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Predicting the NBA’s Eastern Conference

With the 2014-15 NBA season around the corner, several of our writers make predictions about the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders

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With the 2014-15 NBA season around the corner, we asked several of our writers to make predictions about the upcoming campaign. Today, we take a look at the Eastern Conference and tomorrow we’ll take a look at the Western Conference.

Top Point Guard

Lang Greene: John Wall, Washington Wizards. Former league MVP Derrick Rose has the name and Kyrie Irving will likely play on the best team in the conference, but Wall is the best at his position and entering his prime. Wall has improved nearly every facet of his game and is poised to take the Wizards to the next level.

Nate Duncan: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. This is a very tight four-way race between Rose, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and John Wall. Irving was great in the World Cup, but his floor game has lacked in the past and he’ll be third in the offensive pecking order in Cleveland. Lowry was the best in 2013-14, but likely will regress from a career year. Wall has been steady, but has not shown the ability to take over games. Rose has the highest previous ceiling of these players, and while he is an injury risk he will have the most opportunity to dominate should he prove healthy. He is the pick, although I don’t feel great about it.

Jessica Camerato: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics. Two words: Contract year. Rondo thrives under the spotlight and when proving his value. This time around, eyes will be on him as he plays his first full season since an ACL injury in the midst of an expiring deal.

Joel Brigham: John Wall, Washington Wizards. There are, in fact, quite a few really good point guards in the Eastern Conference, but Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose haven’t looked like themselves after returning from knee injuries, and Kyrie Irving still has to prove he can rise to the challenge in Cleveland this year. Wall, meanwhile, has shown unbelievable growth over the last couple of seasons. He’s now not only a good scorer and distributor, but a solid defender, shooter and floor general, as well. Until someone else knocks him down a peg, he’s the best there is in the East.

Moke Hamilton: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. Although Rose’s knee is a serious concern, he gets the pick because John Wall and Rajon Rondo still have some appreciable holes in their game. With that said, Wall has impressed me immensely and nearly won this designation.

 

Top Shooting Guard

Lang Greene: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors. DeRozan’s hard work and dedication have been on display this summer. He has made it no secret he’d like to be considered among the league’s elite one day and the five-year veteran is relentless during the offseason trying to achieve this goal. The Toronto Raptors are riding high and DeRozan’s growth is a key driver in the franchise’s recent change of fortune.

Nate Duncan: Dwyane Wade, Miami HEAT. Dwyane Wade is older, battled injuries and faltered in the Finals, but on a per minute basis he is so far above anyone in the East that you cannot pick anyone else, especially given the prospects of an increased role this year for Miami.

Jessica Camerato: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards. The Wizards are poised to be contenders in the Eastern Conference and Beal will be one of the driving forces. His backcourt chemistry with John Wall will be even stronger and he has a new group of veterans to help him along the way.

Joel Brigham: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors. A first-time All-Star last year, DeRozan has really come into his own as a leader for the burgeoning Toronto Raptors. He’s one of the best scorers at his position in the conference, but he’s also an underrated defender. This was between DeRozan and Bradley Beal, and DeRozan gets the slight nod because he’s a little closer to his prime than Beal.

Moke Hamilton: Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets. Slowing down as he may be, Joe Johnson has been arguably the top clutch player in the entire league over the past year. He has become more efficient and discerning with his shot selection. Bradley Beal, Lance Stephenson and DeMar DeRozan aren’t too far behind, though.

 

Top Small Forward

Lang Greene: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. James is the best player on the planet right now and his arrival in Cleveland immediately pushed the Cavaliers to the forefront of title contention. James spent years in Miami maturing, won a couple titles and now heads back home attempting to bring an ever elusive championship trophy to Cleveland. Can he get the storybook ending?

Nate Duncan: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Next.

Jessica Camerato: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s the top small forward in the East, top small forward in the game and the top player in the league. LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA and earns top honors at his position.

Joel Brigham: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. No one’s going to argue about this. He’s better than anyone in the game right now, including Kevin Durant, and his second go in Cleveland can’t be anything but a smashing success. Last season was a bit of a regression for him statistically, but he’ll be reenergized for his first season back home.

Moke Hamilton: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Were you expecting the Easter Bunny? At this point, it is time to start considering where LeBron James ranks among all-time great NBA players, especially if he succeeds in bringing the elusive NBA Championship to Cleveland.

