogdon was one of the country’s best defenders, but it’s been his playmaking and shooting that has most helped the Bucks. Brogdon is averaging 10 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals over 26.2 minutes per game, providing some much-needed energy for the Bucks all season. He won’t beat out either of the Sixers’ rookies, but Brogdon is certainly a name worth remembering.

3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

While the two rookies for the 76ers remain ahead of Jaylen Brown right now, it may not be for much longer. The Boston Celtics’ Brown has not only earned playing time in head coach Brad Stevens’ loaded rotation, but he’s run with the opportunity and provided tremendous production for the conference’s newly-minted contender. The No. 3 overall pick was key in the Celtics’ wins over the Los Angeles Lakers (16 points, eight rebounds), Cleveland Cavaliers (eight points, six rebounds) and Chicago Bulls (11 points) this month and is primed for some important minutes in his first upcoming postseason.

Filling in for an injured Avery Bradley, Brown joined the starting lineup and responded with a scorching hot streak from three-point range, his biggest knock as a prospect coming into the NBA.

From going at LeBron James without fear to defending some of the opposing teams’ best players, Brown has proven that he belongs in this conversation as well. All of a sudden, the former Cal standout is making significant contributions to a roster that’s making a late push for home court advantage until the NBA Finals — that alone should elevate Brown past most of his competition.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Alas, what could have been.

Once the NBA experienced Joel Embiid’s considerable talent, it was tough to let go again. Conquering this year’s notoriously weak draft class, Embiid was the shining star that could often stuff a layup attempt on one end and then dribble into a three-pointer on the other. With the hype well-met and Embiid playing out of his mind, the former Jayhawk even made a serious run at one of the Eastern Conference’s final All-Star spots as a rookie, almost becoming the first to do so since Blake Griffin in 2011 and Yao Ming in 2003.

In a word, Embiid was simply remarkable, delivering on a huge portion of his considerable potential and then some through the first three months of the season. Statistically, Embiid blew the class away, but, again, it’s tough to give the honors to somebody that played in only 31 games.

However, if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll be earning bigger and better awards before long — so hopefully this is the last major setback in a long and fruitful career.

1. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

According to Embiid himself, the answer for Rookie of the Year is obvious:

Over the course of the season, Dario Saric has averaged just 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 41 percent shooting, but it’s been an entirely different story since Embiid went down it a knee injury. Since the injury, Saric has significantly bumped his per-game numbers to 18 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, successfully taking the reins from his teammate as the odds-on leader for the award. Since his move to power forward, Saric has helped the Sixers to three wins in their last five games, including a staggering 42-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks last week.

Saric has improved drastically as the team’s new go-to scorer (he’s averaged 15.1 FGA per game since February, up from his season average of 11.1), and often has the ball in his hands in the biggest moments. The new fan-favorite turns just 23 years old in early April, but his years dominating in Europe have obviously carried over as he’s a crafty, creative forward that was well worth the wait.

Even better, Saric has the attention of the best European player of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki. Before the Mavericks lost to the 76ers last week, Nowitzki told Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was impressed with the Croatian’s strong rookie season.

“It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now,” Nowitzki said. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He’s a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He’s able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create.”

With just 12 games remaining, Saric has a great opportunity to fill up the box score for a Philadelphia squad that will do plenty of experimenting under head coach Brett Brown to finish the season. Even with the slow start, Saric has proven worthy for the game’s biggest moments and should be a fantastic piece to pair with Simmons, Embiid and another high draft pick this summer.

Ultimately, the voting will come down to a battle of statistical impact versus the value of winning: Saric’s numbers pass the eye test, but don’t count out the voters’ acknowledgment of Brown’s contributions to a potential 50-win Celtics team.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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