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NBA Sunday: Who Will Challenge Out East?

So much movement, so many questions. The unpredictable Eastern Conference will be exciting to watch this season.

Moke Hamilton



The NBA offseason is where dreams either come true or shrivel up and die.

Free agents either sign huge contracts and give themselves and their loved ones the financial freedom they’ve dreamed about since they were young, or, conversely, find themselves continuing the check-to-check and living out of a suitcase lifestyle that NBA players detest.

Team executives usually find a way to fortify their squads and improve their odds of becoming a contender or see what little hope they had in the first place dashed and shattered worse than a car-wrecked windshield.

And, of course, the fans live and die with every move.

With an almost unprecedented amount of impact-player movement this summer, it has been incredibly difficult to handicap the Eastern Conference and determine which teams have improved the most. So despite most people predicting that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win the Eastern Conference for a third consecutive year, there are enough interesting story-lines brewing in the conference to keep my attention this coming season.

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After spending four years as the teammate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade was forgotten about.

His somewhat underwhelming performance in a few of their appearances in the NBA Finals had many thinking that Wade was over the hill and that he was no longer capable of being one of the more dominant performers in the NBA. Miraculously, though, in the two years since the departure of James, Wade has proven otherwise. Specifically, his performance during the 2016 NBA Playoffs was inspiring, as he put together his finest output since the 2012 postseason.

Now, as Wade takes his talents to his hometown of Chicago, he will join up with Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler to try to get the franchise back to the playoffs. With Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic as his primary running mates, Wade was able to help the HEAT to 48 wins and the third seed in the conference.

There are a great many that don’t believe that the Bulls will amount to much. They don’t think that the perimeter heavy triumvirate that Fred Hoiberg will be depending on can compete in the tough Eastern Conference.

But long ago, I learned to not bet against Dwyane Wade.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Central Division, the Indiana Pacers are quietly rebuilding around Paul George. After suffering a horrific leg injury about two years ago, George quietly enjoyed what could be argued as the finest season of his professional career during 2015-16. His Pacers put up a valiant fight against the Toronto Raptors—a team that dominated the Eastern Conference last season—and now, will enter 2016-17 with perhaps the most underrated offseason of them all. Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson each upgrade the team’s overall talent while the recent signing of Aaron Brooks probably served as the final missing piece for the team that seems to be the most complete in the division (aside from the Cavaliers).

In the meantime, despite not walking away from the 2016 NBA Draft with an impact player like Jimmy Butler, Danny Ainge and his Boston Celtics managed to recover quite nicely by adding Al Horford. The Celtics were amongst the teams that were believed to have a serious chance of convincing the Oklahoma City Thunder to part with Russell Westbrook, but even with his re-signing, the Celtics will continue to be involved in conversations with any team that has a superstar or two that it may need to surrender. There are not many other teams out there with more assets to offer, so any question related to the Celtics is not all about who they are today, it is very much about who they can be tomorrow.

Indeed, the Bulls, Pacers and Celtics each give us plenty of reason to watch the developments of the Eastern Conference this coming season. It is difficult to imagine any of those three teams not qualifying for the playoffs. But there are only eight spots available, so the question as to which other teams will fill the slots is perhaps the greatest question of them all.

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Miami HEAT, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons were the eight respective teams to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

A few weeks ago, Tommy Beer and I got together for a Basketball Insiders podcast and had some discourse related to which teams in the conference had improved most, which signings we liked least and who we expected to see in the playoffs. It was an impossible thing to predict. Even now, as training camp draws nearer, it remains incredibly difficult.

Of the eight teams that qualified last season, without Dwyane Wade, the HEAT seem most likely to fail to qualify this coming season, though that may depend largely on whether or not Chris Bosh is able to resume his basketball career. There will be questions about the Atlanta Hawks as Jeff Teague and Al Horford have been replaced by Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard and the Charlotte Hornets will be expected to take a step back after losing Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, amongst others.

And while all of that was happening, quietly, Phil Jackson was laying in the weeds, readying for his opportunity to strike. The New York Knicks acquired Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings this past summer. All things considered, they are perhaps the most interesting Eastern Conference team to keep an eye on this coming season. If things go right and if everyone stays healthy, the Knicks would probably have a realistic shot at ending the reign of the Toronto Raptor at the top of the Atlantic Division and earning a top four seed in the conference. The health issue, however, is a huge if. At worst, the Knicks could very well find themselves in the lottery against come May. There is simply no predicting how this season will turn out for them.

The Milwaukee Bucks are a team that tickled everyone’s fancy, but a train wreck of a season saw them win just 33 games and had them finish with just the 12th best record in the conference. The addition of Thon Maker will give head coach Jason Kidd another young body to include amongst an impressive young core that features Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson. How far that team goes, however, will be determined by whether or not Jabari Parker can remain in shape and healthy for an entire season and whether or not one of the youngsters on the team can emerge as a leader for Jason Kidd’s team. As rumors continue to circulate concerning Greg Monroe and his availability, there seem to be a lot of variables that will determine whether or not Milwaukee is able to go to the next level.

In it all, the Washington Wizards are the team that has been overlooked and forgotten about. With Scotty Brooks having been brought in, he will immediately have two of the brightest young stars in the league at his disposal: John Wall and Bradley Beal. With Nene Hilario having taken his talents to Houston, the Wizards will effectively replace him with Ian Mahinmi. After being the understudy to Paul Pierce for a season, Otto Porter is still searching for the consistency that we saw in flashes, while Kelly Oubre doesn’t yet seem ready to be an everyday impact player, either.

Andrew Nicholson and Trey Burke have been added to the fold and give the team some relatively fresh faces that will get rotation minutes from day one.

* * * * * *

Entering the 2016-17 season, in the Eastern Conference, there are three different categories of teams. Of course, everything relies on health, but the Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Pacers are the teams that we can rest assured to be in the the playoffs. On the other end of the spectrum, the Sixers, Nets, Magic and, if Bosh is unable to contribute consistently, HEAT are the teams that are probably outside looking in.

Essentially, what that means is that there will be eight teams battling for the final four playoff spots. It’s quite difficult to predict how it will all play out in the end, but that, in and of itself, makes this coming season quite exciting.


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Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes



It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler



A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders



The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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