It was all good just a week ago…
As recently as the middle of last week, the New York Knickerbockers were drawing praise from basketball pundits across the land. It appeared the Knicks were on the right track and there were legitimate reasons for New Yorkers to be optimistic.
After having parted ways with Phil Jackson, New York appeared to be closing in on hiring an accomplished general manager in David Griffin. One of the primary reasons why an experienced executive such as Griffin would be interested in the job was because the Knicks had plenty of cap space to work with this summer, and potentially even more in the near future.
Other than the crippling Joakim Noah contract, Courtney Lee was the only other player on the entire roster with a guaranteed contract that extended past the 2018-19 season.
The logical decision for New York going forward was to focus on the future and dedicate themselves to a complete and thorough rebuild. The most important piece was already in place: Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise cornerstone, around which the rest of the roster will be constructed. The Knicks also have Willy Hernangomez locked into an incredibly team-friendly contract and recently drafted Frank Ntilikina, whom the organization hopes will form a terrific partnership with KP.
One crucial step in a disciplined, successful rebuild is maintaining cap space. Even if they did have the room to add a max player this summer, the reality is the Knicks are so far away from being a threat to the top teams in their division, let alone a contender for the championship, that one player wasn’t going to make a significant difference. As a result, the smart play during this free agency period was to stay on the sidelines and patiently wait until value presented itself.
Last summer, NBA GM’s sprinted out of the gates at the start of free agency, offering massive contracts to flawed players. The salary cap was spiking, and impatient teams were looking to make an immediate splash. The Lakers agreed to pay Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years within hours of the start of free agency. L.A. later inked Luol Deng to a contract worth $72 million. The Grizzlies gave Chandler Parsons $95 million. The Knicks handed $72 million to Joakim Noah.
After that initial splurging, the teams that waited were able to secure some solid values. Miami inked Dion Waiters to a two-year, $6 million pact. The Mavericks stole Seth Curry, signing him for two years at less than $6 million. The Spurs got Dewayne Dedmon to sign for similar terms.
This year, front office folks seemed to have learned their lesson (seeing the Lakers being forced to trade away D’Angelo Russell just to dump the contract of the aforementioned Mozgov on the eve of this year’s free agency frenzy, may have scared them straight). There were very few shocking contracts agreed to in the first few days of free agency. Even All-Stars such as Kyle Lowry and Paul Millsap got far less than the max. In addition, far fewer teams were willing to lock up players long term, instead offering a plethora of one and two-year deals.
It seemed the Knicks were prudently protecting their cap space as well. Not only was it in the best interest of their rebuilding efforts to keep their hands in their pockets, but they also did not yet have a general manager in place. Steve Mills was calling the shots in the interim, but the Knicks appeared to be content to stand pat, unwilling to make any franchise-altering decisions until they hired their new GM.
And then, it happened. Late Thursday night, word broke that the Knicks had signed restricted free-agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet.
The Hawks had until midnight on Saturday to match it, but it was fairly obvious early on they would never even seriously consider agreeing to pony up that type of money for Hardaway Jr. Multiple NBA insiders reported that the Hawks were willing to pay up to approximately $45 million. The Knicks ended up paying $25 million more than the Hawks were comfortable with.
On top of that, Mills inexplicably felt the need to include a player option for the fourth year and a 15-percent trade kicker. The trade kicker makes the contract incredibly difficult to move. Given the drama surrounding the Carmelo Anthony situation, the Knicks, of all franchises, should be painfully familiar with the complications that can result from such seemingly innocuous details in a deal.
The Hawks formally announced they would not match on Saturday.
Then, on Sunday, word leaked that David Griffin had withdrawn his name from consideration for the GM job in New York.
And, here we are.
It is important to note that Tim Hardaway Jr. is a quality player. He’s only 25 and is coming off the best few months of his NBA career. Hardaway averaged 17.5 points per game over the second half of the 2016-17 campaign. He’s a capable outside shooter, which is something the Knicks certainly need. He was a subpar defender early in his career, but showed significant improvement over his two years in Atlanta. Under the right circumstances, such as the Knicks inking him at closer to $8 or $9 million per season over three years, it would have been an understandable signing.
However, the contract the Knicks offered has a disastrous downside.
First, it is a significant risk to assume Hardaway Jr. will match, let alone exceed, the production he posted late in the 2016-17 season. Prior to this past January, Hardaway Jr. had never averaged more than 13 points per game in any month of his entire four-year career. There is a rather large sample size that suggests that his flaws will prevent him from becoming an above-average shooting guard. And, for the amount of cap space the Knicks invested into him, that’s exactly what they’ll need to see.
For players that absorb nearly 20 percent of a team’s cap space, it’s imperative that they become solid starters, if not stars.
Still, if the Knicks were just one piece away from becoming a true contender, and Hardaway Jr. was the final ingredient that they thought would put them over the top, then maybe it would understandable to wildly overpay for his services. That is clearly not the case.
