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Playoff Sleepers In The Western Conference

The Kings, Suns, Nuggets and Pelicans are teams who could sneak into the playoff picture.

Susan Bible

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As expected, the playoff race in the NBA’s Western Conference is extremely tight yet again with the rankings changing nightly.

The Golden State Warriors were strong out of the gate, and their present 22-3 record puts them atop the conference. The Memphis Grizzlies (21-5) and Portland Trail Blazers (22-6) claiming the number two and three spots, respectively, follow dangerously close behind. The fourth-place Houston Rockets (19-7) and fifth-place Dallas Mavericks (20-8) aim to take over those higher spots with recent acquisitions. In a move the Mavs hope puts them in title contention this year, they traded for point guard Rajon Rondo, who leads the league in assists at 10.7 per game. In addition, reports indicate the Mavs are frontrunners to acquire Jermaine O’Neal. The Mavs topped the San Antonio Spurs 99-93 in Rondo’s first outing with Dallas. He logged six points, nine assists and seven rebounds in 34 minutes of play. The Rockets added wing Corey Brewer for some much-needed perimeter defense off the bench and also landed combo guard Alexey Shved.

The Los Angeles Clippers (19-8) and Spurs (17-11) occupy the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, and the New Orleans Pelicans (13-13) and Phoenix Suns (14-14) are tied for the eighth spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder (13-14) are set to enter the playoff mix now that Russell Westbrook and Keven Durant are back, winning ten of their last 12 games. Durant did suffer an ankle sprain two games back, but it’s a minor injury and he should return soon. Rounding out the standings are the Los Angeles Lakers (8-18), Utah Jazz (8-20) and Minnesota Timberwolves (5-20) in the 13-through-15 spots.

With well over fifty games left to play before the postseason commences, we will likely continue to see teams jockeying for those last playoff spots. Today we look at potential sleeper teams that could sneak into the playoff picture when April comes around:

Denver Nuggets (12-15), 11th place:

Denver is stuck in middle-of-the road territory. This is a team containing solid players and good depth, but no superstar. Heading into Sunday’s games, the Nuggets are just one or two wins away from the eighth seed. Optimism was abound as the season started, but it quickly diminished as Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari dealt with nagging injuries, and apparent discord was revealed between the front office and newly-extended Kenneth Faried. They began the season losing six of the first seven games, then went on to win eight of the next ten. Hope was seemingly restored again, then they lost seven of the next ten. Coach Brian Shaw continues to experiment with lineups, and one such experiment two games back, featuring Lawson, Faried, Nate Robinson, Alonzo Gee and Jusuf Nurkic, confounded the Clippers just enough to enable Denver to end their losing streak for the win. They beat the Indiana Pacers 76-73 in Saturday’s matchup.

General Manager Tim Connelly has been forthright in sharing his view that “every player on our roster is a movable asset.” Monitor their progress through the end of 2014; if the team is still just plodding along, don’t be surprised to see some type of a roster shake-up. There’s still adequate time to welcome new players, develop chemistry and gather enough wins to ensure a low-seed playoff spot. Then there’s the plight of second-year coach Shaw whose name is consistently mentioned as being on the hot seat. A mid-season coaching replacement could infuse the team with an about-face change of cohesion. Of course, it could have the opposite effect, too.

Sacramento Kings (11-15), 12th place:

The Kings’ season has already provided a plethora of interesting storylines. On December 15 the team announced coach Michael Malone was “relieved” of his coaching duties with assistant Tyrone Corbin stepping in as the interim coach. At that time, the Kings had an 11-13 record. Unfortunately, DeMarcus Cousins had missed the prior nine games due to a case of viral meningitis. With Cousins in place at the start of the season, they were 9-6, including an early five-game winning streak. It was quite amazing they didn’t completely crumble while playing without Cousins’ 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks stat line, managing to go 2-7. They are 0-2 since Malone departed and are now in the middle of a five-game losing streak. Cousins contributed 27 points and 11 rebounds in his first game back since recovering from his illness, so he looks good to go at least.

The unexpected firing of their head coach, along with the Cousins situation, proved a stunning way to begin the year. And now, a blockbuster trade rumor is swirling. The Kings are in talks with the Brooklyn Nets to trade Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson for the Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams.

The December, 2013, acquisition of Rudy Gay has proven to be a sound one as he boasts current averages of 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Ben McLemore has taken a second-year leap with 12 points and 1.7 in three-pointers a game. This is a team that needs Cousins and Gay to lead their team by example and bring them back to winning.

Phoenix Suns (14-14) and New Orleans Pelicans (13-13), tied for 8th Place:

The Suns and Pelicans seem to exchange places in the eighth spot at any given time. Each team has considerable strengths and problem areas that need addressing if they hope to climb permanently into the playoff standings.

For the fast-paced Suns, they have five players recording double-digit scoring and a thrilling backcourt duo in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The addition of Isaiah Thomas gives them a three-guard approach that is working well. Be aware, it seems multiple teams are interested in snagging free-agent-to-be Dragic. The Suns are ranked sixth in points per game (104.4); on the other hand; they come in 25th in opponents’ points per game (103.5). With still-developing bigs in Alex Len and Miles Plumlee, the front office may (read: must) consider looking around at options to strengthen their interior presence and toughness.

As for the Pelicans, they go as their budding superstar, Anthony Davis, goes. Davis, now in his third year, has been a revelation this season, averaging 24.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and a league-best 2.9 blocks. Most Valuable Player talks surround him regularly. Ryan Anderson’s 2.3 three-pointers and Jrue Holiday’s consistent play has made a difference, but their weak, low-contributing bench is the issue. The season started strong with five wins out of seven games, and most recently, they’ve won five of their last eight. They need to string together wins instead of this up-and-down pace.

The Western Conference is a battleground, and as usually demonstrated, the lower seedings will likely be unknown until the last game is played. With nine teams currently at .500 or better – and the Thunder on the move to break in as well – this Conference is beyond tight.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next step in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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