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NBA Saturday: Don’t Overlook Julius Randle

Julius Randle is striving for greatness, and he could be one of the best players to come out of this draft class.

Alex Kennedy

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Two years ago, Julius Randle was being labeled as one of the best high school players in the nation. He was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, winning three state titles in four years at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Texas while averaging 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds as a senior. However, he didn’t care about the attention he was receiving because he had his sights set on bigger accomplishments.

“All I am right now is a player that’s good on the high school level, but I’m trying to be great in college and then, hopefully, in the NBA,” Randle told me in 2012. “If I make it to the league, I want to be great. I have bigger goals than being recognized in high school and stuff like that. It doesn’t really affect me. I’m grateful that people think I’m a great player and everything, but I have bigger goals than this.”

Two years later, Randle is on the verge of achieving those goals. He just finished his lone collegiate season in Kentucky, in which he was dominant. He averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds, leading all Division I players in double-doubles for the season. Randle led all NCAA players in total rebounds (416), registering the second-most defensive rebounds (277) and the fourth-most offensive rebounds (139). He put up an impressive efficiency rating (25) and led Kentucky to the national championship game. Not bad for a freshman who just turned 19 years old in November.

Now, Randle is weeks away from being drafted and turning his NBA dream into reality. He’s going to be a lottery pick on June 26 and potentially a top-five selection. He’s one step closer to becoming the great player that he strives to be, and he can’t wait to begin his NBA journey. He’s confident that his game will translate to the NBA and that he can have the same success he had at every other level.

“I think my versatility [separates me from other power forward prospects],” Randle said.“We’re all athletic and fast, but I think my versatility – being able to shoot the ball, handle the ball really well, having the intangibles to guard on the defensive end even and I’m still getting a lot better at that – I just think my versatility separates me from a lot of people.”

Randle has the killer instinct and confidence that NBA talent evaluators love. That was obvious dating back to his high school days, and he confirmed it at Kentucky.

“I want to be totally dominant on the court in every game,” Randle said in high school. “When I walk off the court, I want to be known as the best player.”

For most of his life, that has often been the case. Randle is an intriguing prospect, since he’s so strong and physically gifted. He’s explosive, quick and always active, which is why he’s such an excellent rebounder. He’s able to score in the post, even against bigger defenders, and he consistently gets to the free throw line and converts. But perhaps the most attractive thing about Randle is his motor. The team that drafts Randle doesn’t have to worry about him giving anything less than 100 percent. He’s an intense competitor who always goes hard, and he has an outstanding work ethic.

There have been some concerns about his height (6’9), since he’s somewhat undersized for a power forward in the NBA. There was also talk that he had relatively short arms, but at the combine his wingspan was measured at 7’0 and his standing reach was 8’9.5, which means that his arm length shouldn’t be an issue in the league.

Randle is confident that he’ll be effective in the NBA and he’s looking forward to further proving himself throughout the pre-draft process. He knows that this is his chance to improve his draft stock and impress the teams that control his fate, and he’s ready to make the most of the opportunity.

“Am I able to stand out? Yeah, I feel like I’ll be able to stand out in any situation just because of my belief in myself and my confidence and my ability,” Randle said.“Regardless of what goes on, I’m just trying to have fun with it all.”

Throughout the college basketball season, Randle and his Wildcat teammates were under the microscope and trying to live up to ridiculously high expectations. Entering the season, Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the country and being described as the best recruiting class ever. Fans were anticipating an undefeated season and a national title. However, the team ended up losing 10 games before the NCAA tournament, but Randle said he thinks that’s what brought the team together and propelled their impressive run in March.

“It helped us mature a lot just because we had to become closer to each other,” Randle said.“We leaned on each other a lot because we were going through an everyday process together and it really brought us closer than we already were. … I just learned how to attack adversity every day. How I can get better every day, even when things aren’t going the way you want them to? I was able to do that.”

One of the benefits of playing for Kentucky is that there are many, many former Wildcats in the league who are still very involved with the program. Randle has been receiving advice from a number of these players, many of whom went through this same NBA pre-draft process recently and were top picks as well.

“[They told me to] just be myself and have fun with everything since it’s something you only get to do once,” Randle said.

Randle has been training for the draft back in Texas and working on several aspects of his game.

“I’m just going to keep getting into great shape, keep working on shooting, keep being that versatile player and keep getting better on the defensive end,” Randle said. “I put in a lot [of conditioning work], just because I want to be ready for the workouts, ready for the summer league games and eventually ready for the season. Being in shape as a professional is something you should always be in.”

NBA talent evaluators love Randle’s game and believe he has what it takes to be an impact player at the next level.

