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New Orleans Pelicans 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans, who are looking to prove the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo can be successful.

Basketball Insiders

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Entering a pivotal year for the franchise, the Pelicans are a fascinating study in the true power of stardom in the NBA. Their biggest names are some of the most recognizable in the league: They have likely the game’s starriest frontcourt in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a near-max-level point guard in Jrue Holiday squarely in his prime.

At the same time, their depth after these three is almost startlingly weak, particularly on the wings. With Cousins able to walk for nothing at the end of the season and whispers about Davis’ future free agency starting to grow louder, GM Dell Demps needs the group he’s put together this season to gel and put forth a product that encourages the big stars about the future – and if not, the Pelicans may have to contemplate life without at least one.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

What we saw of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis a year ago wasn’t awesome, and it’s not like the Pelicans had the money to add a whole lot to their roster over the summer to make massive improvements. Still, arguably the two best big men in the league are on the same team, and it’s hard not to see some measure of promise in that. That’s not going to stop the Anthony Davis trade rumors, unfortunately, but the better they play the less likely it is they’ll have to deal with that particular drama this year. Bottom line: New Orleans needs to make the playoffs. It’s time for them to make that happen, and that means finishing at least third in Southwest to sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference’s postseason picture. Anything less and Davis’ time in the Big Easy really could be running out.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

While the rest of the NBA is zigging towards playing smaller and faster, the New Orleans Pelicans are zagging the opposite direction with a huge frontline featuring Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. These two talented big men form arguably the most interesting and unique frontcourt duo in the NBA, but last year’s results didn’t give us reason to believe it’s a match made in heaven. Finding out how to maximize the considerable skill sets of Davis and Cousins is an imperative task for Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. If Gentry can find a way to maximize his talented frontcourt tandem, the Pelicans could exceed all reasonable expectations this upcoming season. However, wing depth and perimeter shooting are going to be issues that will likely plague this team unless they pull off some serious deals to bring in more talent on the wing.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

As far as top-end talent goes, the Pelicans can compete with just about anyone. They have the most talented frontcourt in the league with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a guy in Jrue Holiday whose talents complement the two big men very well. That trifecta can hold up to nearly any in the league outside Golden State and a couple other markets – but the question marks start immediately after that. With Solomon Hill’s recent injury that could keep him out for much of the year, the Pelicans are now dangerously thin on the wing – guys like Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark may have to play important roles there. The acquisition of Rajon Rondo after Holiday had already re-signed seemed curious, and still does. Depth in the frontcourt behind Davis and Cousins is a question mark. With some decent injury luck for their big three and some solid cohesion, this could absolutely be a playoff team. But the floor is also very low, especially if any of the three has to miss any time or Cousins becomes volatile like he has in the past. We’ll pencil them in for third in the Southwest for now, but they could easily be fourth or even fifth if things go badly.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

When you look at Anthony Davis’ numbers, one would figure it would only be a matter of time until the Pelicans take flight and find themselves out of the doldrums in the Western Conference—especially with a talent like DeMarcus Cousins added to the fold.

As he entered the final year of his contract, Cousins is the player to watch this season in New Orleans. It’s amazing to think that a player of his talent has yet to play in a single playoff game. If things break right in the Big Easy this season, though, a postseason berth may be possible. With Zach Randolph headed to Sacramento and Tony Allen not having re-signed with the Grizzlies, the door does seem to be a bit ajar for the Pelicans. That, however, will depend upon their ability to stay healthy, and Solomon Hill’s torn hamstring isn’t a positive omen.

Still, with Ian Clark and Rajon Rondo added to the fold, the Pelicans have brought in a few winners. A re-signed Jrue Holiday should also contribute positively to what these guys have going on this season, as well. They’ll be pulling up the rear out West, but if they manage to leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Southwest, they’ll be in the fight for the playoffs. I just wouldn’t bet on it at this point.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

After trading for DeMarcus Cousins halfway through last season, the New Orleans Pelicans are hoping a full offseason and training camp together can mesh arguably the top two bigs in the game enough to warrant their first trip to the playoffs in three years.

