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Philadelphia 76ers 2017-18 Season Preview

Few teams have as much anticipation brewing around their 2017-18 season as the Philadelphia 76ers. In this season preview, we take a look at why.

Basketball Insiders

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For the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers are being considered as a legitimate playoff contender.

Years of tanking and “trusting the process” seem to be well on their way to provided fruitful results. Despite all of the excitement, however, there’s still one catch: the Sixers top rookies can never seem to stay healthy for an entire season.

Will this be the year Philadelphia steers clear of any injury concerns? If so, one of the league’s bottom feeders in recent years could ride a bevy of young studs to their first playoff appearance in over half a decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Joel Embiid is everything good about today’s NBA. His Twitter interactions are hilarious and deliberate, his stretchy big man game is incredibly fun to watch, and his place on a young, upstart team shows what good comes when an organization bottoms out in a way that makes basement floors jealous. He (and the Sixers) are just easy to root for, especially with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons officially joining in on the fun this year. Philly should be markedly improved this year and could even make a run at the playoffs for the first time since Andre Iguodala was still with the team. We trusted the process, and now we get to reap the rewards of that trust.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Philadelphia 76ers are on the cusp of taking a huge step forward in their rebuild this season. The franchise traded for the rights to the top overall pick in this year’s draft, Markelle Fultz. Last year’s top overall pick, Ben Simmons, is healthy and ready to make up for lost time. Joel Embiid should be ready to go after missing the majority of last season with a knee injury. The rest of the roster continues to develop and show promise as well. Head coach Brett Brown has been patient and has slowly built his young players up over the years while suffering a huge amount of losses during his tenure in Philadelphia. Now, for the first time, Brown has the young talent and some veteran players, like J.J. Redick, to really compete on a nightly basis. With so much elite young talent, the 76ers will be a League Pass favorite this season and should certainly exceed their 28 game win total from last season.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Sixers have a nice cast of players, but their hopes of changing their fortunes rest squarely on the shoulders (and knees and hips) of Joel Embiid. Enough has been said about the number 31 and why it’s relevant here, so I won’t continue to beat a dead horse.

I am probably in the minority of people who believe that the Nets will be respectable this season, and perhaps even better than the Knicks, though I do suppose that depends on what happens with Carmelo Anthony. In any event, I could see the Sixers finishing as highly as third in the division and, of course, as low as fifth. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that everyone stays healthy, that Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid find a way to coexist, and that both J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson earn their salaries this season.

If all those things happen (and I agree that there are certainly a lot of “ifs”), then the Sixers might actually have a shot to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

It’s certainly possible.

3rd Place — Atlantic Division

— Moke Hamilton

For all of the years the Philadelphia 76ers asked their fans for trust, they finally look poised to show them why this season.

After years of basement dwelling, the Sixers are stacked with fresh, young faces, and sprinkled a few savvy veterans into the mix this summer while they were at it. J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson join Philadelphia’s core of young guns that include back-to-back first overall picks in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid and a playmaking forward in Dario Saric. Mix all of that together with the weakened Eastern Conference, and the Sixers could be headed right for a playoff berth come next spring.

Despite all of the excitement, however, there is still the question of injury concerns in Philly. Embiid has played just 31 games in three years, Simmons missed his rookie year with a broken foot and Fultz rolled his ankle in Summer League, cutting his Las Vegas fun short.

This is the first season since Allen Iverson was rocking cornrows on the court that the Sixers have real excitement. Barring any medical mishaps, Philadelphia is a position to make actual noise around the league.

3rd – Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Process is finally moving along at a quicker speed, and it has folks in Philly talking playoffs for the first time in a while. The addition of J.J. Redick to a starry collection of blue chip young talent promises to make the 76ers one of the most fascinating teams in the league, and an incredibly weak East makes postseason hopes firmly within the realm of realism. It’s no lock whatsoever – remember that rookies and second-year guys are rarely positive contributors in the long run, no matter how high their potential ceilings are, and Philly is still relying heavily on several of those guys. There are also still big health questions, primarily surrounding Joel Embiid. If all the primaries can stay on the court for 70 or more games, this could finally be the year in Philly. But a lot still has to go right. Expect them to be there with the Knicks in competition for the third seed in the Atlantic, though with a much higher ceiling if everything goes well.

3rd Place — Atlantic Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

It’s been well documented that Embiid has played just 31 games over the course of the last three seasons, but oh man, when he was on the court he was downright special. Standing at 7-foot-2, but operating with the fluidity of a wing player, Embiid packages his unique skillset into a force that opposing teams struggle to stop on the court.

Last season, despite never truly developing a rhythm due to sitting out back-to-backs and a minute restriction, Embiid still managed to average 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game… all while playing just 25 minutes a night. And on top of that, the big man shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. Embiid managed to bully defenses while on a time crunch, all after sitting out of competitive basketball for two full years. Think about that for a second.