Worse yet, even if Hardaway Jr. exceeds expectations and things break right for New York, that “best case scenario” likely means the Knicks will win around 35-37 games.
There’s a reason New York has been unable to escape the muck of mediocrity and the Atlantic division basement for the better part of two decades (the Knicks have lost 768 games this century, more than every team in the league except the Timberwolves). It’s because the Knicks refuse to commit to a full-fledged rebuild. Starting way back with the dreadful decision to trade Patrick Ewing at the end of his career, they have never taken the steps necessary to embark on what is an admittedly arduous process.
The Knicks current objective should NOT be winning 37 games next season. The goal should be methodically building a balanced roster that is capable of consistently winning 50-plus games a few years down the road.
In addition, one common theme in the Knicks’ lack of success has been their inability to defend. The Knicks have finished the regular season ranked in the top-half of the league in Defensive Efficiency just once over the last 17 years. Coincidentally, that also happened to be the sole season this century they finished with more than 50 regular season wins and advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
At the end of each disappointing campaign, as free agency approaches, Knicks coaches and front office personnel usually proclaim that their defensive performance the prior year was unacceptable and that they’ll focus on improving that end of the floor going forward. Yet, time and again, the Knicks chase offensive-minded players when they open up their checkbooks. Tim Hardaway Jr. is another such example. Besides the fact that they grossly overpaid for Hardaway Jr.; that that they still don’t have a veteran point guard to mentor Ntlikina and feed the ball to KP and Willy; that they already have a solid starting shooting guard in Courtney Lee locked into an affordable long-term contract; Tim Hardaway Jr. will not improve the team defensively.
And one last point on Hardaway Jr.: If THJ does develop into the stud that Mills obviously believes he will, Hardaway Jr. has a player option for that fourth and final season, which means he can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent in the heart of his prime.
Lots of Knicks fans seem agitated and perplexed as to why so many in the media are ripping the Hardaway Jr. signing. Via Twitter replies, frustrated fans ask incredulously: “Maybe they slightly overpaid, but the Knicks just added a young, athletic player who can score in bunches. How can that possibly be a bad thing?!?”
It seems counterintuitive to fans and casual observers of the NBA, but sometimes when a team signs a good player, it actually results in that team being further away from title contention. Adding a good player on a bad contract can be debilitating.
Landing solid/mediocre players on good/great contracts are how smart teams flesh out their roster.
Due to the constrictions of the salary cap, every single dollar counts. Overpaying by a few million can be crippling. Overpaying by upwards of $20 million can be catastrophic.
For instance, just last week the Celtics were forced to trade away Avery Bradley, one of the game’s most feared perimeter defenders and a rising two-way star, solely because Boston desperately needed to clear $3 million dollars off their books to sign Gordon Hayward.
This past weekend, the Nets traded journeyman Justin Hamilton in exchange for DeMarre Carroll, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2018 second-round pick. This was an illustrative example of how preserving cap space can net a shrewd franchise future assets.
The Knicks’ cap space both now and in the future has been greatly diminished. As a result, New York has far less flexibility. Having financial freedom both this summer and in the years ahead is simply far more valuable than adding an athletic scorer to a terribly imbalanced roster.
Unsurprisingly, we have recently seen other teams secure cap-friendly deals. The Suns just signed promising big man Alan Williams to a three-year, $17 million salary. The Knicks had expressed interest in adding Williams, but didn’t have the cap space to make a competitive offer. (Hardaway’s average annual salary will be greater than the $17 million total Williams will make through 2020). Justin Holiday, who played well on both ends of the floor for the Knicks last season, signed for $9 million over two years. Tyreke Evans will make just $3.2 million next season.
These are the types of low-risk, high-reward contracts the Knicks should have been handing out.
At the very least, New York should have made every effort to hire a permanent GM, allowing him to sign-off on all important decisions. Which brings us back to the loss of David Griffin as a front office candidate. Apparently, Griffin wanted to bring with him a trusted cadre of scouts and executives and to have the final say in basketball-related decisions. The Knicks and owner Jim Dolan inexplicably balked at this reasonable request. Despite the putrid record of the team during the tenure of the front office personnel currently in place at Madison Square Garden, Dolan and the Knicks refused to grant autonomy to a GM with three straight Finals appearances and a championship on his resume.
Knicks fans that have watched this organization operate shouldn’t be surprised. Unfortunately, it’s the continuation of a vicious cycle.
Two common denominators during the decade-plus the Knicks have spent in the doldrums has been too much Jim Dolan and not enough defense.
Less than a week ago, it appeared the Knicks were on their way towards escaping the pitfalls of the past and inching their way towards respectability by committing to patiently building a team the right way.
Yet, just a few days later, here we are…
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.
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.
NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018
Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.
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.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
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.
The Pistons have announced an update on Reggie Jackson's status. He's been cleared to begin light running, shooting and continued ankle strengthening exercises, and his progress will be monitored this week. No timetable for a return to practice.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 21, 2018
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.
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.
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.