 

Top Power Forward

Lang Greene: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. The Western Conference is loaded with talented power forwards. While the Eastern Conference has talent at the four, Love shoots to the top of the list with his change of address. Love is a volume scorer and rebounder who should continue thriving now that he’s playing with elite level talent.

Nate Duncan: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. Next.

Jessica Camerato: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. If Kevin Love isn’t the best at his position, then what was all the fuss this summer? Love dominated offseason headlines and will dominate on a contending team with massive star power.

Joel Brigham: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. It will be interesting to see how Love’s game translates to a truly unique Cleveland roster, but as far as talent is concerned, there’s no one like him in the Eastern Conference. He’s the best rebounder in the game today and offers outside shooting not typical at all for his position. While it’s true his numbers could dip on a team with so many offensive weapons, he’s still the most gifted power forward in the conference by a wide margin.

Moke Hamilton: Chris Bosh, Miami HEAT. Four years of playing third-fiddle to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade helped everyone forget that he is arguably the best all-around power forward in the game. Now, the refocused Bosh will have an opportunity to remind us all.

 

Top Center

Lang Greene: Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets. The East has plenty of centers who bring the heat. Guys such as Chris Bosh, Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Marcin Gortat, Andre Drummond and Roy Hibbert all have their moments. But none of those guys carry their respective franchises like Jefferson, who is the biggest driver in Charlotte’s current momentum.

Nate Duncan: Chris Bosh, Miami HEAT. Bosh will likely start again at center for Miami this year, although it is unclear whether he or Josh McRoberts will guard the center on defense. Bosh is not a conventional center, but he offers the best combination of defense and all-around offense among East centers. Like Wade, he should play much better with more of a scoring role in Miami this season. Joakim Noah will likely take a step back this year from a career year last season, and even then his offense was so far below Bosh’s that it eclipses Noah’s superior defense. Andre Drummond needs to vastly improve his defense to be in this conversation.

Jessica Camerato: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. Noah can burn his opponents all over the box score. He is one of the most versatile big men in the game and should thrive once again with the return of Derrick Rose and addition of Pau Gasol.

Joel Brigham: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. By no means dominant in the way that, say, Dwight Howard is dominant, Noah is scrappy and energetic enough to drive any opposing center insane. The defending Defensive Player of the Year is the guru of defensive rotations, and his length and energy give him that little extra something that puts him among the league’s elite. He’s also arguably the game’s best passing big man, so while his jumpshot is the ugliest this side of Shawn Marion, it doesn’t matter when he does so many other things so well.

Moke Hamilton: Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets. You don’t make a move to a long-suffering franchise in Charlotte, help them transform their culture and make a rare playoff appearance without improving your stock immensely. So, yes, Big Al, I’m showing you the love here.

 

Top Sixth Man

Lang Greene: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Reports are swirling that Gibson isn’t too keen on being utilized primarily in a bench role next season. But the latest development doesn’t change the fact Gibson is one of the league’s most productive players off of the pine, a trend that will likely continue in 2014-15.

Nate Duncan: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Gibson is perhaps the league’s best defensive power forward, and should have won the Sixth Man Award a season ago. His minutes will be reduced this year with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic on board, but the East is not exactly awash with great bench players who clearly will be in that role. Whoever among Josh Smith or Greg Monroe does not start in Detroit could be a candidate, as could Channing Frye if he comes off the bench in Orlando. Patrick Patterson could also emerge in Toronto.

Jessica Camerato: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Gibson finished second last season in Sixth Man voting. Now he will have even more talent on his team and will be a key member on a squad fighting for top position.

Joel Brigham: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. While Gibson wasn’t the starter last year for the Bulls, he was the guy who finished games most often, and having him on the floor very often gave Chicago the best chance to win. Honestly, were there no Pau Gasol in the mix, Gibson would have been a breakout candidate expected to put up some huge stats as a starter. As it stands, he’ll likely play the same role he did last year, which means big production in big minutes, using his stifling defense to help the Bulls win big games down the stretch.

Moke Hamilton: J.R. Smith, New York Knicks. Flush the 2013-14 season down the toilet when he was dealing with a surgically-repaired knee and you’ll easily see that, just one year removed from winning the award for being so, J.R. Smith is the top sixth man in the Eastern Conference. When healthy.

 

Top Head Coach

Lang Greene: Erik Spoelstra, Miami HEAT. The HEAT have reached the last four NBA Finals, winning two championships in the process. Yes, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were key contributors in that run, but to discredit Spoelstra would be taking the lazy route. Spoelstra is well respected in league circles and there’s a good reason – the man can coach.