Barring another injury (which at this point is more of a blind wish than anything), Embiid will easily be Philadelphia’s most talented offensive player. Plus, with the additions of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, and J.J. Redick, opposing teams will have a harder time trying to key in on the center than they did last year. If he’s on the court, Embiid will be special, period.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

While Embiid makes a strong case for the Sixers’ top defensive player as well, with the NBA shifting towards a reliance on high-level wing players, Covington answers the call as the team’s most important and versatile defender.

During his time in Philadelphia, Covington has grown into one of the more important players on the roster, and is shaping up to be the team’s X-factor for next season. On defensive side of the ball, Covington possesses the length and athleticism to hound the opponent’s top offensive player, whether it be Andrew Wiggins or John Wall.

After leading the league in deflections last season — along with being the only guy in the entire NBA not named Kawhi Leonard to average 2.5 steals, one block, and shot over 35 percent from deep per 100 possessions since 2013-14 — the Sixers’ swingman is their best defensive weapon heading into this season.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

The Sixers are in a rare position this season, with two straight No. 1 overall picks hit the court for the first time at the same time. After losing his freshman year in the league to injury, Simmons will hit the ground running this year, and immediately become the team’s top playmaker.

Lauded as one of the most gifted passers coming out of college in recent memory, Simmons operates as a 6-foot-10 point guard with Magic-esque qualities. Inserting him into a lineup that features like the likes of Embiid, Fultz, Redick, and Covington, Simmons should have no shortage of opportunities for easy assists. But where his true value as the team’s top playmaker will come into play are with the hard assists Simmons creates with his ability to thread the needle with pinpoint passes, or by gripping a defensive rebound and going coast-to-coast for a bucket.

After depending on T.J. McConnell for much of last season to run the team’s offense, Simmons will be a pleasant, and major, upgrade as the team’s floor general.

Top Clutch Player: Markelle Fultz

Attaching the title of “most clutch” to a 19-year-old point guard who will likely spend most of his time playing off of the ball is a hard sell, but with the game on the line throughout the season, Fultz’s array of offensive moves and cool demeanor will become a go-to for Brett Brown.

During Fultz’s freshman year at Washington, he was the sole proprietor of the team’s offense. Granted, the Huskies absolutely stunk, but Fultz is accustomed to shouldering the load and having the ball in his hands with the entire defense focused on stopping him. In Philly, however, defenses will be kept honest by the threat of Embiid and others, so most likely Fultz would get the ball in a one-on-one scenario where he is more than capable of putting his man in a blender.

Of course Embiid, Simmons, and even Redick with his dead-eye shooting are all capable of making late-game plays, but as the season goes on Fultz will consistently become the end-of-game killer for the Sixers.

The Unheralded Player: T.J. McConnell

McConnell isn’t very fast, he’s not that big, he doesn’t shoot particularly well and sometimes he dribbles around with the ball too much. But, despite all of that, McConnell can go out on the floor each night and compete.

On a team with high draft picks and big contracts stealing the headlines, McConnell easily gets lost in the shuffle. Last year, McConnell led the Sixers with 6.6 assists a night. He even hit a game-winning jumper over Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, thrusting himself into the center of Process Trusters’ hearts.

McConnell won’t beat many opponents based off of sheer talent, but he’s a prototypical “gritty” player. He’ll hit the deck without a second thought, fight for loose balls and be a superb teammate. While the media is swooning over the Sixers’ brand name players, McConnell will be behind the scenes, making plays when called upon.

Best New Addition: Markelle Fultz

There a few candidates for this honor, but considering Simmons has been in the gy, training with the team for an entire year and Redick won’t have the same overall impact, Fultz gets the nod as the team’s best newcomer.

As the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz represented a unique combination as best player available as well as best player fit for Philadelphia considering his strengths on the court. For similar reasons listed above about Fultz, his offensive prowess helps improve the Sixers’ attack, even at such a young age.

Fultz displays a superb ability to shoot and score from all levels of the court, and provides the perfect complement to the pass-first Simmons. Last season, the Sixers struggled mainly due to not having a go-to scorer for most of the year. With Fultz on board for this year, that issue is immediately solved, making him the most valuable newcomer.

– Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Dario Saric

Almost forgotten in the hype of Simmons, Embiid, and Fultz is the other Sixers young gun, Saric. A finalist, along with Embiid, for last season’s Rookie of the Year award, Saric displayed an impressive amount of growth during his inaugural season in the NBA.

Following Embiid’s final game on Jan. 27, Saric assumed most of the offensive burden as the team’s de facto playmaker and go-to scorer. Over that same span over 36 games, Saric averaged 16.7 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game. Even more impressive, in a weird addition-by-subtraction twist, Saric managed those numbers despite a terrible shooting slump that saw him connect on just 28 percent of his shots from long distance.

With a full season under his belt and some shiny new weapons surrounding him, Saric looks poised to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Sixers moving forward.