With a healthy Jrue Holiday and some chemistry between Cousins and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could be in a position to make some noise this season. However, if the two former Kentucky big men don’t produce what New Orleans is hoping they will on the court this season, it will be interesting to see how Cousins handles his free agency next summer.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

This one is a dead heat between Cousins and Davis, but since the Brow gets the nod in our next section, Boogie gets his time in the spotlight now. Cousins was a pretty similar player last year after being traded to New Orleans, posting similar shooting numbers while seeing some of his midrange game move over to Davis, replaced by a few more looks near the hoop.

Logic would suggest some staggering of minutes between the two to leave at least one on the court as often as possible, but this might be tough – the Pellies were destroyed last year in the minutes Cousins played without Davis, and Boogie’s own numbers showed a huge gap. He was lethal from three with Davis out there, and was able to draw more fouls and average higher rates in nearly everything across the board. These two will look to improve their on-court partnership even more with a full offseason (they trained together at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas over the summer), but how they play separately, and particularly while Cousins is the lone star on the floor, is also cause for concern.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

There was a time when Davis’ defensive potential widely eclipsed his actual value there, but the last couple years have mostly put that to rest. Davis was one of the league’s 10 most valuable defensive players last season, per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and he’s become far more than a freak athlete who blocks a lot of shots. His timing has really improved along with his ability to be that anchor a defense needs. A full season of Cousins in town should ostensibly remove just enough of his offensive burden for him to perhaps chase some defensive honors if things go well.

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

There’s a temptation to say newcomer Rajon Rondo here, and Rondo is likely still the better passer in a vacuum. But “playmaker” and “passer” aren’t the same thing, and especially for a team that looks likely to have spacing concerns all over the place, Rondo might not have the kind of success some expect while he’s on the floor. It will be very hard for him to generate consistently good looks for himself, and defenses know they can play his passing lanes and dare him to shoot the ball.

Holiday, on the other hand, has the chops as a scorer from multiple areas of the court to keep the defense honest. As nearly a 37 percent career three-point shooter, teams can’t simply sag away from him and clog things up when someone like Davis or Cousins has the ball. He’s posted solid passing figures for several years in a row, and seems to have put some of his worst health concerns behind him (fingers crossed). He’s also a far more consistent defender than Rondo at this point, which matters for his ability to stay on the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

Especially for a big man, Davis’ 42 percent from the field in clutch time last year actually represents a very solid number, and one of the best on the team. He’s able to play both one-on-one and as part of the two-man game, and with another brute in Cousins around to soak up help defenders and provide a solid secondary option, look for much of the crunch-time offense to flow through the frontcourt (just like the rest of the offense).

The Unheralded Player: E’Twaun Moore

Moore is a limited player in certain areas, but as one of just a few guys on the roster who can credibly play at least one wing spot, he also fills an important role that the Pelicans badly need: Spacing. Moore has shot 37 percent and 45 percent from three over the last two years respectively, and he’ll be one of the few guys New Orleans can rely on to keep the defense honest while their primary cogs work.

Best New Addition: Tony Allen

On the flip side of that coin is Allen, whose signing for one year was reported Monday. Allen is nothing close to a spacing threat, but he’ll step in immediately as the team’s top wing stopper. He may not quite have the legs left in him to make the overall impact Davis does defensively, but his addition all but guarantees that the Pelicans will have an above-average defense, and likely a top-10 unit.

-Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. The Frontcourt

As we noted above, there are definitely some concerns when only Cousins is on the floor without Davis. When they play together, though, no team in the league truly has the personnel to effectively guard them. Cousins sees his three-point rate and efficiency skyrocket with another post behemoth sharing the court with him, and the Pelicans were a solid playoff team based on per-possession figures when they played together last year. The first month or two of this year will be huge for building their chemistry.

2. Healthy Jrue Holiday

After years of struggling with his health, Holiday finally was able to stay on the court last season. He missed a chunk to start the year, but that wasn’t an injury – he was caring for his wife. After that, Jrue would play in all but three games for the Pelicans, shooting a career-high from the field and showing off the kind of high-level defense that makes him such an attractive player. He’s the perfect complement to a Davis-Cousins frontcourt, and the Pelicans need another healthy year from him after signing him to a big contract this summer.