Nate Duncan: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. The East has some solid coaches on some of the up-and-coming teams, but this status is Thibodeau’s for the foreseeable future given the way he has consistently maximized the talent in Chicago since his arrival in 2010.

Jessica Camerato: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. I’ve said this over and over again, just wait to see what Thibodeau can do with a healthy roster. He has one of the best minds on the sidelines, but he hasn’t had the pieces on the court. This season he does and will be the driving force behind this contender.

Joel Brigham: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. While he’ll have to figure out a way not to play Jimmy Butler 49 minutes a game, the reality is that Thibodeau will have more talent this season than he’s had since joining the team in 2010. A defensive specialist, Thibs has a way of getting his players to buy completely into his team-first system, and that has resulted in a consistently dominant, hard-working Bulls squad that almost always outperforms their talent level. This guy is worth 5-10 regular season wins all by himself. Let’s see if that can finally translate to a Finals appearance for Chicago this year.

Moke Hamilton: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. Injuries mean absolutely nothing to Tom Thibodeau, who—despite losing some talented pieces—continues to have his teams motivated, prepared and disciplined enough to stay true to his hard-nosed defensive system. They also continually managed to win.

 

Top Executive

Lang Greene: Pat Riley, Miami HEAT. Losing a top-tier talent like LeBron James in an offseason isn’t an easy hit to absorb. But Riley took the blow and also managed to put together a decent roster which should still land the HEAT in the middle of the East playoff race next April.

Nate Duncan: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors. Ujiri’s work since arriving in Toronto a bit more than a year ago has been exemplary. He fleeced the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade, transformed the Raptors into the third-best team in the East with the Rudy Gay trade, and then held onto all of his key free agents at very reasonable prices this summer while picking up some high-upside bench players. Honorable mention goes to Gar Forman in Chicago. Despite some personal foibles by the front office, the Bulls have drafted very well and also hired Thibodeau.

Jessica Camerato: David Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers. Lure LeBron James back to Cleveland in free agency? Check. Sign Kyrie Irving to a contract extension? Check. Pull of a mega trade to land Kevin Love? Check. GM David Griffin has transformed the Cavs from a lottery-bound team to an instant title contender that should dominate in the East this season.

Joel Brigham: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors. For some reason, teams love to give Ujiri their draft picks, as he always seems to find a way to turn garbage into gold. He somehow managed to get draft selections out of Andrea Bargnani and found someone to take on Rudy Gay’s massive contract. This offseason, he re-signed all the major components of the team that won the Atlantic Division last year. His mistakes are few, and his successes are impressive. Toronto is under good leadership for as long as he’s in the big chair.

Moke Hamilton: Pat Riley, Miami HEAT. Although there are a few worthy of mention here, Pat Riley was the chief architect of a HEAT contender with Tim Hardaway, a champion with Shaquille O’Neal and a near-dynasty with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He can build my team, anytime.

 

Top Rookie

Lang Greene: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Bucks fans have a legitimate reason to be happy this season. The arrival of Parker, who wanted to be in Milwaukee, gives the team a centerpiece for its rebuilding project. Parker is arguably the most ready to contribute rookie in his draft class and should be able to get buckets right out of the cereal box.

Nate Duncan: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. The Chicago product was the most NBA-ready scorer in the draft, and should have the most opportunity to break out right away on a Bucks team that is desperate for scoring punch. Nerlens Noel, technically a rookie as well, is a solid second choice if he can stay healthy. Nikola Mirotic may be the best rookie this year on a per minute basis, but will probably be the fourth big man in Chicago.

Jessica Camerato: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Parker could have easily been the first pick in the draft. Selected second, he is full of potential and will have room to shine on a Bucks team eager for his talent.

Joel Brigham: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Arguably the most mature, NBA-ready player in this year’s draft, Parker has been dropped into a situation where he sort of has no choice but to succeed. Huge minutes will be there for him, which should mean good statistics for him across the board. He’s a born leader and a superstar-in-training. Consider this year one of the Jabari Era in Milwaukee. Barring injury, he’s a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year.

Moke Hamilton: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jason Kidd, Jabari Parker will be given the keys to the offense and the basketball heart of Milwaukee. He’s ready for this challenge.