2. Brett Brown

When you take a quick glance at Brown’s head coaching record, you may wonder how the man still has a job. Of course, that notion would have to come from a very oblivious NBA fan, but nevertheless, the 75-253 mark isn’t pretty.

This season, however, Brown finally has a roster that resembles that of an NBA competitor. From talented youngsters to useful veterans, Brown will finally have the opportunity to show the city what he’s worth for an entire season. During the magical month of January last season, when Embiid was on the court for nine games and really coming into his own, Brown captained the Sixers to a 10-5 record for the month. That singular month gave Sixers fans an insight on how effective Brown can be as a coach with some talent on the court.

With more than one playmaker on the roster for this season, Brown should have the Sixers in playoff contention should everyone stay healthy.

3. J.J. Redick

Philadelphia gave Redick 23 million reasons to move east and join the Sixers for this season. Despite the high price tag, Redick is a match made in heaven for this team.

A career 41.5 percent shoot from downtown, Redick is just two years removed from a season in which he hit 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts. On a squad with a body down low that commands attention like Embiid, and a playmaker to the caliber of Simmons, Redick should be getting open-looks galore next season in South Philly. It wouldn’t be outrageous to assume Redick could attempt upwards of eight or nine three-pointers a game this season.

Along with his knockdown ability from range, Redick also brings veteran and playoff experience to a team that is going to feature a bunch of first and second-year players at their core. That quality, maybe even more than the shooting, is what makes Redick so valuable to the Sixers.

4. Joel Embiid

Not much more can be said about Embiid that hasn’t already been said. But that doesn’t mean the love for him has to stop.

With his rare combination of size and skill, Embiid represents a threat to the league’s transition towards “small ball.” When a 7-foot-2 guy has the ability to switch seamlessly on the defensive end and come up on offense to drain a three-pointer, the opposing team will most likely be short for answers on how to stop him.

Health has been Embiid’s one true question mark, and will be until further notice. If he’s healthy, the Sixers are a legitimate playoff team and a matchup nightmare for some of the league’s powerhouse teams.

– Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

Despite paying J.J. Redick $23 million for the upcoming season, the Philadelphia 76ers are still under the salary cap by $15.1 million. That space, and the team’s $4.3 million Room Exception, will likely go unused heading into the season, given the team seems locked in to the 15 players already on the roster (including the non-guaranteed salaries of T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes and Robert Covington). Invite James Blackmon Jr. has long odds to make the team.

The Sixers have long shopped Jahlil Okafor in a trade, but the team may wait to see what the roster looks like on the floor before making any major changes. Joel Embiid is eligible for an extension before the start of the season but the team may choose to wait until next summer, when Embiid’s cap hold takes up $18.3 million in space. If they wait, the 76ers can near $40 million in cap room next July. That assumes that Philadelphia takes the team options on Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu and Okafor before November (plus McConnell and Holmes before July). Nik Stauskas is also extension eligible.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Along with their offensive improvements, a team that ranked 17th in defensive rating only looks to improve with more athletes on the court, as well as a healthy Embiid. Should the team stay intact from a health perspective, they look to be one of the better defensive units in the NBA, as well.

Much like last season, the Sixers will look to push the pace against opponents. A coast-to-coast aficionado like Simmons and another athletic playmaker in Fultz only increase the possibilities of Philadelphia running the fastbreak attack against teams.

– Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

The weaknesses for the Sixers this season are pretty cut and dry: Health, chemistry and inexperience.

Every important piece for the Sixers seems to have a knack for getting sidelined. Whether that string of bad luck is coming to an end or not for Philadelphia essentially will determine their playoff hopes for next season.

However, even if everyone is healthy, there is still the problem that four of the team’s most important players are 23 or under. Two of them have never played a single NBA game, and a third has only managed to hit the court 31 times. That kind of inexperience can become a major problem once the effects of a rigorous NBA schedule sets in during the long months of the season.

Going hand-in-hand with the lack of experience, most of the current players on the roster don’t have any rapport with each other. Chemistry is a big piece to winning games consistently throughout the season, and at the current moment, the Sixers don’t have much — if any — of that.

– Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

If healthy, what is the realistic ceiling for the Sixers next season?

It almost is nauseating how often a Sixers prediction needs to be premised with “if healthy,” but unfortunately that is the team’s reality. Regardless, health truly seems to be the biggest hurdle standing between Philadelphia and their first playoff berth in six years.

Assuming the injury bug gets exterminated from the Wells Fargo Center this season, the Sixers have a legitimate chance to take advantage of a weakened bottom-half of the Eastern Conference, and a 7th-seed doesn’t seem so crazy.

Granted, with all of the youth mentioned above, anything beyond just making it to the playoffs would be a “cherry on top” season. But given matchups and personnel, how far-fetched would it seem for the Sixers to maybe steal a game from the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series?

Time will tell what happens with Philadelphia from a health perspective, but if everything checks out medically, the Sixers are no longer a gimmie W for opponents.

– Dennis Chambers

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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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NBA

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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