3. Darren Erman

After coming aboard as an assistant with head coach Alvin Gentry to start the 2015-16 season, it took Erman – a defensive whiz who is well-respected around the league – a full season to leave his mark. The Pelicans were bad defensively in his first year, but took a giant leap into the league’s top 10 last year after a year to digest his concepts. They did so with arguably only a few true plus defenders on the roster, and mostly through a solid scheme with smart tenets. Some have labeled Erman the next big thing as an NBA head coach, but while he’s in this role, expect the Pelicans to play smart, disciplined defense.

4. Tony Allen

He doesn’t necessarily solve some of their spacing issues, but Allen was the best of a relatively limited bunch late in free agency. He fills a need for bodies on the wing and should still check in as an elite-level perimeter defender, the kind of guy who will take the toughest matchups every night. He’ll also provide a bit of additional veteran know-how as a former member of the Grit n Grind Grizzlies.

-Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Pelicans invested heavily in Jrue Holiday this summer. Their other primary free agent acquisitions include Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller and Ian Clark, triggering a hard cap of $125.3 million in the process. Prior to trading Quincy Pondexter to the Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans were very close to that cap (including unlikely incentives the team may or may not owe to Holiday). The team still has a little bit of wiggle room to fill out a roster but they may not be able to use much of their remaining spending tools that include $2.2 million of their Room Exception, their full $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception and three trade exceptions ($3.9 million, $3.5 million and $2.1 million) at their disposal.

Next summer, the Pelicans will not be under the projected salary cap of $102 million, even if DeMarcus Cousins leaves as a free agent. That’s a loss the team won’t be able to replenish with a Mid-Level Exception. New Orleans may have to find a way to improve via trade, although they don’t have much to offer on that front outside of their star players in Anthony Davis, Cousins and Holiday. The franchise needs the Cousins/Davis pairing to work, enough to entice Cousins to re-sign long-term.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The frontcourt is a relatively obvious strength for this team, with Davis and Cousins backed up by Alexis Ajinca, a solid third big. Guard also at least has several capable bodies present – Holiday first, with guys like Rondo, Clark and Moore also in tow. The Pelicans will have some expected continuity on their side with Cousins able to spend the summer working with his teammates, and this could be valuable. There are also basically zero fit or role questions present in New Orleans: Everyone knows what’s expected of them, and there shouldn’t be any kind of an adjustment period in that respect.

-Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Beyond their top three players, this is a dangerously thin team depth-wise. They’ve got bodies in the guard rotation, as we noted above, but Holiday is the only truly reliable name on that list at this point – if the injury bug struck him again at any point, the Pelicans would be in huge trouble there. They’re even thinner on the wings, where guys like Moore and Allen will be asked to play major roles. Hill’s injury really hurt here. The Pelicans have the top-end talent to hang with just about anyone, but even a single significant injury to one of their primaries will make depth a major problem right away.

-Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is what the Pelicans have done over the last few years, and particularly this year, enough to keep their star-studded frontcourt interested in staying?

Cousins can go elsewhere after this season, and the Brow Free Agency Watch has already begun in earnest despite three years still left on his contract (plus a player option for a fourth, though he’s likely to decline this). Behind these two and Holiday, the Pelicans have very little going for them in a team-building sense. They didn’t send a huge amount to Sacramento for Cousins, but their only semi-blue chip youngster, Buddy Hield, was part of the package. Losing one of the two would be a big problem, and eventually losing both would be devastating for the franchise.

So while the results for this season obviously matter and clearly tie in with the overall theme, there’s an eye to the future as well. If the team underperforms to start the year and isn’t in the realistic playoff picture, they’ll have to consider what they might get in return for Cousins if he looks unlikely to re-sign. In a broader sense, the ticking clock will only get louder on Davis if the team isn’t able to take significant steps forward this season after giving up assets for Cousins at the deadline last year. It’s a huge year in New Orleans.

-Ben Dowsett

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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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