 

Top Sophomore

Lang Greene: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. Carter-Williams was clearly the cream of last year’s draft class in season one and the Sixers will once again rely heavily on the talented guard each and every night. There’s not much to chair for these days in Philadelphia, but Carter-Williams is definitely a building block for the future.

Nate Duncan: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. Can we cheat and say Noel again here? The 2013 draft was not exactly chock full of impact performers. Antetokounmpo has the athleticism to eventually be the best player from that draft, but he did not do that much as a rookie and it is unclear given his youth how much impact he can have this year. I don’t believe in Michael Carter-Williams as much due to his regression throughout the season a year ago and his miserable shooting. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a dark horse here given his summer league performance and Detroit’s desperate need for athleticism and shooting on the wing.

Jessica Camerato: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. Carter-Williams set the tone in his award-winning rookie campaign. This season he will be joined by Nerlens Noel and possibly Joel Embiid. A point guard equipped with more weapons on the floor should only improve.

Joel Brigham: Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic. With Jameer Nelson gone, Oladipo really is the leader of this team now. As the best two-way player in the backcourt, he should take a huge leap forward in his sophomore campaign. Michael Carter-Williams may have won Rookie of the Year, but his stats were inflated on a bad team. Oladipo, meanwhile, is a genuinely excellent NBA player serving as the centerpiece of a fascinating young team.

Moke Hamilton: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. When a rookie gives you about 17 points, six rebounds and six assists per game, it’s not only enough to win him the Rookie of the Year Award, it’s enough for me to dub him the top sophomore in the conference.

 

The Sleeper Team

Lang Greene: Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons could be this year’s under the radar franchise in the East or they could easily remain in the league’s basement. Newly crowned head coach Stan Van Gundy has imported shooters, which were lacking last season, and their solid assortment of big men should thrive as a result. Not much is expected of Detroit heading into training camp, but there’s enough talent to potentially turn a few heads.

Nate Duncan: Detroit Pistons. As I wrote in our season preview, the Pistons have a lot of talent and should get a massive coaching upgrade with Stan Van Gundy. If he can work his Magic (pun intended), particularly on defense, Detroit could surge into the mid-40s in wins.

Jessica Camerato: Charlotte Hornets. Let’s leave the past behind them. These are not your Hornets of old. They made noise last season and landed Lance Stephenson in free agency. The Hornets should turn heads this season as a playoff team.

Joel Brigham: Atlanta Hawks. Somehow, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs last year despite not having Al Horford for the majority of the season. With Horford healthy and another full year under the severely underrated Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta should be right back in the thick of things again. No one ever expects them to be a playoff team, but for the last couple of years at least, they’ve found a way.

Moke Hamilton: Washington Wizards. Quietly, in Washington D.C., the Eastern Conference’s most talented backcourt may reside, but it’s not all about them. With Marcin Gortat, Nene and Paul Pierce, even without the departed Trevor Ariza, the Wizards have serious potential.

 

Who Wins the Conference?

Lang Greene: Cleveland Cavaliers. Unless the Miami HEAT surprisingly defy the odds after losing the game’s best player, it’s safe to assume the East will crown a different champion for the first time since 2010. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the frontrunners to represent the conference in the NBA Finals heading into training camp. But the club has to build chemistry on the fly and also have a rookie head coach still learning the ropes. Still, all things considered, the Cavaliers should pull it out.

Nate Duncan: Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs have a major weakness defending the rim, but have the potential for a historically great offense. The Bulls are the only team that projects to really challenge them, but they face many more health questions than the Cavs. What’s more, the high-end superstar talent on the Cavs is much more useful in the playoffs compared the the Bulls’ advantage in depth.

Jessica Camerato: Cleveland Cavaliers. The roster speaks for itself. Whether they can go all the way in their first season together remains to be seen, but the Cavaliers have what it takes to rule the East.

Joel Brigham: Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Bulls and Cavaliers are the clear preseason favorites to win the conference, it’s hard to buy into a Bulls team that relies so heavily on Derrick Rose. We just have no idea what kind of player he’ll be over a full season, or if he’ll even make it through a full season. The health and overwhelming talent on this Cavs roster is a much easier bet. Don’t worry about a lack of postseason experience; both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have won on big stages before. They’ll be fine, and in fact they’ll probably be better than anyone else in the East. Make it five straight Finals appearances for LeBron James.

Moke Hamilton: Cleveland Cavaliers. Only a fool would bet against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Consider: this may be the fifth consecutive year that James plays in the NBA Finals. Not even Kobe or Jordan ever accomplished that.

 

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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