“He’s interesting,” one Western Conference executive said. “He’s a little undersized for a four, but he’s a guy that coming into the league can come off your bench and score baskets. He’s got to develop a 15-17 foot jump shot, which I think he will. He’s very left-handed, but I think he can rebound at the NBA level. Offensively, I think he’s going to come in and score baskets.”

“He’s a guy that can be Zach Randolph,” said Ryan Blake, the Senior Director of NBA Scouting Operations. “At this stage of the game as a power forward, I project him to do a lot more with his development [considering the] hard work that he puts into it.”

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be?”

Randle has been waiting his whole life to play in the NBA, brushing off past success because he strived to be great on the professional level. Soon, Randle will be on basketball’s biggest stage and have the chance to solidify himself as an elite player. This draft is loaded with talented players who have been hyped up for years, but Randle shouldn’t be overlooked.

(Check out this breakdown of Randle’s game, from our friends at DraftExpress).

Phil Jackson Asks Carmelo Anthony to Opt In

Will Carmelo Anthony opt into his contract and delay his free agency by one year? That’s what Knicks president Phil Jackson has asked his star to do. Jackson wants Anthony to give him and his new head coach one season to change the culture in New York and show ‘Melo how things are going to be moving forward before he makes his free agency decision.

If Anthony opts in to the final year of his contract, he’ll make $23,333,403 next season. By opting in and increasing his contract number, he would be eligible to sign a larger contract next offseason when he’s a free agent, since salary increases go off of the previous year’s figure. It’s risky, because Anthony would be delaying his multi-year, lucrative payday and could get injured during the 2014-15 season, but he could end up making more money in the long run if all goes as planned.

This would also take Anthony’s contract off of the books in the summer of 2015, when the Knicks want to pursue “headline players,” according to Jackson. The Knicks only have $290,000 in guaranteed commitments for the 2015-16 season, so Jackson and his staff would have a ton of money to throw around to re-sign Anthony and then put a star (or two) next to him in New York.

Jackson said that Anthony is considering opting in, and he reportedly has until June 23 to make his decision and inform the Knicks.

“I’ve told him it might be a good idea to hang in here and see what it’s like for a year, and go on to next year,” Jackson said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “But that’s his option. That’s what he’s earned and part of his contractual agreement. He has the right to [opt out]. But I just offered that to give him an opportunity to see how this is going to change – with the coaching, the system and the culture we impose.”

In the meantime, Jackson needs to find a head coach. He nearly had Steve Kerr, even coming to a verbal agreement with the first-time coach, but then the Golden State Warriors job opened up and he couldn’t resist considering the team’s talent and his California roots.

“Unfortunately, I had told [Anthony] that Steve Kerr was coming in to coach the team when I felt it was the time to tell him,” Jackson said. “Then I obviously had to back off that. And we haven’t talked about coaches since.”

“I had to kind of release [Kerr] to actually go to this job and say, ‘You have to do what’s right for yourself’,” Jackson said, according to the New York Daily News. “I understood entirely the process he was going through to have that [Warriors] job open up. That was something he kind of thought would be a good fit for him. So that’s good, we’re happy for him.

“There were plenty of things in the contract where he could have come here and been very satisfied. So that really wasn’t the issue. The issue was about California, and the issue was about — to be perfectly honest – it’s a better job for him. He’s a California guy. It’s a group of guys that are for him, been in the playoffs, been there, they have a really good operating team right now. … We’re still a team that didn’t make the playoffs, have to put together a roster. I’m not saying we have to rebuild, per se, but we have to build a competitive team, whereas that team — what did they get, to the semifinals last year, and this year they got bumped in the first round. But playoff experience is important.”

Jackson admitted that some people in the organization have “suggested” that he return to the sideline and coach for a year while he mentors a young coach. However, he says he’s not interested. He doesn’t think he can physically do the job at his age, which is a big reason why he’s hesitant to coach again.

Derek Fisher, who currently plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder and spent many years as Jackson’s point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, is someone who he is considering to be the Knicks’ next head coach since he’s a great leader and familiar with the triangle offense.

“For the last two summers, Derek and I have talked about the next step in his career. And he’s gone back to playing,” Jackson said. “But we’ve talked about the next step over the last two years. So I kind of know what he wants to do, and his feelings. He’s got a family—kids, little kids, in L.A. I’ve got no idea if he’d want to move his family to come here. There’s so many unknowns, and I’m not talking to him [yet]. But he’s definitely on my list of guys who could be a very good candidate for this job.”

Jackson would love to steal his old protégé Brian Shaw from the Denver Nuggets, but he doesn’t want to give the team any compensation.

“Denver has everything that we’ve owned for the last few years already,” Jackson joked, since the Nuggets have two draft picks and four players from the Knicks’ trade for Anthony. “There’s nothing else I want to give them.”

It remains to be seen if Anthony will opt in and who the next head coach will be in New York, but as always, the Knicks are an interesting team to keep an eye on.

 

 

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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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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